Watership Down (2009)

This is a piece on Richard Adam’s Watership Down, first published in Time Trap in Death Ray #19, 2009.

This tale of fluffy bunnies owes far more to Virgil’s Aeneid than to Beatrix Potter, and is a cornerstone of animal fantasy, argues Guy Haley.

Animal fantasy is a tricky beast. The anthropomorphised animal inhabits a funny little world at the end of the genre branchline, its stations lie on a different route entirely to SF, and at least three stops past fantasy. From a certain point of view, a speaking rat might appear to be firmly in Death Ray‘s stadium of odd little dreams, from the other, maybe not. It’s not the medium in this case, but the message – the stories told by the chatty animals are often a slight things, moralising in the ‘be good to your chums’ mode, aimed at children.

Perhaps that it’s to cover in depth every talking animal, we would fill up the magazine with Mr Toads. It seems safer to exclude them all. So, nearly all of it is fits into our loose genre definition, but we don’t cover it because it is too numerous and ephemeral to said genre. Sounds about right.

But that would be very foolish, and tantamount to the anti-SF snobbery you still see occasionally from mainstream critics. One must never let expediency get in the way of art, let alone preconceptions.

Because a lot of ‘animal fantasy’ is obviously of significant artistic importance. The political allegory of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for example; we’d be stupid to ignore that. Or for different reasons, the heavily SF tinged Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien.

Perhaps the greatest animal fantasy is Watership Down, published in 1972 by the author Richard Adams. It’s a story of rabbits, but a far cry from the world of Beatrix Potter; an epic quest where a bunch of rabbits flee their warren after the dire visions of a sickly runt named Fiver predict that their home is doomed to be destroyed. After a terrible journey, the rabbits discover a new place for themselves, only to realise they have no females. A request for does from the nearby warren of Efrafa then leads to a bitter war for survival.

The defining characteristic of Adams’ book is that the animals exhibit natural behaviours. A defining aspect of true anthropomorphism is the ad hoc adaptation of human traits and customs by the animals in question.Beatrix Potter’s is a muddled world where rabbits can wear coats, run shops yet still be eaten by people. So is Disney’s, where both Pluto and Goofy can be dogs, yet only one wears a hat. Adams’ rabbits, by contrast, live a hard life in holes in the ground, just like the real thing. We’re treated to some fascinating and accurate insights into the life of lagomorphs. In the book they do, however, have culture and language, and this is the second thing that makes Watership Down a book of great note.

Adams’ ‘Lapine’ culture is rooted firmly in the existence of the rabbit, it is not jury-rigged from human habit. They use no tools other those that nature gave them. They worship the sun, who they call Lord Frith. Rabbits are not very high up the food chain, so their folk hero is the crafty Prince El-ahrairah, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies. This rabbit culture in no way contradicts reality as we know it – unlike those found in earlier animal tales, and even in stories by the imitators of Adams’ naturalistic style, like the Duncton books by William Horwood, whose moles can write. The rabbits leave no trace that they may have richer lives than we suspect. There’s no dissonance with reality as we see it. It makes sense. (Compare O’Brien’s NIMH rats – they can talk because they have been experimented on, but then so can all the other animals anyway). Access to the rabbits’ dialogues and internal monologues reveal they are mostly concerned with eating, sleeping, mating and avoiding being devoured. In fact, it is precisely this depiction by Adams of the recognisably animal existences of the rabbits that makes the actions of their otherwise unremarkable leader, Hazel all the more heroic.

The third and final thing that marks Watership Down out is that adheres to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Applying this theory to his story worked just as well for Adams as it did for George Lucas. Throughout there are echoes of great tales –  Fiver is Cassandra predicting the Fall of Troy. They must avoid a Land of the Lotus Eaters false idyll. Watership Down is the home gained only after a perilous journey. It is, in effect, a version the Aeneid, Vergil’s epic of the founding of Rome by exiled Trojans, or The Odyssey, Homer’s poem about Trojan War hero Odysseus’s journey home.

