By Tom Anderson
How a Scotsman’s Alcoholism and an Englishman’s Bad Aim Created Modern Children’s Literature
Kenneth Grahame was, as one biographical sketch put it, ‘a big, shy Scot’. He was born in Edinburgh in 1859, but his family soon moved to Inveraray on Loch Fyne in Argyllshire due to his father’s legal job. Loch Fyne is a sea inlet rather than an inland lake, and it is recorded that the young Kenneth loved the sea. However, at the age of five, his mother passed away soon after the birth of a younger brother. His father was an alcoholic, and allowed Kenneth and his three siblings to be raised by their grandmother at her home in Cookham in Berkshire. This was a large and impressive but dilapidated property called “The Mount” which offered extensive grounds and access to the idyllic waterfront of the River Thames. Kenneth’s uncle, David Inglis, a curate at the local Anglican church, introduced he and his siblings to boating and the riverside life. In 1866 his father briefly tried to overcome his alcoholism and take his children back, but soon the family were back with their grandmother.
Cost meant that Kenneth was not able to realise his dream of entering Oxford University, but instead he worked for the Bank of England and steadily worked his way up to become its Secretary. He was the youngest person ever to hold the role, aged 39. In November 1903, he was involved in a shooting incident at the Bank. A man named George Frederick Robinson asked to see the Governor (not present) and was instead seen by Kenneth as senior official there. He pulled out a gun and fired three shots at Kenneth, all of which missed. The incident was recorded in the Daily Graphic newspaper and many others, with Robinson being subdued by a fire hose (a proto-water cannon technique first tried against strikers in Milwaukee in 1886). Robinson was put on trial, but found not to be of sound mind.
Though Kenneth escaped without physical harm, naturally the incident badly shook him. It is often suggested that he took early retirement with the Bank five years later because of aftereffects of the shock, though some also theorise that this was due to bad blood over an incident where he had allegedly accused director (and future Governor) Walter Cunliffe of being no gentleman. (Cunliffe would later go on to demand one of the first recorded dress codes for female workers, having taken exception to how some of the women working for the Bank dressed). Regardless, Kenneth took a pension and retired to his childhood home of Cookham. He had married in 1899 and had one son, Alistair (known as ‘Mouse’) who was plagued with severe health problems. As he often could not enjoy the riverside entertainments his father loved, Kenneth began to tell him bedtime stories about them instead. He made up characters based on riverside and woodland animals, suitably anthropomorphised, to celebrate the idyllic, Arcadian dreams of ‘simply messing about in boats’.
Kenneth Grahame was far from the only children’s author to eventually turn bedtime stories into a work of literature. Much the same would later happen to J. R. R. Tolkien, one of his admirers, among others. Grahame was already a published author at this time, having written two collections of short stories, “The Golden Age” and “Dream Days”, which carry the theme of rebelling against the ‘Olympians’, those adults who try to suppress children’s fantastical imaginations in favour of cynicism and despair. This is a theme that would reoccur again and again in children’s literature, from Arthur Ransome’s ‘natives’ to Michael Ende’s ‘The Nothing’ to J. K. Rowling’s ‘Muggles’ and thematically in works from those of C. S. Lewis to Neil Gaiman. In his lifetime, these two story collections were wildly popular (and some critics noted they preferred them to the book he is now most famous for) but they are little remembered today.
Alistair Grahame’s bedtime stories became “The Wind in the Willows”, one of the most enduring and influential works in the history of children’s literature. Colourful characters, from the fretful Mole and easygoing Ratty to the dignified Badger and irrepressible Mr Toad, occupy a fantastic version of the Thames riverbank. Inexactitude over these characters’ size, level of anthropomorphism and interactions with human characters has plagued adaptations ever since, but at the time this seemed unimportant. The book is a dreamlike meander, with a core plot involving Toad’s rise, fall and return, but is unafraid to wander off in unexpected directions. Some editions have cut out some of the more unexpected chapters, such as the pagan-influenced “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “Wayfarers All”, in which a Sea Rat from Constantinople briefly gives the stay-at-home Ratty dreams of travelling the world.
