CHORUS: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
CASSANDRA: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.
CHORUS: How so? ‘Tis but the odour of the altar sacrifice.
CASSANDRA: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.
- Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, as quoted in Watership Down
I couldn’t find my copy of Watership Down, so I bought a new one. Mysteriously, it’s twice the size of my old one and it’s not in big print – we must all have had great eyes in the olden days. The point, though, is where I found this copy in the bookshop: on the shelves labelled “Ages 9-12”.
Well, when a book is marketed for 9-year-olds and begins with a quote about death and dripping blood, out of a Greek tragedy, it’s fair to say that we’re in odd territory; and it’s hard to know exactly how to evaluate it. Perhaps the distinction between books for children and books for adults has simply grown over the years: a book must be one thing or the other. Watership Down, however, is a kid’s book with Aeschylus quotations. It has genocide, bloodshed, people ripped apart, and women reabsorbing their own foetuses as a result of the depression induced in them by systematic rape and then singing songs about it. It’s a book that has a reputation for giving children lasting nightmares, for scarring them for life (and the film adaptation is still spoken of with awe and horror).
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a book for children. The thing is, most children’s books today essentially set out to teach children to be… well, children. Doing children things, acting and feeling and speaking childishly. Watership Down comes from an older tradition – a tradition in which the purpose of a book for children is to teach children how to be adults.
It’s a book that feels out of place in time; not only because of the 45 years since its publication, but also because its roots and kindred seem much older even than that. Perhaps it would be fair to say that Watership Down was one of the last major representatives of a particular school of English fantasy writing that marries satirical criticism of modernity with earnest romanticism, colloquial mundanity with high heroism, symbolism with sound storytelling, appeals to tradition with tolerant liberalism (a liberalism founded less in relativism than in largesse), tragedy with wit, and throughout it all a strong vein of love for the English countryside. It’s a tradition that encompasses at one end G.K. Chesterton, and, at the other, J.R.R. Tolkien; but the closest analogue I know of to Watership Down is T.H. White’s classic Arthurian cycle, The Once and Future King (though Adams’ work is rather less prone to flippancy). It is perhaps not a coincidence that, just as Tolkien’s work grew from the child-oriented The Hobbit into the more adult The Lord of the Rings, and White’s tetralogy encompasses both the child-oriented The Sword and the Stone and the tragic The Ill-Made Knight, Adams’ epic spans the ages, darkening considerably as it goes on.
In some ways – though hard to pin down – Watership Down feels as though it ought to have been written in the 1920’s or 1930’s. If Tolkien (along with C.S. Lewis) was providing a capstone to the era in the 1950’s, Adams’ entry into the genre in the 1970’s seems positively belated – an epilogue, perhaps, or an encore. But there may be a very simple reason for this: none of this was meant to happen.
Watership Down, you see, was not a novel written by a novelist. It was a tale to pass the time, told by a father, a minor civil servant, to his children on a series of long car journeys. Perhaps it’s no surprise that such a man, casting about for a story to tell, might have put his mind into the mindset of the era of his own childhood. He had no thought of the general audience, because he had no thought of publishing – he had dabbled in writing a little fiction in his spare time, but this was purely a story for his family. His family, however, thought otherwise, and insisted that he write it all up properly and send it off to a professional publisher.
If he’d written it to be published, he should have written something else, something much more up to date. That at least seems to have been the view of the publishing industry, who rejected the manuscript repeatedly. The publishers and agents were, of course, completely wrong. When finally published, Watership Down instantly became an overwhelming international publishing sensation, and critically adored for good measure. Adams quit his job to become an author, but never again struck gold – though some of his works, such as his second novel, the idiosyncratic epic fantasy (and exploration of religion) Shardik, or his fifth novel, The Plague Dogs, did manage to accrue some small cult following.
Perhaps because of this private, uncalculated origin, there’s something very personal and authentic about Watership Down. And there’s also something peculiar: who else would have combined a rambling polemic against modernity with a heroic epic? About rabbits? Watership Down follows the journey of a small band of rabbits, alerted by prophecy that their warren is about to be destroyed, as they find their way to and colonise a chalk upland in England, and then meet their new neighbours.
The political dimension of the book is evident and hardly original, though it is generally well-judged and delicate – it’s much less prone to the overt, patronising lecture than, say, The Once and Future King. Its here that the book feels most of the interwar period, as Adams scathingly attacks, in the form of two different warrens encountered by the travellers, two conflicting visions for life in the 1930’s, seemingly opposite yet underlyingly, thinks Adams, the same: the weakness and softness of a Bloomsburyesque sophisticated, decadent aestheticism (think of G.E.Moore’s contention that the purpose of life was to spend time in art galleries, the purpose of society was to make art galleries feasible, and the terrible evil inherent in murder was that in a society where murder was rampant and a threat to all, it would not be possible to enjoy one’s art galleries in an entirely serene state of mind*), and the apparent strength and brutality of a militaristic, totalitarian society (most easily compared to the Nazis, though any sufficiently powerful state society would fit the role).
