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The Wind in the Willows: A Tribute to Home and Friendship

September 16th, 2020 | 10 min read

By Casey Chalk

On April 6, 2016, 50-year-old separated father-of-two Michael Danaher broke into the Oxford home of Adrian Greenwood, a historian and art-dealer best known for a well-reviewed biography of nineteenth-century British officer Sir Colin Campbell. Danaher tortured and stabbed Greenwood more than 30 times, and left him for dead in the hallway of his house. Greenwood’s dead body was found the next day by his cleaner. Danaher was arrested and subsequently charged with murder less than a week later — British police discovered that he had placed the only item of note missing from Greenwood’s home up on eBay for sale. Danaher was easily convicted and sentenced to thirty-four years in prison — authorities even discovered that Danaher had stopped to take a bloody selfie outside of Greenwood’s house after the murder.

An even more jarring element to this queer story — which involved a diabetic, morbidly obese murderer with no previous criminal record and no history of violence who plotted to kill not only Greenwood but Kate Moss and Simon Cowell — was the one item Danaher bothered to purloin. The prized possession apparently worthy of what British police called a “vicious and sustained attack” was a first edition of popular children’s book The Wind in the Willows, still in its original dust-jacket and valued at £50,000. Could there be no greater irony than a murder committed for the sake of a children’s novel known for its leisurely narrative style, depictions of well-mannered anthropomorphized animals, and detailed, effusive descriptions of the British countryside?

There is likely no logic to the tragic story of the two British strangers Danaher and Greenwood. Indeed, Wind in the Willows by Scottish novelist Kenneth Grahame has often elicited the oddest of inspirations. English psychedelic rock back Pink Floyd titled their 1967 debut studio album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” after the book’s seventh chapter, in which two of the main characters, the water rat and the mole, briefly encounter the Greek god Pan. Tracks on the album, mostly written by eccentric and reclusive founding band member Syd Barrett, whose use of LSD likely permanently damaged his brain, reflect a light-hearted simplicity similar to that exemplified by the novel’s characters. In “Bike,” which mentions an aging mouse named “Gerald,” Barrett sings: “I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like. It’s got a basket, a bell that rings, And things to make it look good. I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it.”

Less bizarre, writer Christopher Robin Milne, son of A.A. Milne of Winnie the Pooh fame, noted that the same chapter was his mother’s favorite. She would “read [the chapter] to me again and again with always, towards the end, the catch in the voice and the long pause to find her handkerchief and blow her nose.” The elder Milne adapted the novel, which he called “a test of character,” into the play Toad of Toad Hall. “One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows,” wrote A.A. Milne. “The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters.” The book has even had presidential admirers. Theodore Roosevelt, while in office, wrote to Grahame in 1909, declaring that he had “read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends.”

The story of Graham’s inspiration for the novel is one to soften even the hardest heart. He and his wife Elspeth had only one child, a boy named Alistair, born premature, blind in one eye, and plagued by health problems. When Alastair, whom the Graham’s nicknamed “Mouse,” was about four years old, Grahame would conjure up bedtime stories about a troublesome toad. During holiday excursions, Grahame would write letters back to his son about the other characters who would become the heart and soul of The Wind in the Willows: Mole, Ratty, and Badger. Grahame took an early retirement in 1908 and moved his family to an old farmhouse in Blewbury, Berkshire, where he wrote the book’s manuscript.

It is a curiosity that The Wind in the Willows, beginning so plainly and matter-of-factly, is capable of furtively drawing the reader into a carefree, idyllic depiction of creatures in their natural habitats. In the first chapter, the good-natured Mole tires of spring cleaning and determines to explore life along the river. He meets “Water Rat,” or “Ratty,” who kindly takes Mole for a ride in his rowing boat. They picnic and have a friendly exchange with Otter. Mole, against Water Rat’s protestations, tries to steer the boat, and falls into the water. His friend promptly rescues him, takes him home, and treats him to stories and supper. And that’s it. One wonders, at first glance, if Grahame’s goal might have been to hasten his young son to sleep.

Yet the celebratory descriptions of the natural world, and the hearty exchanges among amiable animals, truly are delightful in their charm and humor.

This has been a wonderful day! Said Mole, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”

“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed. “Never been in a — you never — well, I — what have you been doing, then?

“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.”

“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

In only a few sentences, Grahame’s characters have persuaded readers the world over not only to ponder afresh the simple joys of boating, but to go off in search of a body of water to enjoy.

But there is more depth here than bucolic portrayals of English country life. The Wind in the Willows is a reflection on the nature and value of friendship. After Mole rashly and ineptly tries to commandeer Rat’s boat, he is “limp and dejected.” He profusely apologizes: “I am very sorry indeed for my foolish and ungrateful conduct… I have been a complete ass, and I know it. Will you overlook it this once and forgive me, and let things go on as before?” Rat is quick to forgive and refuses to dwell on the incident — indeed, he declares his intention to teach Mole how to properly row the boat. Touched, Mole “had to brush away a tear or two with the back of his paw.”

