Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

Recommended edition: Aladdin, 1989

Dr. Simon Kow, Director of the Early Modern Studies Program and the author of the Early Modern Times blog, has selected The Wind in the Willows.

We asked Dr. Kow to explain why he chose this book:

“What makes a book a classic, worthy of contemplation and study? This is the question we constantly ask in the liberal arts, especially in programs devoted to the study of Great Books. Some books classified as ‘children’s literature’ (as if that were a negative thing) have nevertheless established themselves as classics for everyone: The Wind in the Willows is one of those. The book is a deceptively whimsical recounting of four animal friends—the Mole, the Rat, the Toad, and the Badger—and their various adventures. Many, perhaps all, of us can identify with various qualities of the contrasting characters, whether it be the introvert Mole discovering the world, the extrovert Rat who likes nothing better than ‘messing about’ in his boat, the gruff but wise Badger, or of course the wildly reckless playboy Toad.

“Like the best books, then, it is both timely and timeless as well as beautifully written. The characters live in the idyllic setting of the river bank, which borders the Wild Wood and the Wide World. Like students at King’s and the English middle-classes in the years leading up to the Great War, they live in a seemingly tranquil bubble but are inevitably affected by the outside world, whether it be the threat of social and political revolution, or the rapid changes brought about by technology—in particular, the disastrous Toad behind the wheels of his soon-to-be wrecked motor cars. The book is a paean to the rural delights of the Thames Valley and a commentary on the disruptions of modern life, while including satirical jabs at English society at the time and witty references to Oscar Wilde, Sherlock Holmes, and Homer’s Odyssey, among others. It’s also good plain fun.”

Dr. Simon Kow

Asked to share one of his favourite passages from the novel, Kow highlights the following excerpt from Chapter 6:

‘As the familiar sound broke forth, the old passion seized on Toad and completely mastered him, body and soul. As if in a dream he found himself, somehow, seated in the driver’s seat; as if in a dream, he pulled the lever and swung the car round the yard and out through the archway; and, as in a dream, all sense of right and wrong, all fear of obvious consequences, seemed temporarily suspended. He increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night. He chanted as he flew, and the car responded with sonorous drone; the miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not whither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him.’

Join us online for the first book club discussion in our inaugural King’s Summer Book Club. Let us know you’re interested and we’ll send you the Zoom link before the event.