Wind in the Willows is by most definitions a fantasy, but is it merely a tale of four anthropomorphic animal heroes and their adventures in a fictional landscape, or is it a fairly accurate observation of middle and upper-class Edwardian society at that time and its fears? Fears that were centred in worries about encroaching modernity and its perceived threat to their comfortable and privileged existence.
Kenneth Grahame was writing at a time when Britain was undergoing profound social and technological change. Major influences in that shift were the increasing power and influence of the working class aided by a growing militarism of trade unions and the gradual breakdown of class barriers. In the early years of the twentieth century, industrial conflict erupted throughout Britain, and many people were fearful and anxious about the changes taking place, particularly urbanisation and the increasingly crowded tenements and slums of the cities. The birth rate was falling in the upper classes and increasing in the working class. The social order was changing. Victorian social hierarchy still existed in Grahame’s fictional world, and this was a comfort to many. The young hedgehogs respected their betters and knew their place, and Otter asserted his authority over the hapless rabbits.
Toad’s passion for the motorcar seems to me to also be challenging the status quo, but from an additional viewpoint. I believe that Grahame uses the motor car not only as a metaphor for the threat of increasing industrialisation and technological change to a way of life for the fortunate, but also to represent the emergence of the changing nature of the middle-class. In effect, increasing affordability and consumerism for those who had previously been denied access to desirable commodities that had been the preserve of the wealthy. Consumerism is an outward badge of economic and cultural progress, it is a guide to social identity. It sounds out a message about who we are, and the way we view ourselves.
In the Wild Wood, Wind in the Willows represents a fear of the unknown. The invasion of Toad’s ancestral home by the weasels, stoats and ferrets can also be viewed as manifesting the fears of those who were worried about the invasion of their perceived rightful place in the world and their right to governance.
Wind in the Willows contrasts the desire for travel and adventure with the attraction of home and familiar surroundings. Ratty and Mole alternate between these two desires. The book promotes a hedonistic delight in a world (for the lucky ones) of long weekends, of leisurely summer days and community, and is an escape to an idyllic past where problems were easily solved. It is a wonderful read, a classic for both children and adults.