Adams’ line of attack in both cases is essentially Nietzschean, scorning weakness, fear, and safety in favour of the red and dripping struggle of Nature. In the case of the fortunate Bloomsburyites, the absence of threat, of fear, of hunger and scarcity, has created a society of very healthy, very well-fed rabbits, who have grown soft and complacent and artistic and complicated, and whose inescapable existential dread has turned inward into a sort of societal depression, an anomie, over which the poets sigh:
The wind is blowing, blowing over the grass.
It shakes the willow catkins; the leaves shine silver.
Where are you going, wind? Far, far away
over the hills, over the edge of the world.
Take me with you, wind, high over the sky.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-wind,
Into the sky, the feathery sky and the rabbit.
The stream is running, running over the gravel,
Through the brooklime, the kingcups, the blue and gold of spring.
Where are you going, stream? Far, far away
Beyond the heather, sliding away all night.
Take me with you, stream, away in the starlight.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-stream,
Down through the water, the green water and the rabbit.
In autumn the leaves come blowing, yellow and brown.
They rustle in the ditches, they tug and hang on the hedge.
Where are you going, leaves? Far, far away
Into the earth we go, with the rain and the berries.
Take me, leaves, O take me on your dark journey.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-leaves,
In the deep places of the earth, the earth and the rabbit.
Frith lies in the evening sky. The clouds are red about him.
I am here, Lord Frith, I am running through the long grass.
O take me with you, dropping behind the woods,
Far away into the heart of light, the silence.
For I am ready to give you my breath, my life,
The shining circle of the sun, the sun and the rabbit.
Compared to this, the totalitarian society that dominates the second half of the novel, Efrafa, might seem the complete opposite. In Efrafa there is certainly no time for poetry. But Efrafa, in Adams’ view, is only the flip side of the coin: the same addiction to safety and comfort that makes Silverweed’s people so apathetic makes Efrafa a hive of anxiety. Without security, without serenity, Efrafa has been constructed to obtain it at any cost. Decadent democracy and repressive dictatorship are therefore two aspects of the same phenomenon, divided only by the condition of whether safety has yet been attained.
It is, as I say, a very Nietzschean perspective; it’s also, of course, a perspective not alien to certain strains of Christianity. On that note, it is worth mentioning the powerful use of religious themes throughout the book, albeit of a vague and non-doctrinal sort (the rabbits’ belief in the great god Frith appears monotheistic, but the cryptic, prophetic visions that afflict some characters feel more like something from a pagan saga). Even some of the iconography appears religious in origin – certain scenes near the end of the book strongly conjure up memories of particular tableaux in Western religious art, for example. Religion is never at the forefront of the book – none but the most rabid atheist could take much serious offence to any of it – but it is always present, providing depth and resonance. [This is a property of many older works that, even as a non-believer, I often feel the lack of in many modern fantasies; Terry Pratchett, despite being a forthright atheist, is a notable exception]
One reason why Watership Down feels so mature, however, is that despite the political and philosophical content, and the clear sense that Adams knows what he thinks about these issues, there is an admirable (to me, at least) humility and recognition of complexity in his handling of these matters. Adams does not simply identify something ‘problematic’ and condemn it. He identifies it as problematic, and then makes it as attractive as he can. The most intelligent, most human, and probably most sympathetic of Our Heroes, the prophetic runt Fiver, is the rabbit most strongly attracted to (and repulsed by) the seductions of aesthetic nihilism. In fact, it’s more than that: he recognises that this perspective is true.
“That’s the worst part of it. There isn’t any trick. He speaks the truth. So long as he speaks the truth, it can’t be folly – that’s what you were going to say, isn’t it?… A thing can be true and still be desparate folly, Hazel.”
It seems peculiar in our own more intellectually puritanical era to concede even the strength of an opposing, problematic perspective, let alone to suggest that other perspectives may have their own validity, even if not their own wisdom. It gives the novel a rather confused feeling, in a good way: the characters, the author, the readers, are adrift in a complicated world that surpasses understanding, in which nobody possesses certainty. This complexity is at the heart of the novel; indeed, in later years Adams suggested that his greatest mistake in writing the book was in not making his archvillain, the fascistic General Woundwort, into more of a tragic hero; certainly he lays more than enough groundwork for such a heroic spin. It’s a striking commitment to pluralism to want to have even your totalitarians be heroic. It’s also strikingly optimistic about human nature. Indeed, looking back on the book, it is almost entirely devoid of evil. Bad things happen – but they are mostly due to ignorance (sometimes willfull, as in the actions of humans that disregard the lives of rabbits), and fear, and good heroic motives. The worst that most characters can be charged with is a degree of ambition. Adams never comes out and preaches to the reader about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, or about everybody having goodness somewhere in their hearts, but the ideology is nonetheless plain.
