(The following biographical sketch of Kenneth Grahame is quoted from the website www.kirjasto.sci.fi)
Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932). English bank official, writer, author of The Wind in the Willows (1908), set in the idyllic English countryside. The work established Grahame's international reputation as a writer of children's books and has deeply influenced fantasy literature. . . . Grahame also published essays, stories, and collections of sketches.
. . . . Kenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh, as the son of a lawyer from an old Scottish family. Due to the alcoholism of his father, Grahame was brought up by elderly relatives. In the early years he lived with his family in the Western highlands. When his mother died of scarlet fever, the children were sent to live with their maternal grandmother in the village of Cookham Dene, Berkshire. Her house, set in a large garden by the River Thames, provided the background of The Wind in the Willows. . . . .
Grahame was educated at St. Edward's School, Oxford. His plans to go to Oxford University were thwarted by his uncle, who was acting his guardian, and in 1879 he entered the Bank Of England. While pursuing his career at the bank, Grahame began composing light nonfiction pieces as a pastime. He contributed articles to such journals as the St. James Gazette, W.E. Henley's National Observer and The Yellow Book. Grahame's stories about a group of orphaned children were published in PAGAN PAPERS (1893). In 1895 appeared THE GOLDEN AGE, a collection of sketches from his published works. It was followed by DREAM DAYS in 1898, which included Grahame's most famous short story, 'The Reluctant Dragon'. . . .
Grahame was appointed as the secretary at the Bank and in 1899 he married Elspeth Thomson, whose snobbish attitudes Grahame did not share. Living in a disastrous marriage, Grahame wrote parts of The Wind in the Willows originally in a letter form to his young son Alistair. He was born blind in one eye and with severe squint in the other. Grahame did not intend to publish the stories; they were partly educational for his son, whose excesses of behavior had similarities with Toad. After his manuscript was rejected by an American publisher, the book appeared in 1908 in England. First it was received with mild enthusiasm, but E.H. Shephard's illustration and Grahame's animal characterizations soon gained fame. In 1929 A.A. Milne dramatized it as Toad of Toad Hall. Milne focused on the animals, cutting out most of Grahame's romantic fantasy.
The Wind in the Willows reflected the author's unhappiness in the real world - his riverbank woods and fields were ''clean of the clash of sex,'' as he said to Theodore Roosevelt. . . .
After the publication of the book, Grahame retired from his work because of health reasons or under pressure from his employees. He spent the rest of his life with his wife in idleness. Alistair committed suicide while an undergraduate at Oxford two days before his 20th birthday - he was killed by a train. Grahame stopped writing after WW I. He died in Pangbourne, Berkshire, on July 6, 1932.
The Wind in the Willows takes place in an imaginary world resembling rural England in the late nineteenth century. There are farms and fields, riverbanks and horse ponds, small towns with cozy inns and larger towns with courts and prisons. Above all there are the Wild Wood and the Wide World. The last two are confusing places, the Wood being populated by creatures both benign and threatening, and the World being a place that, in the words of one of the main characters, "doesn't matter. . . . I've never been there, and I'm never going." Home base for the denizens of Grahame's universe, then, is a snug and safe enclave nestled between the menace of the fairy-tale forest and the bafflements of adult reality.
This cozy slice of imaginary England, located on the cusp between a quaint Victorian past and a mechanized new century, is home to both horse-drawn Gypsy caravans--something like motor homes without the motors--and furiously racing automobiles. Inhabitants of stately homes lead leisurely and privileged lives, even though they are merely toads rather than mammalian English gentlemen, while Badgers, Rats, and Moles, dozing in front of their fires, lunching sumptuously, and canoeing on the river, enjoy the secure prosperity of a nation at the height of its power.
Like so many works of fantasy, then, The Wind in the Willows makes its extravagant impossibilities believable by surrounding them with prosaic detail: thus, talking animals who drive cars live, not in a world of fairy dust and magic, but amid a welter of waistcoats, galoshes, overstuffed chairs, and sandwiches. Just like us, only with paws.
The Wind in the Willows is a loosely-connected collection of adventures that befall its four major characters: Mole, Rat, Badger, and most of all, Toad.
The first of these adventures involves Mole and Rat. Inspired by the lure of spring, Mole forsakes his burrow and decides to explore the world. He meets Rat, who takes him boating on the river, and even allows him to row. Beside himself with excitement, Mole, who has never seen a river before, much less been in a boat, applies himself to the oars too enthusiastically, loses his balance, and capsizes the boat, soaking both him and Rat. Shamed by his bumptiousness and ineptitude, Mole apologizes, is forgiven, and taken home by Rat, who regales him with supper and "thrilling" stories. Mole and Rat become fast friends, sharing Rat's house, and embarking on further adventures.