Under more usual circumstances, Ratty firmly tells Mole that beyond the Wild Wood (where Badger and less friendly creatures live) lies the Wide World... ‘"Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World," said the Rat. "And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all. Don't ever refer to it again, please.’ This theme, of the stay-at-home English rural idyll remaining aloof from the troubles of the world—‘Merrie England’, to use a phrase Grahame himself employs later on—reoccurs in other authors’ works as well, in particular Tolkien’s Shire in “The Lord of the Rings”. Whereas Grahame was writing before the First World War, Tolkien was writing as a veteran of it, and though he rejected simple allegories, “The Lord of the Rings” has a strong theme that those outside troubles can no longer be ignored and will come home to roost for those simple rural folk.
While he did grow up there from an early age, in some ways it is ironic that a Scot had such a keen understanding of the English character. One trace of Scottishness in the book is Mole’s battle-cry in the battle for Toad Hall, “A Mole! A Mole!” – a reference to the Clan Douglas’ battle-cry (or ‘slogan’), which similarly is simply “A Douglas! A Douglas!” When Walt Disney adapted the story as part of his bizarrely-formulated anthology “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad” in 1949, it was instead decided to make Badger Scottish and referred to as ‘MacBadger’.
Mr Toad has frequently threatened to overshadow the other characters, with his famous love of novelty and obsession with the latest craze (‘It’s simply the only thing, Ratty!’) a clearly recognisable characteristic in many real-life larger-than-life egoistic celebrities. A. A. Milne, who similarly turned bedtime stories for his son Christopher Robin into the “Winnie-the-Pooh” books, adapted part of “The Wind in the Willows” to the play “Toad of Toad Hall” (1929), an example of Mr Toad rather stealing the show. Christopher Robin himself liked the play, but J. R. R. Tolkien wrote an angry letter to Milne after seeing it, stating that his children had cried at some of the changes Milne had made to the story they loved. One can only imagine what he would have said to Peter Jackson!)
Disney’s 1949 theatrical feature also inspired a ride at Disneyland and Disney World, “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride.” While the term ‘wild ride’ had already been in use, the specific formulation of ‘Mr X’s wild ride’ has persisted in American discourse, used even by people unaware of where it comes from. One can find it frequently used, for example, in relation to the current presidency in the form ‘Mr Trump’s Wild Ride’.
We have already seen that even contemporary authors admired Grahame’s book. Those stories for the sickly Alistair would have a huge impact on the world—though sadly Alistair himself died at the age of 20, killed on railway tracks in what was suspected to be suicide. As time wore on, new generations of writers became inspired by the book. Terry Pratchett later wrote that “People think of it as a children's book, but that's not all it is. What seared my imagination was its surrealism...At nine or 10 that fascinated me and that made a deep impression on my career.” Appropriately enough, British animation house Cosgrove Hall would follow up its unique animatronic stop-motion TV adaptation of “The Wind in the Willows” with a series based on Pratchett’s children’s book “Truckers”.
More obviously perhaps were those authors who also chose to write about anthropomorphic (or not) animals. Brian Jacques (of “Redwall”) read the book as one of his formative influences growing up. The Anglo-Canadian TV series ‘Tales of the Riverbank’ took inspiration from it, albeit including some more exotic animals as well – it inadvertently helped popularise hamsters and guinea-pigs as pets (and the name ‘Hammy’ for the former). Some even claim Richard Adams of “Watership Down” was influenced by “The Wind in the Willows”, although his rabbits are very much the antithesis of anthropomorphism. However, once again, that novel began as stories Adams told to her children (albeit in the more modern setting of whilst driving through the countryside—Mr Toad would approve!)
With fans stretching through time from Teddy Roosevelt to “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, the influence of “The Wind in the Willows” is undeniable. But consider that none of it would have been without the alcoholism of Grahame’s father forcing him to move to Berkshire, and without the failure of George Robinson to hit him with a bullet in 1903. In another timeline, perhaps, Kenneth Grahame is remembered as the author of a children’s book celebrating the seaside of Argyllshire—or he might not be remembered at all, and the books we all read growing up would have been unrecognisably different...
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth