Guide to the classics: The Wind in the Willows — a tale of wanderlust, male bonding, and timeless delight

flickr, CC BY-ND

Kate Cantrell, University of Southern Queensland

Like several classics penned during the golden age of children’s literature, The Wind in the Willows was written with a particular child in mind.

Alastair Grahame was four years old when his father Kenneth — then a secretary at the Bank of England — began inventing bedtime stories about the reckless ruffian, Mr Toad, and his long-suffering friends: Badger, Rat, and Mole.

Alastair, born premature and partially blind, was nicknamed “Mouse”. Small, squinty, and beset by health problems, he was bullied at school. His rapture in the fantastic was later confirmed by his nurse, who recalled hearing Kenneth “up in the night-nursery, telling Master Mouse some ditty or other about a toad”.

The Wind in the Willows evolved from Alastair’s bedtime tales into a series of letters Grahame later sent his son while on holiday in Littlehampton. In the story, a quartet of anthropomorphised male animals wander freely in a pastoral land of leisure and pleasure — closely resembling the waterside haven of Cookham Dean where Grahame himself grew up.

In peaceful retreat from “The Wide World”, Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad spend their days chatting, philosophising, pottering, and ruminating on the latest fashions and fads. But when the daredevil, Toad, takes up motoring, he becomes entranced by wild fantasies of the road. His concerned friends must intervene to restrain his whims, teaching him “to be a sensible toad”.

Kenneth Grahame, circa 1910.
Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Toad’s recuperative ending, however, Alastair’s story did not end happily.
In the spring of 1920, while a student at Oxford, he downed a glass of port before taking a late night stroll. The next morning, railway workers found his decapitated body on tracks near the university. An inquest determined his death a likely suicide but out of respect for his father, it was recorded as an accident.

Kenneth Grahame, by all accounts, never recovered from the loss of his only child. He became increasingly reclusive, eventually abandoning writing altogether.

In his will, he gifted the original manuscript of Willows to the Bodleian Library, along with the copyrights and all his royalties. Upon his death in 1932, he was buried in Oxford next to his first reader, Mouse.

Read more:
Guide to the Classics: The Secret Garden and the healing power of nature

A ‘gay manifesto’?

Biographical readings are a staple in children’s literature, and the criticism surrounding The Wind in the Willows is no exception. First published in 1908 — the same year as Anne of Green Gables and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz — the novel was initially titled The Mole and the Water-Rat. After back and forth correspondence with Grahame, his publisher Sir Algernon Methuen wrote to say he had settled on The Wind in the Willows because of its “charming and wet sound”.

Today, one of the mysteries surrounding the novel is the meaning of the title. The word “willows” does not appear anywhere in the book; the single form “willow” appears just twice.

When Willows was first released in Britain it was marketed as an allegory — “a fantastic and whimsical satire upon life”, featuring a cast of woodland and riverside creatures who were closer to an Edwardian gentlemen’s club than a crowd of animals. Indeed, the adventures structuring the novel are the meanderings of old English chaps nostalgic for another time.

The four friends, though different in disposition, are bound by their “divine discontent and longing”.

Restless enough to be easily bewitched, they are rich enough to fill their days with long picnics and strolls. Most chapters are sequenced in chronological order, but the action revolves around different types of wandering – pottering around the garden, messing about in boats, rambling along country lanes.

Messing about in boats: an image from a 1995 film version of the book.
TVC London, Carlton UK Productions, HIT Entertainment

With the exception of a brief encounter with a jailer’s daughter, an overweight barge woman, and a careless mother hedgehog, there are no women in Willows. And excluding a pair of young hedgehogs and a group of field mice, all male, there are no children either.

Given the novel’s strong homosocial subtext and absence of female characters, the story is often read as an escapist fantasy from Grahame’s unhappy marriage to Elspeth Thomson. Peter Hunt, an eminent scholar of Willows, describes the couple’s relationship as “sexually arid” and suggests Grahame’s sudden resignation from the bank in 1908 was due to bullying on the basis of his sexuality.

A retouched illustration from a 1913 edition of the book.
Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, Hunt ventures to call the book “a gay manifesto”, reading it as a gay allegory heavy with suppressed desire and latent homoeroticism. In one scene, for example, Mole and Rat “shake off their garments” and “tumble in-between the sheets in great joy and contentment”.

