My hero: Mr Badger by Patrick Barkham

The welcome arrival of Kenneth Grahame's Mr Badger marked a turning point in human relations with the brave and elusive creature

In 1908, Mole caught sight of Badger peering from a hedge. Badger trotted forward, grunted, "H'm! Company," and disappeared again. "Simply hates society!" explained the Water Rat. With that beautifully accurate cameo, Mr Badger stepped on to the pages of The Wind in the Willows – Will Tuckett's adaptation of which is at London's Duchess theatre this Christmas – and transformed our perception of Britain's largest carnivorous mammal.

It is easy for us to forget the radical nature of Kenneth Grahame's curmudgeonly character. Until that moment, the badger was misunderstood, vilified and feared, for centuries it had been treated as vermin and "baited" with dogs. Worse, the Edwardian era marked the zenith of the dictatorship of the gamekeeper: protecting their estates, this army of men snared the badger into oblivion.

Enter Mr Badger. The moral core of Grahame's book, he is a dynamic, upstanding father figure with a warm, welcoming sett – a sanctuary from the Wild Wood – who fearlessly leads the small animals into battle with the stoats and weasels.

Literary critics have pondered Mr Badger's human counterpart, and often conclude he is the idealised father Grahame wished he had – or could have been. But Mr Badger is magical because he is also a note-perfect badger, utterly true to the spirit of the species in his elusiveness, bravery and tidy homemaking.

This is why Beatrix Potter's Tommy Brock, a completely contrasting portrayal of a badger, gained little cultural traction in subsequent decades. Created four years after Mr Badger, Tommy Brock was a duplicitous, bunny-stealing creature who outsmarts a fox. It simply didn't ring true. Even the most ardent badger-lover admits that real badgers are not the brightest of animals.

So Mr Badger became the template for subsequent generations of fictional badgers – Trufflehunter, Bill Badger, Policeman Badger, Detective Inspector LeBrock. It is hard to find an evil badger in our culture. Mr Badger's arrival marked a turning point in human relations with the badger, starting a love affair that has endured for more than a century.

Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham is published by Granta.


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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