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'Mole' and 'Ratty' still messing about in boats: 'The Wind in the Willows' turns 100

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A page from the new Classics Illustrated Deluxe version of The Wind in the Willows. (Courtesy of Papercutz)

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A page from the new Robert Ingpen edition of The Wind in the Willows. (Courtesy of Palazzo Editions Ltd)

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A page from the new Robert Ingpen edition of The Wind in the Willows. (Courtesy of Palazzo Editions Ltd)

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A page from the new Robert Ingpen edition of The Wind in the Willows. (Courtesy of Palazzo Editions Ltd)

In 1907, author Kenneth Grahame wrote a series of letters to his young son Alastair about the exploits of four small anthropomorphic animals along the River Thames. Conceived merely as bedtime entertainment for the little boy, these adventures went on to become the basis for one of the most unique and influential children’s books ever written: “The Wind in the Willows.”

“Every children’s book writer since the 1920s has read it,” said Anita Silvey, author of “The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators,” noting that it even provided some inspiration for the famous cast of characters created by A.A. Milne: Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger and Piglet.

Today, after a century on the bookshelves, Grahame’s novel remains a story that enthralls both children and adults. Admirers describe it as lighthearted entertainment with a deeper subtext about humanity. This year, a few newly illustrated editions will mark the book’s centennial.

The story begins with the happenstance meeting of a mole and a water vole (somewhat misleadingly called “Ratty”) on the riverbank. After this first encounter, the two become constant companions at home and on the road. Often joined by a wizened badger and a snobbish toad (Mr. Toad, to be sure), the pair get into several scrapes that always end with them returning safely home.

These animals are practically humans. They wear clothes, live in houses and drive cars. Karl Kroeber, the Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, said it’s this almost indistinguishable line between man and animal that makes the story so exceptional.

“I don’t know anything like it,” he said. “Grahame switches back and forth all the time. They’re animals and they’re also humans, whereas, in Beatrix Potter’s books, for example, Peter Rabbit remains a rabbit.”

This was Grahame’s way of saying human beings “are fundamentally animals,” who can find something unique and fulfilling in the natural world, said Kroeber.

Many environmentalists appreciate and recognize this message today. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species in Britain, for one, used the characters as mascots for several years as part of its campaign to protect endangered species like the European water vole, which has suffered a 90 percent population decline during the past two decades.

“The book creates a picture of a time that was,” said Jill Nelson, the trust’s chief executive, about a time when water voles were much more common. “Iconic books tend to ring a bell.”

Alison Price, one of Grahame’s biographers, suggests that the author learned to venerate the environment as a parentless child living with his grandmother on the banks of the Thames. The outdoors was then a source of great comfort and happiness to him. “It was not the Christian God that stirred Grahame,” she said. “He looked at nature as the thing he could worship.”

As a grown man, Grahame weaved his love of the environment into bedtime stories for Alastair. The journey from a collection of letters to a published book wasn’t so easy for “The Wind in the Willows.” With the encouragement of an admiring friend, Grahame put the book together and tried to sell it to British publishers. At first, he got nowhere.

“Nobody wanted it,” said Price. “They just thought it was nonsense that these animals were walking about and talking.”

And nobody was expecting this kind of story from Grahame who was then known for authoring "The Golden Age" and "Dream Days," two collections of stories that reflected on childhood. Publishers wanted to read similar stories, said Price, not the fantastical adventures of animals that eat toast and wear smoking jackets.

So Grahame reached out to a friend across the Atlantic--President Theodore Roosevelt--who was a great admirer of Grahame’s writing. Roosevelt recommended the manuscript to Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house, and the book was soon released to the public.

“The Wind in the Willows” took a while to catch on. “It was a sleeper,” said Price, explaining that it became a major literary success only through word-of-mouth. More than 25 million copies of the book have been sold in 70 different countries since 1908, according to the Copyrights Group, which is presently promoting a new edition.

The book’s success represented a highpoint in Grahame’s life. Twelve years later, in 1920, his son, then a student at Oxford University, committed suicide. Grahame then began traveling and never wrote another novel.

However, “The Wind in the Willows” continued to flourish. New editions of the book were published, some with illustrations.

This year, two new illustrated editions of the book will come out. The first is unabridged with drawings by Australian artist Robert Ingpen. The second is a Classics Illustrated Deluxe graphic novel by French cartoonist Michel Plessix.

Said Kroeber, “‘The Wind in the Willows’ remains something that no one has really been able to duplicate.”

E-mail: msl2003@columbia.edu