Earlier, while sharing a bed in the open air, Mole “reaches out from under his blanket, feels for the Rat’s paw in the darkness, and gives it a squeeze.” “I’ll do whatever you like, Ratty,” he whispers.

For this reason, and others, some critics suggest that Willows is not a children’s book at all, but a novel for adults that can be enjoyed by children.

Read more:
Guide to the classics: Petronius’s Satyricon – sex, satire and naughty boys


Whether we read Willows as a simple animal story or a social satire, the narrative reinforces the status quo. Badger, for instance, resembles a gruff headmaster whose paternal concern for his friends extends to an earnest attempt to reform the inebriate Toad.

Toad is a recognisable type of schoolboy, charming and impulsive but wildly arrogant and lacking self-control. In the end, he is punished for his foolish behaviour and forced to forgo his flamboyant egotism in humble resignation at Toad Hall. Similarly, Mole and Ratty are afflicted by wanderlust, but inevitably retreat to their cosy, subterranean homes. All of Grahame’s animals return to their “proper” place.

Toad: charming and impulsive but wildly arrogant and lacking self-control.
Cosgrove Hall Films, Thames Television

This return to civility and quiet domesticity exemplifies a criticism often levelled at children’s literature: that such stories are more about the fears and desires of adults than those of children. (Alice in Wonderland, for instance, emphasises the importance of curiosity and imagination, but is also an attempt to socialise children into responsible citizenship.)

Willows is a story about homecoming and friendship, but also a psychodrama about uncontrolled behaviour and addiction in Edwardian England.

Creatures of habit

Perhaps the most famous scene in Willows — now also a popular ride at Disneyland — is Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. In the novel, the incautious Toad, who is oddly large enough to drive a human-sized car, is frequently in trouble with the law and even imprisoned due to his addiction to joyriding.

At times delusional, the self-proclaimed “terror of the highway” writes off several vehicles before spiralling into a cycle of car theft, dangerous driving, and disorderly behaviour.

‘Messing Around in Cars’. Scene from the 1985 animated musical film version of The Wind in The Willows, directed by Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass.

Eventually, Toad’s motorcar mania becomes so unmanageable that his exasperated friends are forced to stage “a mission of mercy” – a “work of rescue” that contemporary readers might recognise as an intervention. This subtext of addiction underpins the arc of recovery, and is crucial for understanding the novel’s key themes: the limits of friendship, the loss of pastoral security, and the temptations of city life.

Interestingly, in Badger’s attempt to help Toad break the cycle of withdrawal and recovery, and in Toad’s temporary abatement and relapse, the text points to another form of addiction: to alcohol.

A British postage stamp featuring the Willows gang.

When Toad is banished to his country retreat — a typical “cure” for upper-class alcoholism at the time — Badger stresses he will remain in enforced confinement “until the poison has worked itself out of his system” and his “violent paroxysms” have passed.

Again, the biographical foundation of the work is clear. Grahame’s father, Cunningham, was an alcoholic whose heavy drinking resulted, like Toad’s intoxication, in social exile, financial strain, and the loss of the family home.

In The Wind in the Willows, Grahame employs animals to render all the ups and downs of human experience. In doing so, he captures the conflict and consonance between freedom and captivity, tradition and modernity.

Productions of The Wind in the Willows will be held in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens and Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens until January 24.The Conversation

Kate Cantrell, Lecturer – Creative Writing & English Literature, University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Teen summer reads: 5 books to help young people understand racism

Jessica Gannaway, University of Melbourne and Melitta Hogarth, University of Melbourne

This article is part of three-part series on summer reads for young people after a very unique year.

US teenager Trayvon Martin was shot dead in 2012 by a neighbourhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman who was later acquitted of the murder. This saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The racist social and political issues in the US saw the deaths and violence on Black bodies brought front and centre through acts of protest.

The arguments against the alleged police brutality in the US were easily translatable to the Australian context.

The Black Lives Matters movement was renewed following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May this year. And together with US counterparts, tens of thousands of Australians marched across our cities to draw attention to racial profiling, police brutality and the more than 400 Indigenous people who have died in police custody since a royal commission into the problem was held in 1991.

The global movement brought unprecedented sales of books about race and anti-racism. This turn toward texts is indicative of the role they play in helping us make sense of major social issues.

Angie Thomas, author of the 2017 bestseller “The Hate U Give”, has spoken about the role of literature in igniting awareness, resistance and change.

