The Wind in the Willows consists of four major characters. In order of appearance they’re the Mole, the Rat, the Toad and the Badger. Fine fellows all of them, but highly distinct. I propose to describe each of them in turn.
The Mole, for instance is a quiet fellow. His home, we learn, is narrow and rather run down (strangely, Grahame manages by these descriptions to make us wish we lived there). Mole is not the most interesting of fellows, but he’s highly appreciative and his quiet and perhaps a little dim mind is filled with a great deal of unexpected good sense—from the stocking of his cellar to outwitting the stoats. He is an excitable creature, but not in the same way the Toad is—never grand.
The Toad is all the opposite of the Mole. The Toad is the great, incurable romantic of The Wind in the Willows. The Toad is highly erratic, impulsive, and not a little disastrous. He causes his friends a great deal of trouble. What the Toad has to learn is self-control through a lengthy ordeal, by being battered. What is wonderful about the Toad, however, is that none of the blows of fate are able to put him down for very long. He is incurably cocksure. In the end, what cures the Toad is that he sort of makes fun of himself by enjoying a great, boastful pretense, a sort of Aristotelian catharsis as the result of a closet drama (in which he stars).
The Rat is the cleverest and nicest of our chaps. He is easy going. He likes to have things done well: the picnics he puts on are a model to picnickers everywhere, his house appears altogether the best in scale and amenities (Toad hall is a good place, but it hasn’t the appealing seclusion, the hominess that you get from Rat’s establishment). Like his home, Rat is subject to floods. He is considerate but seems to have problems keeping his head in emergencies. He is a homebody and adventure and danger aren’t strictly in his line. When excitement comes, he can be deft and he can also be ridiculous.
The Badger is a very respectable country animal. The Badger is not sophisticated and doesn’t appear to hold with sophistication much. There are probably a whole lot of things the Badger doesn’t hold with, one suspects. What he is is impatient, deliberate, wise, prudent, fierce in battle, and the kind of person who generally lives very happily all alone. His admiration for the Mole, in their plans to deliver Toad Hall from its invaders, comes with the voice of authority, showing the reader in no uncertain terms who is the sensible chap and who (the Toad) is not.
The Wind in the Willows is a wonderful escape: there is always plenty of food, for the most part delightful things happen, in fact very magical and wonderful things happen, the ordinary things that happen are wonderfully desirable, full of ordinary magic, when there is snow there is a bright fire in the hearth, the seasons are relished, the field mice sing carols and it all ends happily. But I think my favorite part of it all is to watch the interplay of the characters: the slightly stuffy and boring, dear old Mole, the clever, interesting and amusing Rat, the Toad one has to be fond of all despite his occasional vulgarity, frequent excesses and ghastly boastfulness, and the reliable, gruff Badger.
I think The Wind in the Willows is one of the best books available to us in this world. Much of the enjoyment of small things you see in the Chronicles of Narnia or in The Hobbit you find here. Like Watership Down, you find what is unexpected, and enjoyably unexpected. One of the best things about The Wind in the Willows is the bogus lore, the preposterousness carried off with a high hand (like something committed by Toad) which adds the underlying laughter that makes the feeling of the book such a happy one. And yet it is the sense of tragedy, of evil in world and the end to good things somehow never far from their enjoyment that together with the underlying laughter makes the book have a certain inescapable poignant beauty. No doubt it is flawed, and someone can find for us the flaws and stack them up like lumber, but it is undeniably a very great achievement that well deserves to be on the shelves of at least those types of human beings represented by the characters dreamed up by Kenneth Grahame: fine fellows all.