Hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed reading The Wind of the Willows since its publication in 1908. The good-natured Rat, the honorable Mole, and the inspiring Badger are now staples of children’s literature thanks to Kenneth Grahame’s imagination. However, the most memorable character in the novel remains Mr. Toad. Children marvel at his adventures and relate to his impulsive nature.
The simple story behind the novel is that a loving father created this group of animals as part of bedtime stories for his son. However, the origins of The Wind in the Willows are much more tragic than most people realize.
Grahame did initially create these stories to entertain his son Alastair. The legally blind child had a number of other health problems throughout his life, and Grahame wanted to bring joy into the boy's life. His letters to Alastair chronicle the journey of Toad and the easy, laid-back lives of Rat, Mole, and Badger. Writing these stories helped Grahame connect to Alastair, who was sent away to boarding school. Grahame needed all the help he could get, though, because Alastair had a bad streak of his own. “Mouse,” as Grahame lovingly called his son, would attack other boys in the schoolyard, and lay down in roads to stop cars, all for the sake of pure mischief. Most scholars believe that Toad was an invention through which Grahame hoped to teach his son about maturity and respectability.
Reading the letters between Mouse and Grahame, it’s not difficult to see how much Mouse yearned for his father’s love and approval. He repeatedly tries to assert himself to inspire his father's attention, but Grahame's replies dwindled progressively more over the years. It appears that, in his inability to understand Mouse’s behavior, he retreated farther into his stories, paying less attention to his son’s cries for attention in the process.
Because Mouse’s emotional needs were not met, he was kicked out of school. In his second school, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Grahame had to use his contacts at Christ Church in order to secure Mouse admittance anywhere else. Yet Mouse remained depressed, so much so that he lay down on train tracks just days before his twentieth birthday. He was decapitated immediately, though the official report ruled the incident as an accident, out of respect for Grahame and his work.
It is impossible to completely unweave the painful history of Grahame’s tragedy from his greatest literary achievement. Though this story is too difficult to explain to the children who enjoy the tales of Toad and company, knowing the events which surround the story’s inception can be a reminder to parents that even difficult children have needs that must be met. Creating stories for Mouse’s amusement certainly has its cheerful side, but Grahame’s use of the stories as a crutch arguably blinded him to Mouse's personal well-being, which made the stories as painful for him as they were therapeutic.