I think books […] play a huge role in opening people’s eyes and they’re a form of activism in their own right, in the fact that they do empower people and show others the lives of people who may not be like themselves.

Research has long shown a link between the books we read and our development of empathy. But more recent research has highlighted it is important we don’t see books as immediate fixes to complex social issues, especially when we import these books from other locations and times.

Our reading must be accompanied by close attention to the ways racism and prejudice unfold in our own location.

Read more:
5 Australian books that can help young people understand their place in the world

Coming to understand the impact and complexity of racism in this way is referred to as “racial literacy”. Here are five books that can help young people build racial literacy around the varied forms of racism and discrimination.

Dear Martin is build around the question: what would Martin Luther King do?

1. Dear Martin

by Nic Stone

Dear Martin explores issues of race through the eyes of conscientious 17 year old, Justyce McAllister.

Built around the central question, “What would Martin (Luther King) do?”, this novel brings to light the litany of decisions and ethical conundrums thrust into Justyce’s lap daily, as he navigates a world affected by racism and prejudice.

2. Punching the Air

by Ibi Zobai and Yusuf Salaam

Written by one of five young men imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit.
Harper Collins

In 1989, five young men were falsely accused of the assault and murder of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. Now documented in Ava Duvernay’s Neflix miniseries When They See Us, the Five were exonerated 12 years later.

But the story stands as a haunting reminder of the inequalities experienced by Black men and the life-altering consequences this can wreak on innocent lives.

One of these young men, Yusuf Salaam, collaborates with award-winning author and prison reform activist Ibi Zobai, to craft a story that examines these themes through a narrative of a wrongfully incarcerated young man navigating his teenage years in prison.

3. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

edited by Anita Heiss

An anthology of essays written by those with lived experience of racial issues.
Black Inc books

This anthology of 50 chapters provides an opportunity to deeply listen and understand the lived experiences of Indigenous Australians and the ways racism takes all manner of overt, subtle and systemic forms.

Particularly noteworthy are the chapters by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Celeste Liddle, in which the authors describe both the nature of racism experienced by them from the schoolyard, and the broader historical context on which this racism is based.

4. Slay

by Brittney Morris

Explores racial themes through an online game.
Simon & Schuster

This novel centres on 17-year-old Kiera, a talented young developer who creates a multiplayer role-playing game. The game is a “mecca of black excellence” and an escape from the racism often experienced by those “game-playing while black”.

When an offline murder is traced back to the game, Kiera grapples with the complexity of both the implications of her creation and the conversations it triggers.

Slay weaves social commentary into the dialogue between characters from all walks of life, covering everything from cultural appropriation, to whether racism can ever be “reversed”.

5. Living on Stolen Land

by Ambelin Kwaymullina

This is made up of prose verses like ‘Bias’ and ‘Listening’.
Magabala Books

Many books here centre around the kind of racial stereotyping and violence that put the Black Lives Matter movement on the map. But understanding racism in the Australian context also involves examining colonialism and the racist underpinnings of our history.

Living on Stolen Land centres Indigenous sovereignty in the conversation about race. Using prose verses such as those titled “Bias” and “Listening”, it leads readers through examining unconscious beliefs and moving toward being a genuine ally of Indigenous people.

Author and educator Layla F Saad has suggested when we read texts about social issues like racism, we read for transformation, not merely information.

A range of texts have been developed to support families in having these transformative discussions together. Maxine Beneba Clarkes’ “When We Say Black Lives Matter”, for instance, is a beautifully illustrated picture book that focuses on the strength and resilience of black children and communities. While texts like Our Home our Heartbeat by Adam Briggs centres on key Indigenous figures to be celebrated.

Read more:
Teen summer reads: 5 novels to help cope with adversity and alienation

The Conversation

Jessica Gannaway, Lecturer, University of Melbourne and Melitta Hogarth, Assistant Dean Indigenous/ Senior lecturer, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 locked in shift to open access publishing, but Australia is lagging

Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock

Lucy Montgomery, Curtin University

For all its faults, 2020 appears to have locked in momentum for the open access movement. But it is time to ask whether providing free access to published research is enough – and whether equitable access to not just reading but also making knowledge should be the global goal.

An explanation of open access and how the system of having to pay for access to published research came about.

