Lost in the Movies: The Wind in the Willows - The Animal Kingdom

The Wind in the Willows - The Animal Kingdom

Part 7 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations.
"'Of course he will,' chuckled the Otter. 'Did I ever tell you that good story about Toad and the lockkeeper? It happened this way. Toad...'

An errant Mayfly swerved unsteadily athwart the current in the intoxicated fashion affected by young bloods of Mayflies seeing life. A swirl of water and a 'cloop!' and the Mayfly was visible no more.

Neither was the Otter. ...

The Rat hummed a tune, and the Mole recollected that animal etiquette forbade any sort of comment on the sudden disappearance of one's friends at any moment, for any reason or no reason whatever."

-from The River Bank

Who exactly are the animals in The Wind in the Willows? Are they animals at all? Even if the creatures of the wood and the river could speak, would they really converse about "Toad and the lockkeeper"? (And anyway how could a toad engage a lockkeeper in the first place, assuming the lockkeeper is decidedly non-amphibian?) Perhaps, then, "Otter" is just a droll Edwardian gentleman, physically no different from you or me. After all, many theatrical and one or two cinematic interpretations of the famous story don't even bother to disguise the actors as animals - a couple whiskers for Rat, a bit of green face-paint for Toad, a tail for Badger if the production is feeling adventurous. At times this seems in keeping with Grahame's strategies. So then, these animals are clearly just people with animal names. Case closed. And yet, in a flash, that complacent conclusion is shattered, when Otter becomes an otter once again, leaping into the river after his insect meal. And what of that Mayfly?! One moment he's a "young blood" following a "fashion" (might as well be a dandy parading down Carnaby Street) and then, unexpectedly, he's Otter's lunch. If these animals are merely people in disguise, then we've just witnessed an act of cannibalism! Perhaps it's best if we follow Mole's lead, ask no questions, and, accepting the strange rules of The Wind in the Willows for what they are, go along for the ride through this topsy-turvy animal kingdom.

Grahame's decision to cast animals as his characters, or his characters as animals, has certainly paid off in the long run. Imagine, for a moment, if the story was about a group of Edwardian gentlemen hanging out, having minor adventures, and scolding their wealthy friend. If told as charmingly as Grahame tells Wind in the Willows, if consisting of the same incidents, it would no doubt be a great book. But it wouldn't hold the immediate appeal to our imaginations which Willows holds - due to both the charm of childhood memories (when the pathetic fallacy charges the entirety of one's environment with a sympathetic glow) and the power of archetypal myth (as animals, the characters carry a more universal charge than they would as people). Peter Hunt observes the utility of reverse anthropomorphism in A Fragmented Arcadia:

"Animal stories have gravitated toward the nursery. There, they hold certain advantages for the storyteller ... a good deal of the narrative relies on actual or proverbial animal characteristics, that is, characteristics seen as similar to human characteristics: owls are wise, mice timid, pigs greedy, donkeys miserable, and so on and so forth. Similarly, just as fantasy worlds generally simplify character and reduce moral issues to their simplest basic forms, so a single example of a species can stand for all: it doesn't matter that there is only one donkey, one piglet, or one Rat, Mole, Badger, or Toad in the story. The animal story ... is another example of the confusion between the necessary element of the childlike in human nature, and the fear of the childish. It can convey a great deal of meaning in a very economical way, a great deal of richness, but it carries as well the risk of being misunderstood."

In what sense could Willows, with its animal characters, be misunderstood? It could be dismissed as children's literature, of no interest to adults ("fear of the childish"); on the other hand, its characters could be read too narrowly as people in disguise, losing the archetypal richness; it could be read purely as farce, missing the poignant and subtle touches that Grahame includes particularly in the episodes involving Mole and Rat. Perhaps knowing all the risks he was running, the author converted this ambiguity into a virtue: because the book is no one thing, it is all things - sometimes a farce, sometimes serious; sometimes a parable for the innocent, at others an ironic commentary on the world of adults. The animals are allowed to inhabit both worlds - that of idyllic nature and of pleasant and, on some level, necessary "society". Naomi Lewis observed that "Animal comrades, neither old nor young, free both from childhood's rules and adult burdens (like under-graduates) exactly fitted the need [no longer fulfilled by the children in Grahame's earlier books, who were growing up by the end of their tales]."