Nevertheless, this won’t be the only time Rat saves Mole from trouble. After the pleasantries of countless spring and summer days upon the water, Mole grows restless and strikes out into the “Wild Wood” in search of the mysterious, reclusive Badger. He soon gets lost. As dusk approaches, a rabbit runs by him, muttering “Get out of this, you fool, get out!” Mole wanders aimlessly, afraid, until he shelters in the “dark deep hollow of an old beech tree.” Rat, meanwhile, wakes from his nap, discovers Mole gone, and, armed with a brace of pistols and a cudgel, enters the Wild Wood in search of him. He discovers Mole, exhausted and trembling. Rat guards his friend while he sleeps. The two then discover the front door to the home of Badger, who welcomes them and offers supper and friendly confab (one senses a pattern).

Perhaps the most familiar example of the story’s devotion to friends involves its most notorious character, the neurotic, narcissistic, ever-distractible Mr. Toad. “Once, it was nothing but sailing,” explains the Rat.

Then he [Mr. Toad] tired of that and took to punting. Nothing would please him but to punt all day and every day, and a nice mess he made of it. Last year it was house-boating, and we all had to go and stay with him in his house-boat, and pretend we liked it. He was going to spend the rest of his life in a house-boat. It’s all the same, whatever he takes up; he gets tired of it, and starts on something fresh.

For a time, Mole and Rat indulge Toad’s latest fascination with his horse-drawn caravan… until the carriage is pushed off the road and into a ditch by a reckless motorcar. Thus begins Mr. Toad’s obsession with motorized vehicles. Before too long, he has crashed seven successive motorcars, thrice been confined to a hospital bed, and accrued extensive fines.

Badger persuades Mole and Rat that, as Toad’s friends, they are compelled to restrain the incautious amphibian before he wastes away the entirety of his inheritance. The three impound Mr. Toad at his ancestral lodgings at Toad Hall and try, unsuccessfully, to shame and cajole him into abandoning his devil-may-care driving habits. It doesn’t work — Toad escapes, promptly stealing a motorcar in the local village, endangering the lives of several citizens, and insulting a local police officer. He is sentenced to nineteen years in prison for his villainous behavior.

While Toad is incarcerated, Toad Hall is overrun by a band of criminal weasels, stoats, and ferrets, who greedily devour the manor’s stores. Toad’s friends, in turn, stand guard outside, and plot various schemes to recapture the home for their imprisoned friend. When Toad does escape, they actualize their scheme, entering Toad Hall through a secret tunnel, taking the partying intruders unawares and driving them off the property. At a subsequent banquet, the restored aristocrat plays the penitent: “Henceforth I will be a very different Toad.” And he is.

Certainly The Wind in the Willows presents a valuable pedagogy in friendship: the need for patience and faithfulness, and the importance of sincere penitence. Yet “The Return of Ulysses,” as the chapter describing Toad’s restoration is aptly titled, is a paean to another objective good whose presence is felt throughout Graham’s narrative — one’s home. Indeed, the water rat waxes eloquently on his beloved river, Badger lauds his underground domicile; and Mole, long departed from his own lodgings, gushes over his “dulce domum.”

I know it’s a — shabby, dingy little place,” he sobbed forth at last, brokenly: “not like — your cosy quarters — or Toad’s beautiful hall — or Badger’s great house — but it was my own little home — and I was fond of it — and I went away and forgot all about it — and then I smelt it suddenly — on the road… I thought my heart would break.

The undulating narrative of The Wind in the Willows, pregnant with ebullient praise of English rural landscapes, is a loving tribute to one’s native land. It is a salute to the glorious givenness of a home whose beauty and richness are always present, if one possesses properly-formed eyes and ears. “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” Our homes, simply by virtue of being part of God’s creation, bespeak innumerable beauties to behold. As Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett sings in “The Gnome,” admittedly quite inadequately, “look at the skies, look at the river, isn’t it good? Well, according to Genesis 1, the bard is right.

Speaking of Barrett, the mercurial musician and his antics almost sunk Pink Floyd before it even left harbor. The band, sensing the tension between their creative potential and their deteriorating bandmember’s self-destructive tendencies, progressively pushed him to the sidelines, and eventually excised him entirely. Barrett’s own musical career collapsed soon after, and he became a recluse, living in obscurity in his native Cambridgeshire where he devoted his days to art and horticulture.

Yet the band remained loyal to Barrett, visible in their album Shine On You Crazy Diamond, dedicated to their lost frontman, and its hit single, “Wish You Were Here.” Said Pink Floyd member David Gilmour: “I can’t sing it without thinking about Syd.” Indeed, the band consistently sought to check up on their erratic friend, including ensuring he received royalties. “I made sure the money got to him,” explained Gilmour.

Perhaps, then, the essential themes of The Wind in the Willows, in all their innocence and conservatism, can penetrate even the purveyors of psychedelic rock music. Courtesy and charity should define our relationships. Friends should be faithful. One’s home should be cherished and preserved. If only men applied these lessons more consistently, episodes like Danaher’s senseless murder of Greenwood for a few pieces of paper might be avoided. And much else, besides.

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