Psychology Books: Toad gets ratty

Counselling For Toads: A Psychological Adventure by Robert de Board, Routledge pounds 7.99

Paul Sussman
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:28

I Always thought that if any character from The Wind in the Willows needed counselling it was Mole. All that subservient paw-wringing; all those plaintive Oh my oh mys - a case of repressed Id if ever there was one. For this engaging pastiche of Kenneth Grahame's riverbank classic, however, Robert de Board chooses instead to put Mr Toad on the couch, using the latter's tribulations as the basis for a beginner's guide to the world of transactional psychoanalysis. The result manages to be not only instructive and, at times, extremely amusing, but also to remain remarkably faithful to the cheery, bucolic spirit of the original.

Time has moved on and Mr Toad is depressed. He's not sleeping well, Toad Hall is in a shambles and he hasn't changed his underwear for weeks. Ratty, Mole and Badger, sensing that their friend's appearance "represented a serious internal change in his spirits" and fearful that "he might do something silly", decide he must go into counselling, and duly dispatch him for a course of treatment with resident Riverbank shrink, Mr Heron.

What follows is a series of ten sessions in which the psyche of literature's most wayward amphibian is laid bare. Guided by his big-beaked counsellor, and dissolving into frequent fits of tears, Toad confronts and explores his various Ego States, meeting his rebellious child, learning about emotional transference and grappling with Pavlovian theories of conditioned reflexes.

"Understanding your childhood is the key to understanding yourself," says Heron, and the book's central concern is to show how Toad's past has made him what he is today (ie a boastful, manic depressive, emotionally retarded car-thief). Grahame himself says next to nothing about Toad's tadpole years, and de Board duly sets about filling us in on his hero's unhappy early life. We meet his domineering father, his brow-beaten mother, and a selection of other, decidedly unpastoral characters, including an aged uncle who "gave Toad a sovereign and squeezed his thigh in a very horrid way". By confronting his past Toad is able to transcend it, in the process becoming not merely a more balanced member of the community, but also a decidedly less colourful one.

The author's handling of the subject does occasionally veer towards the glib, and his determination to get a point across at times undermines his efforts to remain true to Grahame's characters. Can the Toad who describes how "the force of my anger met the apparently invincible power of my parents" really be the same as he of "Poop-Poop" fame? These, however, are minor blemishes in an otherwise extremely enjoyable book. As Benjamin Hoff did with The Tao of Pooh, de Board has taken a simple narrative archetype and used it as a vehicle for explaining and popularising complex ideas. If Toad's recovery is swifter and less traumatic than that enjoyed by most people in psychoanalysis - I've been doing it for three years with still no end in sight - the description of the processes involved is none the less valid for that. What next, one wonders? Swallows and Jungians? The Lion, The Witch and the Regression Hypnotherapist?

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