The animals shift their roles and meanings fluidly, in a way that only prose can fully achieve (though the films would have to find their own way to figure out these contradictions). The book begins on a note of playful ambiguity, introducing us to Mole (ah, an animal!) who is spring-cleaning his "lowly little house" (this animal has a house?). One moment he is getting "splashes of whitewash all over his black fur" (so he can paint like a man, but he still has the physicality of an animal), the next he's rushing out "without even waiting to put on his coat" (so not only do these animals act like humans, they dress like them too). Grahame tells us that Mole "made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage drive owned by animals whose residences are near to the sun and air." This whole statement is rich with allusions to incompatible worlds - one in which Mole, like any mole, travels through underground tunnels; another in which animals "own" carriage drives. One could almost see Mole, in this scene, as traveling from the animal-animal world to the animal-human world...except we've already seen him whitewashing, which is not very animal-animal.

It's fun to pick this apart after the fact but it's worth noting we wouldn't dream of doing so when we first encounter the book. We don't question the author's conceits - we accept them without second thought. Grahame sweeps us right along into his imaginative kingdom where animals can retain their charmingly natural qualities ("every animal, by instinct, lives according to his nature," Grahame onces stated, "every animal is honest") yet also assume the advantages and occasional drawbacks - but above all the relatability - of human beings. In this sense, the book is very much having its cake and eating it too - charming us with fascinatingly different creatures in whom we recognize ourselves. This could be seen as classic anthropomorphism in a nutshell (a safe exploration of the "other") but that puts the cart before Cyril the horse and justifies a 1908 critic's silly complaint that "as a work of natural history, the book is negligible." The story clearly is not setting out to explore the real world of animals, but rather an idealized world of people. It's zoomorphic rather than anthropomorphic.

Along the way, we get a lot of funny and head-scratching, sometimes worrisome, ironies. There's the peculiar behavior of the animals, who shift modes between animal instinct and civilized behavior at the author's will. So that Rat can both row a boat and speak of hibernation, while (as Hunt notes) Badger scurries out from a bush like a beast in the wild, and then almost morphs before our eyes, turning into a misanthropic squire. The animals' relationships to one another are resultingly confused and unstable; early in the book, Mole is halted in the road by a rabbit who, while ineffectual and obnoxious, clearly belongs to the same "species" of animal as Mole (unlike, say, the fish who mutely swim beneath Rat's prow). Yet later in the book, Toad will have a delicious meal on the road, of "the most beautiful stew in the world, being made of partridges, and pheasants, and chickens"...and hares, and rabbits! This renders Otter's earlier munching of the Mayfly positively innocuous in comparison.

Indeed, our heroes eat their fellow River Bankers with alarming nonchalance. Told that he's packed too much for lunch (the picnic basket includes chicken, ham, and beef), Rat answers Mole, "Do you really think so? ... the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast and cut it very fine!" Perhaps they intend "mean" in another fashion than Rat interprets; after all, one wonders what the chickens, pigs, and cows of Rat's acquaintance think of his eating habits. Throughout the book this carnivorous, possibly cannibalistic, appetite continues - and with it, a complex relationship of the animals to one another. In "Wayfarers, All" Rat converses with the birds - but even as they seem to speak his language, they are still clearly birds, animals not people, discussing Southern migrations and juicy bugs they eat along the way. Illustrators and animators add to the dilemma - when Toad's in prison, he is sometimes shown surrounded by scurrying rats: Ratty's less evolved relations perhaps? Through it all, one is reminded of the infamous "Goofy" debate in the film Stand by Me: Goofy, man or dog? If a dog, then what is Pluto?!

Which brings us to Disney. They were the first to adapt Wind in the Willows, by which point the studio already had a 20+ year history of unashamed anthropomorphism, with Mickey, Minnie, Donald et al. Yet they also fostered a tradition of "realistic" animal animation, studying the movements of real deer and forest critters for Bambi (in which they still, of course, gave all the beasts recognizable personalities). How would they approach Willows? As it turns out, they completely reverted to their earlier approach, the Mickey mouse-as-man (or man-as-mouse) mentality. (However, Toad does hop around with an inhuman energy, and the weasels do slink with a dexterity probably unknown to homo sapiens.) Meanwhile, Disney even humanizes Toad's cart-horse, christening it Cyril, and ingeniously rendering its plainly animal duties as a kind of Cockney chauffeur service. Appropriately, when not dragging Toad's cart behind, Cyril stands on two hooves and trots around with the ease of any biped. He even wears a straw hat and bow tie to Toad's trial, where his wisecracks in the witness stand amuse the courtroom.