Their next sortie takes them to Toad Hall where, naturally, they meet Toad, a wealthy amphibian who exists in a constant state of enthusiasm bordering on dementia. On the day of their visit, Toad invites them to come wandering with him in his Gypsy caravan, his latest obsession. However, Toad is soon won over to an even newer mania: a passion for automobiles--still newfangled contraptions in 1908. Toad soon becomes a sort of motorcar addict, buying and smashing-up vehicles in an orgy of recklessness that sets his friends worrying about his sanity and his finances.
But before they intervene, winter sets in, and brings with it another adventure for Mole. Longing to meet Badger, he sets off alone to find his house in the Wild Wood. But as he stumbles along, it begins to grow dark, and he hears strange sounds and sees frightening sights among the trees. Lost and discouraged, he curls up in a bunch of leaves and hopes for the best. Meanwhile Rat, who had been napping by the fire when Mole set off, wakes up, realizes what his inexperienced friend has done, and sets off into the Wood to find and rescue him. By the time Rat discovers Mole, deep darkness has set in and it has begun to snow. Now both are lost and cold, and when mole injures his leg on a sharp-edged object in the underbrush, things look very bad. But Rat realizes that that sharp object must be something out of the ordinary. He sets himself to digging, and discovers that the sharp edge that injured Mole belongs to the hardware on the door of Badger's house. They ring his bell, are admitted, and are saved from the dire cold and dark of the winter night.
It is during their visit with Badger that the friends resolve to do something about Toad's alarming fascination with automobiles--but only once the winter is over. While waiting for the seasons to change, Mole and Rat accidentally stumble across Mole's old house, which the suddenly homesick Mole persuades Rat to visit.
The Wind in the Willows was written to instruct and delight Kenneth Grahame's only son, an unhappy boy whose Toad-like recklessness evidently troubled his father. The book's delight lies in the idea of badgers and rats behaving like eccentric characters out of Dickens. Imagining animals as people is an ancient human pleasure, stretching as far back as storytelling itself and continuing down to the present. Not only children's literature, but adult fiction like Watership Down, attest to the thriving appeal of this genre.
Why is this so? Possibly because in animals we think we see very sharply etched certain characteristics that actual complex humans rarely exhibit so clearly. The word "character" is derived from a Greek original meaning something like "sharp stick." How do we get from an object as concrete as a stick (for branding livestock or for marking one's personal belongings) to something as abstract as the ideas of personal identity tied up in our current use of the word "character?" The connection is in the notion of a distinguishing mark, a "character" in the sense of an impression made by a printing press or typewriter, or these days, a computer keyboard, that expresses meaning in a single stroke. The character "@" has a distinct significance that sets it apart from "+" or "$." In each case, a somewhat complicated reality ("at-ness"; "plus"; "dollar") is boiled down to a simple glyph. "Characterization" in its root sense, then, is a process by which we define identity through reduction and simplification. Thus, to return to our animals, we characterize foxes as sly, turtles as slow, roosters as cocky, and snakes as "more subtile than any beast of the field." This makes their interplay in anthropomorphic stories an engaging theater of archetypes, a match-up of pure contrasts and opposites.
Grahame, however, plays a different game in The Wind in the Willows. His Rat has none of the "characteristics" most of us associate with such a beast. He shows no slithery affinity for dark corners, no sneaky desire to invade our private spaces. Instead, Rat is a bluff and hearty English gentleman of the old school, friendly, outgoing, generous. And Toad, far from exhibiting an amphibian's cold-bloodedness and torpor, is a dynamo of fierce emotions and passionate attachments. By thus upsetting our expectations, the author infuses the work with a message of enlightened British open-mindedness: namely that we shouldn't judge books by their covers, nor should we assign character on the basis of mere appearance. Instead we should wait and see what sort of person actually lies within the figure we see before us. By their actions, not by their looks, shall you judge them.
When we call someone a "character" we generally mean that that person's essence can be expressed by some vivid, predominant trait; indeed that he or she can be reduced to that trait as a way of shorthand identification. In politics somebody like Arnold Schwarzenegger (muscle-man, Terminator, movie-star), or Ross Perot (eccentric billionaire; pipsqueak) are characters, whereas Grey Davis or Cruz Bustamante aren't.