Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Cost of Empire: The Wind in the Willows

Cover of the 1at Edition released in 1908.
Simplicity is always best.
Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children's classic The Wind in the Willows keeps the radical symbols very simple, so simple, even a child can understand. Ratty is a the symbol of reason; Mole is the symbol of the emotions; Badger is the symbol of strength and, Toad, well, Toad is stubborness personified. These are, basically, the great qualities that make up England yet, according to Grahame, Empire, Imperialism and "adventure" is not English.
Theatrical poster for stage adaptation. It's important to note that the motor car is red, Grahame tells us that it's Toad's favorite color, because it is quite similar to the red dresses of the two little girls in Leisure Hours. As the color symbolic of the appetites, Toad's red motor car demonstrates to readers how we "let our appetites get away" from us and out of control. Initially, it's a "canary yellow gypsy cart" which Toad wants to travel in. Yellow, being the color of gold, denotes royalty, so Grahame acknowledges that there is a "natural impulse" of a royal line and country to want to explore and conquer, however, in the craze for motor cars, and his theft of one, Grahame really draws the un-English characteristics of "too many adventures"and there is nothing properly English about that.
Ratty and Mole enjoy adventure but only when tempered with prudence and the assurance of material comfort (Ratty, after all, is a Water Rat, symbolic of the British Royal Navy's superior water power). Badger is a homebody not needing anything or anyone. Toad, on the other hand, is the soul of adventure, all that is needed is the open-road, the freedom of the air and the energy to take advantage of it. It's not that the animals have been personified, rather, it's that our own personalities and appetites have been given befitting animal figures to show ourselves to us.
Kenneth Grahame by Sargent.
The key symbols of this work is the Tudor window in Toad's bedroom at Toad Hall and the Red Lion Inn where Toad steals the motor car (in the popular animated Disney version of The Adventure of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Toad trades Toad Hall for the motor car, but in Grahame's work, Toad--in a moment of passion--steals the motor car). Mirrors and windows symbolize our inner-reflections and meditations, those intimate things we know of ourselves which no one else knows. That Toad's window (his reflections on himself) is specifically from the "Tudor" period, alerts us to the line Grahame draws between Toad and the reigns of King Henry VIII and, more specifically, Queen Elizabeth I.
The Ditchley Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1592, The National Portrait Gallery, London. The world is at the feet of Elizabeth, literally. The vast power of her Navy and her... pirates.
The Tudor period in English history was a time of economic prosperity and global expansionism. The defensive powers of the English Navy and the exploits of Sir Francis Drake (to put it mildly) meant that England enjoyed a time of world power on the international stage of politics, religion and trade. This time of social "revolution" (as some have called it but not all would) is exactly what Grahame wants readers to consider when Toad escapes from his Tudor window in Toad Hall (after his friends have locked him down to get him over his "motor-mania") and it's a statement of Toad's wasted wealth, since glass was something for only the wealthy in the Tudor period and was one of the pursuits of the very wealthy (which Toad certainly is). Yet Toad's wealth doesn't free him of responsibility, rather, it obligates him to responsibility, and his passing fads--like the clothes of the Tudor period--were expensive and quickly outdated.
Sir Francis Drake, knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
Grahame draws a parallel between the great figure of Sir Francis Drake of the Tudor imagination and Toad: both are thieves. It's easy to paint over what they did with other terms more delicate and agreeable, such as conquering, passion, destiny, and I am quite sure that someone more articulate than myself could manage many more; however, the action is that most disagreeable accusation: stealing. Drake stole gold from the Spanish and Toad steals a motor car from some people at the Red Lion Inn; the gold was a "vehicle" for Elizabeth's power just as the motor car was a vehicle for Toad's "control of the road." This sordid side of Empire and power is what Grahame wants his readers (at the tender and impressionable age of children) to understand about the world of politics.
The statue of "The Lionheart" outside Westminster.
The second reference is the Red Lion Inn, where Toad steals the motor car and is arrested, having to give over his ancestral home of Toad Hall. It is a clear and sad reference to one of the most famous of English kings, Good King Richard or Richard the Lionheart. As John Gillingham wrote in Kings and Queens of Britain: Richard I, Richard's reputation "has fluctuated wildly. The Victorians were divided. Many of them admired him as a crusader and man of God, erecting an heroic statue to him outside the Houses of Parliament; Stubbs, on the other hand, thought him ‘a bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler, and a vicious man’. Though born in Oxford, he spoke no English. During his ten years' reign, he was in England for no more than six months, and was totally absent for the last five years."
Robin Hood in a shooting contest. Anxious to get "Good King Richard" back from the Crusades and put down "Bad Prince John," the legend of Robin Hood, like The Wind in the Willows, draws upon the strong ties of home and the evils let loose when good rulers are absent and not "taking care of their own."
Why would Grahame not like him? 
In his "drive" to conquer the Holy Land, King Richard was captured and held prisoner. English monarchs should not leave home. And speaking of "home," we come to what happened at Toad Hall while Toad was imprisoned: the weasels from the Wild Wood take over his great manor house, very similar to Prince John taking over the throne of England while his glamorous brother is held prisoner. It's telling that Toad only regains his home by a tunnel which comes out at the butler's pantry, symbolizing, that the "lords" of great estates are the servants of the people, and only by realizing that are the gentry eligible for their positions (remember in Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, King Richard returns wearing a disguise the way Toad has to enter Toad Hall in a way other than as the Lord of the house).
Bray Lock, Buckinghamshire. The picturesque cottage sitting upon the beloved River Thames exemplifies all that is important, worthwhile and, for Grahame, English. The "return home" is the purpose of Rat, Mole and Badger, and even, finally, of J. Thaddeus Toad, and his appreciation of his home marks the signs of his genuine conversion.

What Grahame's The Wind in the Willows so successfully accomplishes is the dilemma between being "at home" or on "the larger stage" of the world politic. In this passage, Mole has been living at Ratty's for a long while, "the larger stage" in the outdoors, but he has just returned to his own little home and delights in that feeling:

The weary Mole also was glad to turn in without delay, and soon had his head on his pillow, in great joy and contentment. But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour. He was now in just the frame of mind that the tactful Rat had quietly worked to bring about in him. He saw clearly how plain and simple—how narrow, even—it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one's existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome. (The Wind in the Willows)

This must be very much like British soldiers returning home after the great exploits in the far corners of the Empire. But what The Wind in the Willows is most about is the first, the criminal activity of Empire and secondly the cost. Each character in the story either symbolizes that movement away from England or that feeling of being at home and hence, where one belongs (don't forget, it recurs in another famous work of English literature, The Lord of the Rings). It's important to be important, however, most important to be so for the right reasons, and when one has their priorities straight, their reason will be right.