Disney's unapologetic anthropomorphism is conditioned by their decision to focus entirely on Toad's adventures, the portions of the book in which the animals are never more human. Yet even there Grahame plays with ambiguity. Even when locked in a prison, Toad is not entirely a human being. The gaoler's daughter, who will eventually rescue him (by cross-dressing him as a washerwoman, further complicating the question of Toad's appearance), is fond of the prisoner not because he's a wealthy bachelor but because he is a "poor beast," a potential pet. "You know how fond of animals I am. I'll make him eat from my hand, and sit up, and do all sorts of things." As if Grahame's animal kingdom wasn't complicated enough, he throws real human beings into the mix now too, judges and policemen and gypsies and barge-women who are unquestioningly people - and who thus call the animal's own personhood into question. Hunt discusses this extensively in A Fragmented Arcadia, noting how the author's language subtly shifts back and forth in describing Toad, depending on which aspect he wants to emphasize. Is he Mr. Toad or Toad of Toad Hall? The barge-woman knows, despite what Toad tries to tell her.

"'I would have you know that I am a Toad, a very well-known, respected, distinguished Toad! I may be under a bit of a cloud at present, but I will not be laughed at by a barge-woman!'

The woman moved nearer to him and peered under his bonnet keenly and closely. 'Why, so you are!' she cried. 'Well, I never! A horrid, nasty, crawly Toad! And in my nice clean barge, too! Now that is a thing that I will not have.'"
Hunt notes, "Even when Grahame describes her as unceremoniously throwing him off the barge (by his 'hind-legs' and 'fore-legs') he makes no effort to reconcile the true woman-toad scale: Toad is now something of the size that he appears in the Shepard drawings - half-human." Indeed, Shepard and later illustrators had quite a problem to contend with, and they mostly resolve it as Hunt describes. The animals usually come up to the stomachs of the human characters; perhaps tellingly, they are sized like children.

The movies tend to follow suit - even in the live-action films, trick photography is often employed so that Toad seems dwarfed by the human characters surrounding him. In the Vanessa Redgrave adaptation, Toad's size shifts just as it suggestively does in the book. When literalized, this tendency becomes somewhat distracting; one moment Toad barely comes up to the bumper on a car, then he does a flip in the air and breaks through the canvas roof -which seems to have a magical effect on him; suddenly he is big enough to grip the steering wheel and peer out the windshield. Later the barge-woman will throw him off her boat, at which point he is child-size, and he will steal her horse. Suddenly, pulling on the reins he's much smaller than he was - closer to the size of a real toad. It's as if the animators wanted to highlight the absurdity of his situation; continuity be damned! Actually Disney employs the same sleight-of-hand, albeit more subtly: riding Cyril, Toad is thumbsized. But behind the wheel of an automobile, he seems to have undergone a growth spurt; worst case scenario, he could reach the pedal with a block of wood beneath his webbed feet, Short Round-style.

Ultimately, Toad's - and the other characters' - ability to shift his size, appearance, role, and meaning serves a thematic purpose as well as a narrative one. Grahame's story straddles several worlds - animal and human, natural and civilized, mythological and satirical, and most importantly, childlike and adult. By allowing his characters a fluidity impossible in real life, he is able to explore all the worlds and ideas which interest him here, and to achieve one thing without sacrificing another. In the real world, a banker must lose his imaginative connection to the countryside in order to sharpen his intellect and provide for himself and his family. In the world of Willows, a toad can live in a mansion, a rat can row a boat, and a mole can whitewash, but they can also freely inhabit the world of nature where, as Grahame once remarked, "Every animal is straightforward. Every animal is true - and is, therefore, according to his nature, both beautiful and good." He then concluded,  wistfully, "I like most of my friends among the animals more than I like most of my friends among mankind."




Anonymous said...

Another idea of "class" could be the relations between humans and the Animals. The Animals if given the chance would rather stay away from them. In "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", Rat mentions that Otter is worried that Portly might have wondered into a trap; and yet Toad is able to be made a victim of the British Legal System. Perphaps it's just Grahame's way of treating his characters

Joel Bocko said...

Good point about the different ways the human characters can ensnare the animals - either as animals (the trap set for Portly) or as fellow humans (Toad in court). Damned if you are, damned if you aren't.

Anonymous said...

Grahame isn't the only author who has done this. Beatrix Potter is also "guilty" of this. Peter Rabbit can wear shoes and a little jacket, but when it all comes off he's on all fours and a real rabbit with no problem

Joel Bocko said...

Good point, Anon - obviously my focus here is Wind in the Willows but there must be a book out there somewhere on the variations of anthropomorphism - in children's literature or elsewhere. I also wonder if anyone's done a meta, very self-conscious story about animal/people, though I guess one could argue Grahame himself did so in a subtle way.

Chris Sobieniak said...

Although I don't know of such a book, I had noticed someone bothering to list levels of anthropomorphism at this page if anyone is curious to read it.

I suppose I saw these guys as being roughly 2-3 ft. tall myself, at least of a size where they could appear small but still able to handle human-size items if need be.

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