It also works in reverse, which is one place where some, less patient modern readers may take umbrage. Yes, the villains are not truly evil, though they are no less villainous for that – indeed, Woundwort in all his near-understandable error is a phenomenal villain. He is tremendously physically strong, but also unfailingly brave, intelligent, hardworking and dedicated and never afraid of demanding of himself what he demands from others, able to recognise, respect and encourage the talents of others… he is the rare villain who actually persuades the reader not only that his actions make sense, but that the loyalty toward him of those around him also makes sense, and in a way that is the scariest thing of all about it. Adams does not allow the comforting trope that all villains, no matter how strong on the surface, are inwardly weak, cowardly, broken, inadequate – his villains are every bit a match for his heroes. As I write this, indeed, I can’t help but think: the reader may at first assume that Adams intends to write his villain as Hitler, or as Mussolini, but by the end I’m not sure Woundwort doesn’t remind me rather more of Winston Churchill…
So yes, the villains aren’t truly evil, but at the same time the protagonists are far from truly good. Part of this is that the protagonists are rabbits. This is not a simple anthropomorphised tale: these aren’t people who look like rabbits. They are, of course, more like people than they are like real rabbits, but Adams is able to give a good sense of the essential otherness of his characters, their oddities, their strengths, and their limitations. One part of that difference is their moral system, which reflects their greater… simplicity. He says at one point, for instance, that rabbits do not scruple to use force against one another – there is a somewhat bullying quality to all of them, which the reader does not exactly forgive, but rather must accept. These are not humans, Adams insists; they cannot be expected to have sophisticated codes of civil liberties, or to resolve all disputes through socratic dialogue.
But beyond that, his characters just aren’t… heroes. They can’t be, because they’re all different. There is a real, fundamental diversity here: Adams’ rabbits aren’t just different physically or in temperament, they are different in nature, and not because some are inferior to others. This is seen most strongly in the contrast between two of the main characters, the runt Fiver and the hulking Bigwig. It is hard to imagine the two ever having a prolonged conversation, and not only because they are rabbits. Everything about them is different. Fiver lives in a world of prophecy, but also of sentiment, poetry, ideology – he is, in a way, an intellectual, who sees a transcendent dimension in things. Bigwig is a great dumb bully. He’s not exactly stupid, and he’s not exactly nasty, but he’s simple, straightforward, practical, and he’s violent. When Fiver talks about the attractions and dangers of nihilism, and whether truth can ever be folly, Bigwig neither understands nor cares. Likewise, other characters also have their own roles: Hazel is the natural leader and often the voice of empathy and moral sense; Blackberry is the practical intellectual, who can understand concepts too complex for other rabbits, and so on. There’s an echo here, a much softer and more rounded echo, of the old Victorian concept of society, in which diversity (within limits) was to be welcomed as all people had their own individual, predetermined parts to play in a functioning society. Societies need Fivers to anchor them to the transcendent; societies need Blackberries to open up possibilities; societies need Hazels to make the hard decisions; and societies need Bigwigs to lift things and hit people.
But whereas other authors might make their own bias clear – whether siding with their fellow intellectuals or else yearning for the simplicity of their more muscular compatriots – Adams is scrupulously neutral. Nobody here is perfect. But everybody has value. Bigwig is not just the big dumb block. He’s smart (within his arena), he’s resourceful, he has good instincts much of the time, he’s compassionate, he has a degree of empathy surprising in a character of this kind, and an unexpected sliver of yearning, and he has the traditional masculine, military virtues of courage and fortitude and honour and so on. We are never meant to believe that Bigwig is always “right”; we are not even always meant to believe that he’s an unproblematic “good guy”. He’d probably have had a lot of sympathy for Donald Trump at first (the nationalism and the non-nonsense non-PCness and the masculinity), though he’d never have tolerated Trump’s treatment of women, and he might had had second thoughts about his attitudes toward minorities if he actually met any minorities in person. The differences in nature between someone like Bigwig and someone like Woundwort aren’t all that big, and most of them are about Woundwort having more admirable qualities than Bigwig. The fact that Bigwig has ended up a ‘hero’ and Woundwort is a ‘villain’ is probably more to do with good and bad luck, and in particular with good and bad company, than with any inherent superiority in Bigwig. But while he’s no role model in many ways, he is also held up as admirable, as a, in some sense, good guy. In some ways, indeed, he’s the closest thing the book has to a conventional hero.
That’s the point: Bigwig and Fiver are profoundly different in how they act, and in what they value in the world, to an extent that seems almost incompatible, and yet both are seen as good. Perhaps it’s a particular attitude toward society that Adams has: Fiver and Bigwig are both good because they have each other. They balance each other; they need each other. Rather than it being a matter of Fiver educating Bigwig to cure him of his problematic elements and make them both the same – or indeed of Bigwig giving Fiver a cuff round the head to make him see things the way Bigwig sees them – both can respect each other, see their contradictory impulses as strengthening their group in the movement to a common goal. The reason why neither of them is Woundwort is that, unlike Woundwort, they are able to admit that they need each other.
I suppose I’m going about things backward. Aren’t we meant to start with the plot and such like and only then move onto the themes? Perhaps I’ve ended up going backwards because it seems to make more sense in a way: the themes are his intentions; the rest is just the execution.
When it comes to the execution, Adams has a few problems. Perhaps as a result of the book’s origin as an oral tale, it is somewhat rambling: divided into four sections, the book is particularly limp in its second section, lacking either action or a clear sense of direction. Fortunately, this picks up considerable toward the end of the novel, as we enter more challenging and dramatic waters. It isn’t helped, however, by the author’s prose style, which, when not turned to action, tends to the ruminatory and the deliberate. There are long, long passages of evocative, poetic description, powerful (and sometimes memorable) in their own right but collectively something of a weight on the narrative – look, something’s about to happen, honestly, but we’ll just have a couple more paragraphs talking about sunlight and topography first, OK? This isn’t helped either by the dialogue, which I suspect was never particularly vibrant and now is dulled by age, with the rabbits speaking like… well, caricatures of English people in the 1930s. I can’t remember specifically if he uses the words “bally” and “blighter”, but if he did it wouldn’t have been out of place. It doesn’t exactly have the stamp of immediacy, particularly for younger readers of today, I would imagine. And yet in some ways it’s the dialogue – or what it shows – that does most to mark this as a book for children. There is relatively little emotional depth or complexity, or unpleasantness in conversation, a certain cartoonish quality… even while the distancing effect of this being a story about rabbits allows Adams to raise some of the actual events to a horrific level of unpleasantness (it reminded me of how Maus approaches the holocaust by giving its Jews the faces of mice).
Another… issue… with the writing is a familiar complaint against fantasy novels: worldbuilding, infodumping, and excessive use of made-up words. Except, I’m not talking about Adams’ creation of a rabbit culture, or his surreptitious insertions of the Lapine language he invented. No, that’s all handled with great deftness, to the point where it all seems natural and you forget that El-Ahrairah didn’t exist and ‘silflay’ is not an English word. In that respect he’s a model for aspiring fantasy writers. No, the problematic fantasy world in question… is England. And the made-up language with its funny-sounding words is… English. Adams’ rabbits live in England, down among the flowers, and they are in contact with England – with English nature, English flora and fauna, English seasons, English landscape – in a way that few if any English humans still are. As they move through this (and unlike humans rabbits realy do move through, rather than over), as it were, lost (to us) world, there is something of a feeling of awe provoked, of wonder, and a little confusion. And we are deluged, inundated, overwhelmed, with vocabulary – not only does Adams have a large ‘ordinary’ vocabulary, but he has an immense technical vocabulary of probably a hundred or more names for common English landscape plants, as he gives us running descriptions and analogies based on an awareness of botany that most of us simply no longer possess. Some readers are likely to find this confusing, irritating, perhaps even supercilious – are we really expected to know what hemp agrimony is? [It’s a herbacious plant of the daisy family, also known as ‘holy rope’; found in moist, low-lying areas, it overwinters as a hemicryptophyte but between July and September bears striking mauve racemes.] Others may find it inspiring, or at least evocative.
Speaking of worldbuilding: one unusual feature of the book is the way that the ‘present’ tale of the rabbits is periodically punctured by stories told by rabbits, either within chapters or set aside as whole chapters in their own right. My assessment, unfortunately, is much as it (almost) always is with stories-within-stories: I like the idea and they add some colour, but for the most part they’re too short and simple to be that satisfying in their own right and they largely feel like distractions from the ‘real’ story. No, don’t sit around and tell a story about your mythical culture-hero stealing the king’s lettuces, go fight the Nazis! I want to know what happens next!
There is, however, an exception here: ‘The Story of El-Ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé’ is not only one of the best chapters in the book (and would make a great short story by itself), it also manages to set the tone and imagery of what’s to come, effectively marking the transition from the relatively comfortable set-up into Shit Getting Real.
[I should clarify that, in some regards, Shit never gets Real in this book. Shit does, however, get Serious. The difference is that even when things get dark and Important, there’s always a degree of comfortableness, of distance, of kindly upper-class English voice narrating gently. It thrills and horrifies without becoming a thriller or a horror because of that insulating distance. It’s what makes this a children-growing-up novel, rather than an adult isn’t-the-world-frightening novel]
Now, before I get on to the summing-up stage, there’s one other thing I guess I need to talk about: the Problematicness. This is a novel from two inherently problematic traditions: the imperial fantasy and the boy’s-own. The imperial fantasy tradition typically undermines, satirises, even sometimes savages the imperial mindset – but it does so from within the assumptions of that worldview, which means that to the modern reader it often seems to be an example of the thing it rejects. And it launches that attack from a basis of Romanticism, which at the time was rebellious and countercultural, but these days has rather too strong a whiff of conservativism about it for many readers. The genetics of this genre can easily be seen in Watership Down, if you know where to look, although to a much lesser degree than in many representatives of the type. There is, for instance, none of the irritating, overt racism and reactionary political hectoring that can be found now and then in The Once and Future King (despite that book’s many other virtues). For those (the vast majority, I think) who don’t find the themes of the book (such as a certain lionisation of bravery and idealisation of liberty) inherently offensive, the worst part of this legacy is probably the handful of racially insensitive remarks – comments about ‘primitives’ and suchlike. To be honest, while I can see that these are indeed problematic, I don’t think the fair-minded, honest reader should find them a major problem, nor any real obstacle to letting children read the book. The remarks, which are very few, are not bigoted, but merely insensitively phrased, or at most over-simplified. He may say “primitive peoples” where today we may say “pre-state societies”, and he may speculate with too little cautious caveating about the thoughts and lives of such people – but he intends no offence, and indeed taken as written, as comments about the effect of technology, urbanisation, industrialisation and so on upon modern ways of experiencing the world, rather than as covert attacks on any particular extant minority (and so far as I can recall there is never any mention of actual race, or racial characteristics), there is nothing that in my view ought to cause genuine offence in a reader who is not seeking to be offended. I think those who review children’s books more frequently might say something like “you might want to use the opportunity to talk to your child about these issues…” (come to think of it, that’s something that could be said about a lot of Watership Down!), and that’s probably fair. There are literally one or two sentences I’d be a bit uneasy about a child reciting in sensitive mixed company, out of context – but nothing that ought to give a well-brought-up child any retrograde notions.
