The art of being both charming and profound while writing stories in which animals act like people is a difficult one. Cuteness for its own sake (and there is plenty of cuteness in Beatrix Potter’s work, for example) would never have endeared Ms. Potter’s overly commercialized Peter Rabbit to successive generations of enchanted fans if Peter were merely a cute bunny in human togs.
That powerful, poignant and memorable children’s writers also write for adults has long been obvious. A. A. Milne, Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, all masters of their art and craft, create animals who act and talk like people the better to reveal to human readers real human strivings, love and loss. And the adventures and excitement in their stories is also at the service of well-developed moral principles so broadly and universally woven into the narratives and characters that we smile and wonder, rather than wither under some lash of moral didacticism. The moral of the story is there, but it never impedes the imagination. Children are allowed to remain children as they read.
Kenneth Grahame puts it this way:
“What is the use of living in a world devoid of wonderment? Children are not merely people: they are the only really living people that have been left to us in an over-weary world . . .
. . . their readiness to welcome the perfect miracle at any hour of the day or night, is a thing more precious than any of the labored acquisitions of adult mankind . “
“No animal,” Grahame tells us, ” knows how to tell a lie. Every animal is honest. Every animal is straight-forward. Every animal is true- and is, therefore, according to his nature, both beautiful and good.”
Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) had written popular books about childhood based on his own memories, The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898) before he wrote his book peopled with animals, The Wind in the Willows (1908). This last book, the story of a mole’s adventures, was written for his son, Alastair.
Grahame’s housekeeper, who had accidentally killed a mole Grahame intended as a pet for his son, suggested a story to make up for the lost animal. Like most bedtime stories, the tale went on and on and added animals as it went.
The stories about Mole grew so interesting that young Alastair refused to go to the seashore in the summer for fear of missing one. His father promised to continue the saga in letters, and Alastair’s father dutifully kept on making up Mole stories and sending them to his son. An attentive governess returned all the letters to Grahame’s wife who compiled them into The Wind in the Willows.
From bedtime stories, then, never intended for publication, grew a great classic of children’s literature.
A Bank of England administrator, whose stories of Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad and their life by the river became an epic tale of animals who walked and talked like people, had set out, like Lewis Carroll, to amuse a favorite child and had made a work of art that could amuse and edify all children for all time.
The Wind in the Willows was dramatized by A. A. Milne in 1929, and, later, made into an animated cartoon by the Disney Studios. The cartoon, while bright, lively and entertaining, does not capture, for this viewer, much of the psychological subtlety of Grahame’s great work.
(note: The quotes by Kenneth Grahame are from his Foreword to The Wind in the Willows (1908). Some biographical material is freely adapted from the 1966 edition (World Publishing/ LC #66-14847) edited and illustrated by Tasha Tudor.)