(1859-1932) UK banker and writer who began composing light nonfiction pieces as a pastime. Some were assembled as Pagan Papers (coll 1893), a title which implies a rather more iconoclastic set of contents than KG was willing to deliver. His life is notorious for its conflicts and dis-ease. Unhappy (though eminently successful) as a man of business, and uneasy (though ultimately world-famous) as an author of fictions, KG was a classic Edwardian writer. He was deeply conservative, and was instinctively alarmed at the loss of the Theodicy-irradiated rural England that he, and so many other Edwardians of similar mind, conceived to have once existed. And, like some other writers at the cusp of the new century – J M Barrie is an example – he conflated the loss of childhood with the loss of that England, that Eden-like past. So he did not wish to grow up. His marriage was disastrous, his career was a straitjacket, the world was heating up to some sort of nightmare apocalypse; and he put all his conflicted passions into three books, ostensibly written for children, plus one short story published in Fin de Siècle gear as a Bodley Booklet. When WWI came he stopped writing.
The Headswoman (1898 chap), though not fantasy, occupies a clearly impossible Topsy-Turvy medieval world, where a female executioner's clients quip and flirt on their way to death because she is beautiful; the tone lies somewhere between W S Gilbert's Savoy Operas (1876-1893) and the weekend essays of A A Milne. KG's first two full-size books – The Golden Age (coll 1895) and Dream Days (coll 1898; rev 1899), one of the tales from the latter being published separately as The Reluctant Dragon (1938 chap) – comprise stories told to a family of children by an unnamed narrator. They are very various. In the distressing "The Argonauts", which appears in the first volume, some children inadvertently Crosshatch from a suburban brook into a confrontation with a mad Medea at the edge of a rough and mythopoeic sea; on the other hand, "A Saga of the Seas", in the second volume, is a gay tale of swashbuckling in the South Seas.
The Wind in the Willows (1908) is one of the most popular and famous Children's Fantasies of the 20th century. Debates are frequent as to whether this almost excessively complex text should be regarded as a children's book, but huge numbers of children have been intoxicated by most parts of the book, though they often skip the chapter called "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" (>>> Music), which is a typical Edwardian paean to Pan; while at the same time it is potent for adult readers because of its nostalgia, because it is so alluring as a depiction of Arcadia, and (perhaps) because it is so sophisticated in its creation of a non-moral Secondary World – hence (perhaps) J R R Tolkien's high-minded disregard for the book.
Despite its overt parallels to Homer's Odyssey, the text is not seemingly well constructed, as the main tale it contains – how Toad's obsession with motorcars leads him into imprisonment, from which he escapes into the Wild Woods and with the help of his Companions regains Toad Hall from Untermenschen stoats – begins only partway through, is interrupted more than once, and stars, in Toad, a Talking Animal who could easily have been the Villain. But these failures of construction matter little in the event; and can be seen as contributing to the strange mix of the arbitrary and the deeply reassuring that so marks the book. The Wind in the Willows is an Animal Fantasy, but many of its animals are merely dumb, and some are eaten for breakfast by Mole, Rat or Badger. Time and space fluctuate in a manner almost akin to the shifts of perspective endemic to Wonderlands, where absurdist rules govern "Reality": the prison Toad enters is medieval, as are his jailors, while the roads he travels are 20th-century; the protagonists are variously the size of a rat or a mole, or of human bulk; the region in which they live either has no boundaries, or is a suburb of London, but is certainly never a Polder because it fluctuates too severely; almost every character in the book is fixed into role, but nameless.
In the end the texture of this complex and undulant world seems sustained by its creator's longing to believe that something like an upstream prelapsarian Thames Valley, where The Wind in the Willows is clearly set, is attainable, if only by a stretch of imagination. What remains altogether remarkable about the tale is how, while it turns its back on the outside and the future, it prefigures both throughout. [JC]
other works: First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows (1944) presented by Elspeth Grahame; Paths to the River Bank (coll 1983) ed Peter Haining.
further reading: Kenneth Grahame: A Biography (1959; cut rev vt Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame 1982) by Peter Green; Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood (1994) by Alison Prince; The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia (1994) by Peter Hunt.