Slightly more irritating, but more irrationally so, is Adams’ decision to use ‘eye-dialect’, spelling out the differences in speech between the perfect Lapine of his rabbits and the thick accents of other animals they meet. This is much less popular than it was – partly because it looks silly, and partly because it’s become impolite. That’s odd in a way, if you think about it – it’s become impolite to acknowledge difference; we have to, in this regard, pretend that everyone is just like us, because it would be rude to point out how others fail to be us by, say, not pronouncing ‘h’ sometimes. That seems a little presumptuous (although of course there are other reasons why this rule has evolved). Nonetheless, it’s hard to pull off dialect spellings in the modern world without looking racist, classist, or both. In this case, it’s a little cringe-inducing that there are a couple of mice who speak in what looks like it might be a stereotype of an Italian accent. I’m not sure whether, reading this to children, you should embrace-a the accent-a, like an old Warner Brothers cartoon, or find another way to say the lines… in any case, there is again no overt racist intent or even content here, just an unfortunate appearance by modern standards.
[I don’t know what accent the character of Kehaar is meant to have. Mostly I assumed German, but at times it almost seems like something Jamaican? Probably just German and he had difficulty finding ways to show the vowels properly. Or maybe it’s just made-up…]
Regarding racism toward other species: the rabbits aren’t saints. It’s clear that rabbit culture is generally insular, and one or two of them are clearly racist, in an aloof (rather than persecutory) way. However, I think it’s important to read that in the context of the book. The smarter and more humane characters clearly align themselves with interspecies coöperation and respect, challenging the insular assumptions of their inherited culture, and the book clearly suggests that doing so is both morally admirable and good practical (and emotional) sense. [Indeed, this desire to directly challenge Little Englander isolation and praise multiculturalism and coöperation with seemingly ‘inferior’ races and nations is one reason why it feels to me like an inter-war book: at every corner it seems like you can feel the ominousshadow of Oswald Mosley hanging over it; although, of course, perhaps it really was only Enoch Powell all along]
By far the bigger problem, in my opinion, is the novel’s status as a good-old-fashioned boy’s-own adventure. It’s what gives the book a lot of its charm and a lot of its atavistic power. Unfortunately, along with the “adventure”, it’s also inherited the “boy’s-own”. Gender relations are the big Problem here.
To split it up: there are two problems, though of course they are related. The first is the depiction of females (‘females’, because, being rabbits, these are not technically ‘women’). It is clear that the rabbits of Watership Down come from a society with strong gender roles. Females – does – do the kitten-rearing, and do the heavy digging. Males – bucks – do the patrolling, the policing, the adventurous raiding, and the governing. This is, it is suggested, simply how rabbits are, and as they don’t really have the capacity for much abstract thought they’re unlikely to do much to change this. Adding to this division of labour, there’s the sex side of things, which is… straightforward. Females have their time, at which point males mate with them – having a fight to determining mating privileges if necessary. [Yes, there’s sex as well as violence in this children’s book. It’s not shown on the page, and it’s only discussed very briefly, and in clear, uncensored but untitillating terms]. There is little concept of females having any sort of choice in the matter – certainly they don’t choose whether to mate or not, but they aren’t even shown as clearly having a choice of whom to mate with. A huge part of the plot could be argued to revolve around rape conspiracy, even – the boys, having had (they think) their adventure, realise that they “need does”, because otherwise their society is doomed (they are aware that they only have lifespans of a few years…). So they need to “get” some females to breed with…
A big part of this, of course, is that they’re rabbits – either because real rabbits are like this, or Adams thought they were, or simply that that’s part of how he wants to portray rabbits, and whether all the details are true of rabbits specifically or not, it’s not inherently wrong to lead children to think that some animals in the wild aren’t perfectly modern and enlightened in all their instincts. It’s all of a piece with the simple, unreflective nature of the rabbits. Of course females breed when it’s their time to breed – that’s their instincts. Watership Down is all about, to some extent, fighting against instincts, but it’s made clear that for these rabbits to fight their instincts even temporarily, on any issue, is a major struggle for them. Certainly nobody is in a position to stand up and say “our society sucks, let’s re-organise it from the ground up!” – the whole idea of the rabbits is that they aren’t humans who can do this, but are still in some sense animalistic.