Watership Down bears close resemblance to the quests of old. Like the Argonauts, Odysseus’s crew, or the Aeneads, Hazel’s band all have different abilities and personalities that aid the whole band. Bigwig the warrior rabbit is a kind of cotton-tailed Hercules, swift running Blackberry is a mix of Hermes and Homer. The book is so aware of this it is interspersed with rabbit ‘tales of the gods’, and even finishes with a scene that touches on the establishment of myth itself, where the elderly Hazel listens to stories of his own exploits told as legends of the Great Rabbit Prince.

And if you don’t like that, try this: It’s Battlestar Galactica with buck teeth.

Watership Down has not been without its critics. Halfway through writing the book’s first draft, Adams discovered Robert Lockley’s book, the Private Life of the Rabbit. This accounts for much of the accurate depiction of the animals in the story, which we’ve already praised. But there is one notable exception to its veracity– real rabbit society is matriarchal, new warrens are established by does, and the tunnels dug by them. They have no kings. That Hazel’s company contains no female rabbits, and, furthermore, that they see the does they so aggressively try to secure as simple breeding stock, was criticised both as inaccurate (by rabbit experts) and as anti-feminist (um, by feminists), leading one critic to describe the small band’s battle with the rival warren of Efrafa as “The Rape of the Sabine Rabbits”. But this is probably thoughtless rather than calculated, if male camaraderie under pressure is at the heart of Watership Down, then that’s only because Adams was drawing on older stories, and his own wartime experiences. Adams insists he intended no allegory or political standpoint, that he “simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls.” He later revised the book to acknowledge the important role does play in actual rabbit life, but at heart it remained a male-dominated quest, one that, partly by design, resonates with the great myths of the past. And in the end, that does not make it a less powerful work.

The Man Behind the Rabbit

The life and other works of Richard Adams, chronicler of all things lagomorphic.

Richard Adams was born in Newbury, Berkshire in 1920. His education at Oxford was interrupted by World War II. He joined up soon after Britain declared war on Germany, seeing action at Arnhem in Holland. After the war, he continued his studies, gaining a BA in 1948 in Modern History, whereupon he took up a career in the civil service (he continued studying however, and received an MA in 1953), eventually reaching a senior position in the Ministry of Agriculture. Unremarkable childhood, distinguished war service, a fine career – a good show for a man of his era, but Adams’ life has certainly been one of two halves.

Adams made an unlikely author. He invented the story of Watership Down to please his two daughters, and it was only at their urging that he committed it to paper. It took him two years to write. His ignorance of the established norms of juvenile writing meant it was rejected by numerous agents and then publishers, being released eventually by Rex Collings, who liked it precisely because it was so different. By then, Adams was already 52. However, the book was phenomenally successful, winning him a Carnegie Medal and making Adams financially independent. His previous life was over. After the publication of his second book, Shardik in 1974, he began a new life as a best-selling author.

Adams has an interest in ecology and philanthropy, but he’s not the retiring type such concerns might suggest – he’s an outgoing, forthright man. There’s a pure anger in his books, while the moral imperatives of his stories also include an old-fashioned masculine breed of honour and an outrage at the way man treats all other animals. The chap has the heart of a warrior.

None of Adam’s later works received quite the acclaim of his earlier efforts, and Adams has been baffled by the hostility levelled at his post-Watership stories. (Adams returned to the world of Watership Down – an actual hill, not far from where he grew up, or from where he now lives – in 1996 with Tales from Watership Down). They have, however, remained popular with his readership. They’ve been a diverse bunch. Shardik is a very different kind of story to Watership Down, set in a full-fledged fantasy land. Although it does feature an animal, it is not the focus of the story but its driver, with the events it instigates readable as either consequences of the actions of a rampaging wild beast or divine intervention. A further book in this milieu, Maia (1984), is quite erotic, as is the contemporary ghost story The Girl in the Swing. Plague Dogs (1977), though sharing certain themes and an animal-centred viewpoint as Watership Down, is Adams’ counterblast against animal experimentation. Traveller (1988) rails against war, as shown through the eyes of Robert E. Lee’s favourite horse. The Outlandish Knight (1999) uses music to bridge generations. There are many more, and he’s still writing, even as he fast approaches 89 years of age. [NB, he’s now in his mid-nineties].


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