Let us consider Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows (1908), an account of episodes in the lives of Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, with Otter thrown in occasionally, and bit parts given to weasels, ferrets, rabbits, and field mice. Toad, in his adventures in the Wide World, encounters motorists, policemen, judges, a jailer, a barge woman, a jailer's daughter, a washerwoman, a train driver, and a gypsy - but these humans are mere cardboard figures in Toad's eccentric adventures away from the enchanted rural habitat where the animals live. The central contrivance of the book and of other books like it (Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit books began coming out just a few years before this) is the endowment of the animals with a degree of humanity. Thus they dress and speak and behave as humans, but they also retain their animal characteristics. So Mole and Badger agree that underground homes are best, and Rat being a water rat, loves to mess about in a boat. Writers like Grahame and Potter knew just how much human to mix with animal.
The plotting is very clever. The second chapter introduces Toad, but he doesn't reappear until Chapter 6. The three intervening chapters are full of interest: developing the Mole-Rat relationship, introducing Badger at home - frightening Mole (and the reader) in the sinister WildWood. The Toad chapters come thick and fast now: 8, 10, 11, and 12, just as Grahame's conception of Mole and Rat begins to run out of steam. In Chapter 7 is a mawkish tribute to Pan, the only false note in the book, and in Chapter 9 is a overlong recounting of the adventurous life of a seagoing rat. By interspersing the chapters and quickening the pace, the author maintains the reader's interest.
One of the finer points of the book, and this is something Grahame was very good at in all his books, is the way he creates an enduring character with just a few strokes. By the end of the first chapter we know, without being directly told, that Mole is a very happy, sensitive, and timid creature, while Rat is practical, capable, and cheerful, but dreamy, too. Badger is stern, solitary, and homely, but a tower of strength to his friends. Toad, of course, is Grahame's greatest creation, conceited, impulsive, madly daring, fearful, inconstant, condescending, and lovable.
One of our granddaughters (8 years old) was here for a week last summer, and before her father left he said he'd tried Wind but it didn't seem to interest her. He had begun at the beginning, but when I took up the book, I started with Toad and stayed with him. In Chapter 10, when the motorists pick him up, disguised as a washerwoman, where he has collapsed in the road, Alana suddenly exclaimed, "Can't they see she's a toad!" That was my moment of triumph - with the exclamation and the use of "she," my granddaughter showed she was in the grip of the fiction. Note, however, that I gained my end only because I left out everything but Toad's adventures; the rest of the book is not really interesting to children. We'll look into the significance of that in a moment.
Kenneth Grahame wrote two other books that are usually (but mistakenly) thought of as children's books: The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898). These slim volumes "are studies of childhood in idyllic rural settings where the adult world of reality is sharply contrasted with the fantasy world of the child," as the jacket of one proclaims. It was Grahame's misfortune that his mother died young and his father withdrew his affection from the children, so they were sent to be raised by relatives in the Thames valley (the scene of Wind). A fact in Grahame's life, the absence or indifference of responsible adults, is a recurring theme in much of this literature. In "Prologue: The Olympians" he speaks of those relatives:
They treated us, indeed, with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognize, the result of a certain stupidity) and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal.
There are exceptions. In The Golden Age it is the curate
. . . who would receive, unblenching, the information that the meadow beyond the orchard was a prairie studded with herds of buffalo. . . . He neither laughed nor sneered, as the Olympians would have done. . . .
As the quotation implies, the fantasy world of children is magical, unfazed by the remorseless realties of time and space and probability. Of course, all children play in that way. Recall your own childhood games, or look into the books of Iona and Peter Opie, especially The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, and Children's Games with Things. The difference between my fantasies and those in these two books is that the latter are much more clever and daring and highly colored, they take place on an estate in the English countryside, and there are governesses and tutors in the classy background.
That's because these books, with their dedication to the cult of childhood, are really aimed at an adult audience. I know that when I read these books to my children: I enjoyed them more than they did. You can see this quite clearly in Grahame's books by the level of diction and assumptions:
After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the others busy working. - The Wind in the Willows
. . . while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. - The Wind in the Willows
. . . he proceeded to play upon the inexperienced Mole as on a harp. - The Wind in the Willows
That was the frank note, the joyous summons of the day; and they could not but jar and seem artificial, these human discussions and pretences, when boon nature, reticent no more, was singing that full-throated song of hers that thrills and claims control of every fibre. - The Golden Age
From worms we passed, naturally enough to frogs, and thence to pigs, aunts, gardeners, rocking horses, and other fellow citizens of our common kingdom. - Dream Days
What I am suggesting is that the whole cult of childhood, so embodied in these books and many others, is an adult fantasy, one that is highly colored with upper middleclass trappings and assumptions. These books are thought of as classics, and sometimes I see essays about children's literature in conservative publications, essays that usually bemoan the present state of the art while they praise these old classics. I believe, however, that they belonged to a moment in time, from the 1890s to the 1950s when middleclass Americans liked to think of themselves as WASPS, with all that the term implied. As an old WASP myself, descended from a man who, in the 1630s was reputed to be the "handsomest man to make foot prints on the Nantucket shore," I have some mild regrets at the passing of that moment, but remember the lesson of this series: superior art has a life of its own, so the Beatrix Potter books will last if only because of her wonderful illustrations, and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, thanks to the incredible character of Toad, will be read long after we are gone. *