Nor should we come away from the novel thinking that Adams does not recognise the plight of his does (whether the product of nature or of his own imagination). On the subject of sex, for instance, while it is sort of assumed that consent will be forthcoming, on the grounds that they’re rabbits, and stick a healthy pleasant buck in front of a doe in heat and they’ll go at it like rabbits (not a quote from the book…), it’s not like she’s going to object to his table-manners any more than he’s going to dislike her taste in music because they’re rabbits they don’t have very complicated criteria here, the possibility that consent may not be present (in extreme cases) is made explicit. The word “rape” is never used as I recall, but the idea that does are in some societies mated with even when they’re unhappy and unwilling is made clear, and it is regarded as deeply distasteful by Our Heroes, if not with quite the outrage that rape deserves in our own society. [And it is purely a matter of what the boys think of the matter – the does don’t fight back overtly, so the emphasis is very much on how men treat women and how men react to the ways that men treat women, rather than about ways for women to fight back; depending on your priorities and context, this could be seen as either positive (putting all the responsibility on men, not letting them get away with ‘but they didn’t fight back!’) or negative (defocusing the female experience)] In general, I think that the depiction of the sexuality of does is going to be offensive if you read the does as being human women; but I’m not sure it’s inherently offensive if you read the does as being rabbits, as being more simplistic, naturalistic animals than we are. Not inherently offensive – but problematic.
Just as the idea of consent is raised as regard sex, so too there is a general awareness of female self-determination and of female wellbeing, and even female agency. When Our Heroes decide they need to “get” some does, they may largely talk about it like acquiring livestock (which actually is what it is – they need breeding stock – but is that derogatory to the females or just unromantic about their entire species? Adams’ rabbits are an unromantic and clear-headed lot in general…), but there is never any question that this “getting” will take any form other than asking some females if they want to come with them. [OK, asking their males if they don’t mind letting them leave, and THEN asking the females if they want to come with them – again, sexist, or just good diplomacy?] It is made extremely plain that does can be unhappy in some warrens to the extent of wanting to leave, and clear that Our Heroes would never behave like that. We are also told of some females wanting to leave Efrafa to the point of organising first a petition and then an attempted escape – so they’re not just sitting around waiting to be rescued. [True, this is unfortunately undermined by us then being told that it’s a male who encouraged them to do so, but I really don’t think that implication was intentional]
Regarding gender roles: it seems clear that, at least in the world of the book, gender roles are not going to be eliminated; Adams’ rabbits are too hidebound and ruled by instinct. However, again, the clear and explicit direction of the book is away from hard-and-fast rules. Bucks won’t dig holes because that’s women’s work? Buck up, bucks, and learn to adapt! Adams again tries to call into question the social rules and encourage tolerance, flexibility, and innovation, as well as mutual respect.
[It could be argued that tolerance is inherently tyrannical: you can only tolerate from a position of strength, and only by adopting a standard of deviancy to determine who is in need of toleration. To put that more concretely: perhaps Adams is only calling for a more flexible, sensible and loving society, not necessarily an equal one – a loosening of the rules rather than their abolition. Likewise, perhaps the message is not meant to be that women should be treated equally to ensure their living standards, but only that men should treat women decently enough that they don’t need an equal say politically, and that female rebellions, while justifiable in extreme cases, are only justifiable in extreme cases where the men are failing to meet their masculine duties. All of that fits with the book, perhaps better than a more enlightened interpretation does. It’s probably another reason why I got an inter-war impression from the novel. But the fact that we can interpret the novel as less than perfect in this way probably shouldn’t mean that people shouldn’t read it. Not everything has to be an unimpeachable political tract, and there surely can be room for the merely not-horribly-offensive, and a little charity in not assuming the worst motivations for writers half a century ago]
Now, that’s all one of the two woman-problems the book has. The second is simpler, and contributes significantly to the first: why on earth aren’t there more female characters?
A great deal of the exclusive boy’s-own feeling of the book comes from the fact that none of our protagonists are female. Everyone’s male, so naturally male priorities and male ways of seeing things dominate the novel. And normally, I’d leave it at that. While I’m happy to criticise an industry for not representing women enough, I’m very cautious about criticising individual works for being male-centric. Half the population is male, after all, and male stories are legitimate even today (particularly in a society that traditionally has worked hard to ensure that most interesting stories take place in largely male realms). I’m skeptical of arguments that novels should simply have had different characters in them – perhaps because I’m less creative than these critics, and find the idea of having to dispose of functioning characters or plots because they aren’t politically perfect rather horrifying. What, you think they could just have written a different book? If it were that easy, why haven’t you done it? And as for actually going in and changing the sex of a character (in film adaptations, say), I tend to find it atrocious. Making Sam into a woman makes it an entirely different book, not to mention destroying one of the most important parts of the book for young readers (the radical and disappearing notion that two heterosexual males can have such a strong bond of friendship between them).