In Australia the first challenge is to overcome the apathy about open access issues. The term “open access” has been too easy to ignore. Many consider it a low priority compared to achievements in research, obtaining grant funding, or university rankings glory.

But if you have a child with a rare disease and want access to the latest research on that condition, you get it. If you want to see new solutions to climate change identified and implemented, you get it. If you have ever searched for information and run into a paywall requiring you to pay more than your wallet holds to read a single journal article that you might not even find useful, you will get it. And if you are watching dire international headlines and want to see a rapid solution to the pandemic, you will probably get it.

Many publishing houses temporarily threw open their paywall doors during the year. Suddenly, there was free access to research papers and data for scholars researching pandemic-related issues, and also for students seeking to pursue their studies online across a range of disciplines.

Read more:
Science publishing has opened up during the coronavirus pandemic. It won’t be easy to keep it that way

Graphic showing benefits of open access

Safia Begum/The Blogworm/Aston University

In October 2020, UNESCO made the case for open access to enhance research and information on COIVD-19. It also joined the World Health Organisation and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in calling for open science to be implemented at all stages of the scientific process by all member states.

There is clearly an appetite for freely available information. Since it was established earlier this year, the CORD-19 website has built up a repository of more than 280,000 articles related to COVID-19. These have attracted tens of millions of views.

Europe has led the way

Europe was already ahead of the curve on open access and 2020 has accelerated the change. Plan S is an initiative for open access launched in Europe in 2018. It requires all projects funded by the European Commission and the European Research Council to be published open access.

Read more:
All publicly funded research could soon be free for you, the taxpayer, to read

Chart showing growth in number of open access repositories
Growth in the number of open access repositories listed in the international Registry of Open Access Repositories.
Thomas Shafee/Wikipedia, CC BY

A 2018 report commissioned by the European Commission found the cost to Europeans of not having access to FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) research data was €10 billion ($A16.1 billion) a year.

In 2019, open access publications accounted for 63% of publications in the UK, 61% in Sweden and 54% in France, compared to 43% of Australian publications.

Australia is lagging behind

Australia’s flagship Australian Research Council has required all research outputs to be open access since 2013. But researchers can choose not to publish open access if legal or contractual obligations require otherwise. This caveat has led to a relatively low rate of open access in Australia.

chart showing numbers of publications that are open access and behind paywalls
The increase in the numbers of open access publications in Australia has been gradual.
Open Access Dashboard/Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative (COKI)

Read more:
Universities spend millions on accessing results of publicly funded research

The Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) and the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group (AOASG) have long carried the torch for open access in Australia. But, without levers to drive change, they have struggled to change entrenched publishing practices of Australian academics.

Our Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative (COKI) project has examined open access across the world. We have analysed open access performance of individuals, individual institutions, groups of universities and nations in recent decades. The COKI Open Access Dashboard offers a glimpse into a subset of this international data, providing insights into national open access performance.

This analysis shows a steady global shift towards open access publications.

For example, in November 2020, Springer Nature announced it would allow authors to publish open access in Nature and associated journals at a price of up to €9,500 (A$15,300) per paper from January 2021. This was a signal change for the publishing industry. One of the world’s most prestigious journals is overturning decades of closed-access tradition to throw open the doors, and committing to increasing its open access publications over time.

At the moment, the pricing of this model enables only a select group to publish open access. The publication cost is equivalent to the value of some Australian research grants. Pricing is expected to become more affordable over time.

Chart showing open access publication options
A quick guide to open access publishing: for researchers who wish to do this the required fee can be a significant deterrent.
OpenAire, CC BY

Read more:
Increasing open access publications serves publishers’ commercial interests

It’s not just about access to facts

This international trend is a positive step for fans of freely available facts. However, we should not lose sight of other potentially larger issues at play in relation to open knowledge – that is, a level playing field for access to both published research and participation in research production.

Put another way, we need to pursue not only equity among knowledge takers but also among knowledge makers if we are to enable the world’s best thinkers to collaborate on the planet’s signature challenges.

All of this is good news for people who love to access information – but the bigger overall question for the higher education sector is about the conventions, traditions and trends that determine who gets to be considered for a job in a lab or a library or a lecture theatre. There is much more to be done to make our universities open for all – a future of equity in knowledge making as well as taking.The Conversation

Lucy Montgomery, Program Lead, Innovation in Knowledge Communication, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.