“The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half a much
As intelligent Mr. Toad!”
A human being can be at home in the world just as he can feel a sense of comfort and belonging in his own household, or a person can feel like a stranger in the universe and have a sense of alienation, a feeling of being “lost in the cosmos” to use Walker Percy’s phrase. To be at home in the world one needs a center, a home and a family, friends and social occasions with the cheer of hospitality symbolized by the fireplace that fills the heart and the atmosphere with warmth. Without this center, without proximity to the the hearth, a person loses his sense of belonging and meanders into strange places that do not affirm his humanity or inspire a love of life.
In The Wind in the Willows three famous places—the River, the Open Road, and the Wild Wood—depict three ways of life: a centered life rooted in the permanent things, an aimless life with no sense of permanence or stability, and a lonely life filled with cold, impersonal beings. To live on the River with Rat brings one into contact with the center of a human life: the happiness of a home, a rhythmic life in tune with Nature’s laws, abiding relationships infused with friendship and charity, and the savor of the quintessentially human pleasures. To travel on the Open Road like Toad leads to the sensation of travel, the acceleration of constant motion, and the pursuit of endless novelty. In Toad’s words, “here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow! Travel change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!” To wander into the Wild Wood evokes a sense of alienation in an inhuman world that provides no sense of belonging or security: “There seemed to be no end to this wood, and no beginning, and no difference in it, and, worst of all, no way out.”
One can live at the center of life and experience a sense of the human, the civilized, the normal, and the natural as Rat and Mole do in the first chapter of the book as they revel in a beautiful spring day on the river marveling at the beauty of the sunlight touching the water, delighting in the fun of rowing on the river, savoring a delicious picnic luncheon outdoors, and relishing the pleasure of conversation and listening to stories in the comfort of the home by the fireplace. At the center of the river is Rat’s home and at the heart of the home is the fire, symbol of the warmth of the human. This life is plain and homespun, offering the exquisite pleasure of the simple joys found in friendship, hospitality, and mirth. Life on the River follows the laws of the seasons and proceeds at a leisurely pace that savors each experience deeply and discovers great peace and contentment. To live life at the center leads not only to joy and peace but also to civilization, the art of living well that always revels in the abundance of life’s sweetest pleasures. As Rat expresses his love of the simple life on the River, “It’s my world, and I don’t want any other . . . . Whether in winter or summer, spring or autumn, it’s always got its fun and its excitements.”
Without this center as the source of stability and permanence, a person wanders as Toad does on the Open Road, a journey with no destination. This way of life depends on constant mobility, new stimulation, and momentary thrills: boats, canary carts, and cars—faster and faster locomotion to more remote regions at a frantic pace that makes all the pleasures fleeting and breeds restlessness. Toad does not live his life at the center but on the margins, a fragmented life that breeds trouble and dissatisfaction. The Open Road does not allow for a rhythmic life in tune with Nature’s laws—work and rest, activity and leisure, domestic life and social life—but the unbalanced excess of more travel and greater speed. The upshot is not deep contentment but superficial sensations and emotional exhaustion.
There is a line that separates the human, civilized, normal world of the River from the hostile, inhuman, barbaric realm of the Wild Wood where Mole strays out of curiosity. This boundary separates the human and the impersonal as Mole discovers when he loses himself in the woods where all paths look the same and where the stouts, rabbits, and weasels stare with cold indifference. Mole struggles with the night and the cold in a strange, unwelcoming world that lacks every human touch from friendliness and kindness to compassion and charity. Terrified and lonely, Mole only notices “glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.” He has meandered into a hardhearted world.
As Toad and Mole stray from the center of life and wander from the heart of the home in the pursuit of excitement or out of sense of idle curiosity, their journeys amount to mere escapades that lack the wonder of discovery Rat finds on the River, the place he calls “my world” because it abounds in the true adventures and surprises that inspire his poetry. There is no poetry of the Open Road and no poetry of the Wild Wood because these experiences do not reach the heart, touch the soul, or open the mind because they do not lead to the heart of reality– goodness, beauty, or truth that moves the mind to contemplation–beholding “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (the most famous chapter in the novel) and hearing the mystery of “the wind in the willows” that only those who live a leisurely, peaceful, human life close to the home and hearth discover. The dominion of the world is indeed a domestic home for those who live close to the hearth where merry fireplaces glow with the fire of charity that warms the heart and fills the world with sunshine.