[It also, incidentally, is absolutely the worst way to ‘improve’ that book through genderswapping. Short of making Sauron and Saruman both female, I guess. Male Sam says something about male friendship and loyalty; and, yes, something controversial about class and conservativism but we can argue about that. Female Sam, on the other hand, is just another doe-eyed slave-woman mindlessly traipsing after Her Man (who mostly ignores her), being self-sacrificing but also generally useless except as someone who can fill in temporarily in an emergency until a man becomes available. That’s not progressive. That makes the book LESS enlightened! Make Frodo a woman and Sam a man, that’s interesting (and suddenly rather mediaeval in a courtly love way). Make them both women – not as interesting thematically, but there would be some considerable value in a pair of female friends saving the world (and they almost never talk about love interests, which makes a nice, Bechdel-placating change). Make Pippin, and/or Merry women – why not? As a pair, two women getting drunk after the sack of Isengard would be a nice touch, and both Merry (in Eowyn’s crossdressing plotline) and Pippin (in the militaristic pledging-loyalty-to-monarch Gondorian plotline) are arguably in stories that become more interesting if you make them female. Or swap one but not the other, and have a cool non-sexual (though some unspoken sexual tension!) male-female friendship. In that vein, it would be a shame to lose the Gimli-Legolas bromance, but a platonic male-female friendship could work there too. Make Aragorn female – that’s too blunt to be really interesting, but it could be powerful (and you get a lesbian romance for free). Make Faramir female and Boromir male and you get some biting social commentary; make Faramir male and Boromir female and it’s less obviously progressive but it would be an interesting dynamic (if make sure not to play up the feminine weakness angle it opens up). Hell, making Eowyn or Galadriel male, or even just Arwen, would be legitimately interesting, though obviously that would be a bit unfair to female readers without swapping some men into women to compensate. There’s a lot you can mess about with in that story to interesting effect. And there’s a cost to doing so, and I’m not sure you should. Certainly I’m glad we got a major film version of that book that didn’t give us a female Merry, Frodo, Legolas, Theoden and Strider and a male Galadriel and Eowyn. Because that’s a different book, and I actually liked the one I read originally. But if you want to mess with it, there are ways to do so productively, both politically and thematically. Asking for a female Sam is neither. A female Sam isn’t a genuinely progressive move, it’s a man’s attempt to sex the book up for male readers and maybe toss the girls a patronising bone of representation for good measure.]
[…hang on. it’s possible i may have drifted just a smidgen off the topic…]
So anyway, not a big fan of “why aren’t there any girls?” questions. But… seriously, why aren’t there any girls here? Watership Down is a book that would benefit so much from having a female protagonist. It would make a lot of the ‘problematic’ issues a lot less obvious even without major changes, and could mostly deal with them with just a few more lines of dialogue from a female character (as I say, the problems are more about appearance than deepseated ideological commitments). It would also add a few new elements of enjoyment to the story – I mean, to be horribly patronising to everybody for a moment, even just for male readers, who doesn’t love a kickass tomboy tagging along for the “boy’s-own” adventure? It would also only amplify the undercurrent Adams weaves in about challenging traditions and assumptions – have the bucks be skeptical of having a doe come along, and then show how she can be an asset. And again, normally I don’t ask for books to be rewritten, but here so little rewriting would actually be required.
You couldn’t easily make half the rabbits female – that would totally wreck the plot, because the fact that they’re male does shape the narrative. [You could make them all female, but that would feel like preaching, and laziness]. But you could easily make one, maybe two of them female. Bigwig no – that would be a really big shift that would require a lot of rewriting (the results would be interesting, but quite different from the book as-is). But Fiver could so obviously be written as a female. In some respects he already is – he’s clearly intended as a more feminine counterpart to Bigwig’s masculinity. And his physical frailty would be an excellent reason why his/her presence wouldn’t remove the need for more does later on. Yes, making him female would mean you’d lose an important boys-can-be-smart-too message, and you’d be slightly reinforcing a boys-hit-things-while-girls-are-weak stereotype; but you’d gain so much in return. If you wanted to be more imaginative, you could also make a case for the storytelling Bluebell, the inventive Blackberry, or, if you wanted to really avoid the boys-strong-girls-clever message without tearing up everything Adams has written about rabbit society, you could gender-swap the athletic Dandelion, who couldn’t take Bigwig in a fight but could easily outrun him. Or you could be a bit more clever about avoiding expectations and go for a female Strawberry. Or, of course, Hazel himself could be female. It’s the sort of cosmetic change that in most books would be simultaneously too big (in terms of changing the nature of the book) and too small (in terms of not actually addressing any substantive issues in the book); but in Watership Down, I do think one small change (or, of course, addition) could make the novel much more appealing for modern audiences.
And it’s particularly frustrating because Adams wasn’t unable or unwilling to conceive of strong, female characters: even in Watership Down, there already is one! The problem is she (and her less prominent but still important group of female friends) arrives on the stage far, far too late, at a point where there’s nothing really left for her to do (and she can’t even do that, because as a latecomer it would feel like a dea ex machina stealing the show). So we just get a tantalising introduction and nothing much more, and it’s so annoying because I couldn’t help but think “if you were able and willing to write a doe like this, why didn’t you do it earlier in the book!?”
