I have memories of my father reading this to me (and probably later to my brother) when I was little. Also of going to at least one play version (specifically an adaptation of the Toad of Toad Hall plotline), as well as reading it myself. So, of course, it’s a long-time favourite, with a lot of nostalgia attached.
Thankfully, then, it seems to stand up fairly well to an adult going back and assessing its merits. (Unlike some of what I and my DH have been returning to of our own and each other’s youthful libraries. But more on that another time.) The main thing I still can’t work out with this book is how much the animals are supposed to be of their own species and behaviour (including size), with a veneer of anthropomorphic speech and clothing, and how much they’re humans with an overlay of animalised individuation. I amn’t really convinced Grahame has decided this himself.
Basically, the problem is Toad. The other animals live in burrows and other holes dug in the ground (depending on their species), and undertake activities reasonably consistent with those of their real-life brethren. (Eg Mole and Badger prefer to live underground and are relatively shy of the wider world, the (Water) Rat and the Otter don’t like to go too far from their source of food and safety, the river.) Their size is never completely clarified, but there are suggestions in the text (when Toad isn’t involved, at least) that they are certainly smaller than humans, if not as small as a mole or mouse in real life. None of these animals interacts directly with humans, either.
Toad, however, is a rich, pampered playboy, who lives in a large stately home with grounds and servants, and has several interactions with definite humans. (Usually involving him getting or being on the wrong side of the general law.) Toad buys, crashes and steals several cars and other vehicles, all of which are made for the general market, and is also able to dress up and pass as a human, certainly suggesting no size differential. (I’ve just remembered the one stated conversation between a human and an animal other than Toad – which is when Badger, Mole and Ratty are trying to save Toad from himself, and Badger tells the latest car delivery man to take the vehicle away again, as Toad won’t be wanting it.)
Still, even while Toad is subject to the same laws as any human, he is not treated as exactly the same. In prison the gaoler’s daughter tries to help him (and gets permission from her father to do so) because she is fond of animals and has several pets. Then when his disguise is discovered while he’s on the run he is referred to with disgust as a ‘nasty toad’. Horses seem to be a particular in-between case. They are definitely used as beasts of work, and while the first time we meet one we are given the impression this is at least partially voluntary, and that the other animals speak to the horse they’re using, the second time there is no such suggestion.
My personal feeling (and I haven’t looked at what others may have written in this regard, as yet) is that when Grahame started this story he intended the animals to be just that, if somewhat anthropomorphised (they wear clothing, paint their homes, use boats, and so on) and avoiders of humans. However once he introduced Toad, things got somewhat out of hand. The story still works, and it is certainly a fun read for/with kids (although I could have done without the scene with Pan, which doesn’t really add anything, and completely changes the mood of that part of the story).
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