And the really baffling thing there? About the entire forgetting-that-girls-exist-until-you-need-their-wombs classic boy’s-own-adventure thing? It’s that those kids that Adams thought up this story for, who loved it so much they pushed him into publishing it, were his daughters. And yes, that’s an important reminder that, political implications in the 21st century aside, girls can really enjoy a story that has a male cast of characters (indeed, I’ve heard several women admit that they had serious childhood crushes on some of the boy-rabbits in this book). Indeed, I suspect that a lot of girls of a certain age might find it easier to enjoy an escapist, forgetting-that-girls-exist adventure novel that doesn’t mess around with love stories and male-female interactions and detailed gender expectations and gender politics and so forth*. But it’s also rather depressing because dear gods man, how do you recite a 600-page story to your pair of daughters about an entirely male cast and their quest for pliable breeding stock and not even think to include anyone both named and female and with a speaking role until you’re almost at the end!? Whether the girls liked the end-product or not, it’s kind of depressing that this story ever occured to him as the obvious story to tell to young women. I mean, I have a niece I read stories to, and for all that I defend a lot of books from it’s-latently-patriarchal complaints in the abstract, there are plenty of stories that I’d think twice about reading to her, either because she wouldn’t be interested (boys are stupid and nobody likes them**) or because they might not have the healthiest messages for an insufficiently critical reader. I find myself thinking “is it OK that this doesn’t have any girls in it?” and “that doesn’t seem to have given sufficient attention to the female perspective on that issue!” and the like. I don’t know if it says something about Adams or just about the era he was writing in, but how did he not think there might be a problem there?
[For the record, though: it’s often modern, ‘representative’ stories I really grit my teeth through. At least when there aren’t any girls in the book, you don’t have to watch them get patronised; better The Hobbit (hey, if it’s really a problem you can just tell her that Bilbo and the dwarves are all women, it doesn’t make an iota of a difference to the plot or, frankly, the characterisation) than a lot of modern girls-can-do-anything-honestly-so-long-as-they’re-feminine-enough-while-doing-it-and-let-the-man-help-them-because-basic-competancy-isn’t-female-but-manipulation-and-emotional-instability-are-and-besides-why-would-a-woman-want-to-do-anything-not-involving-ponies-and-kittens-and-dresses-but-of-course-they-could-if-they-wanted-I-suppose-because-girls-are-the-best books. For generations and generations in which women were blatently oppressed and marginalised, my family produced – and was to some degree encouraged by society to produce, because someone had to – strong, independently-minded matriarchal women*** who, while not being rebels per se, pushed strongly at the boundaries of what was permissable for women in their eras… and now women theoretically have no boundaries, and 80% of all media my niece encounters drives her to be obsessed with being a princess (and not a kickass tomboy one, a flowery dresses pining in towers for a prince to come one) and the colour pink. She’s smart enough that I think she’ll grow out of it mostly, but still… Drives her mother mad. If her great-grandmother were alive, unholy righteous fury would be unleashed upon her. But anway, tangent. Sorry, recurring bugbear there…]
*it goes both ways, of course. There was certainly an age at which I would have found it easier to enjoy an all-female novel, without the constant lecturing about masculinity and inculcation of obviously unhealthy male gender roles. To be honest, that age probably includes right now, if said book were done properly (i.e. weren’t a political stunt). And had dragons in it.
**it’s fun seeing how recently parental concern over her social life has starting shifting from “why is she so mean to all the boys? she needs to learn that boys have feelings too! why can’t she have at least a couple of boys she tolerates!?” to “wait, what, no, I didn’t mean him! that’s not the right sort of boy at all! why does she like him? ok, clearly we’ve got to teach her that boys have horrible cooties!” [ok, i’m exaggerating, but…]
***heard at a funeral: “We know that she was certainly prepared to meet her maker. But the question is: ‘is her maker prepared to meet her?’” Basically, to get a sense of the traditional female member of my family, think of Granny Weatherwax. It’s not quite accurate, but you’re in the right general area…
But anyway. In the final analysis, all these irritations are precisely that – irritations. They help to close off the book to parts of the audience who might really appreciate it otherwise, and nothing is gained in return, and that’s just bad writing. But they don’t actually harm the good things in the book. They, as it were, place an irritating veil over the core of the book, so that easily-distracted or easily-irritated or just not-easily-captivated readers may find it hard to pierce through.
But they should. Because at its worst, Watership Down is a meandering hymn of praise for the English countryside, filled (overfilled!) with beautiful and thought-provoking descriptions. At its best, in chapters like ‘The Story of El-Ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé’ and at the climax of the book, it’s a novel – an old-school romance – of real emotional depth, to an extent exceptionally rare in a book theoretically aimed at younger readers. In between, it’s a novel of considerable wisdom and gentleness, but also at times a genuinely thrilling adventure story. It’s a great book.
Is it a great children’s book? Well, that’s more debateable, but I do believe it is – on the proviso that “children’s book” is taken in a certain way. It’s a book that lots of children – probably most these days – will have no interest it; but it’s also a book that will continue to imprint itself deeply onto the souls of a minority of children for generations to come, I believe. It is a book that, as its reputation suggests, can frighten or perhaps even traumatise children; and it also uses its “we’re just talking about rabbits here” innocent smile to come a lot closer to talking about sex than than unsuspecting parents might want from a novel marketed to under-10s. Add in its regrettable failure to be more explicit in its respect for girls, and a few questionable, impolitic sentences here and there, and it’s probably a book that parents should keep an eye on – though I suspect that its greatest impact will be on those who read it furtively, privately, without adult interference. It is, in the final analysis, a book that will make children feel as though they are adults, and that will help them to become adults as a result. But the time of exposure may be critical: old enough to understand, and care, and not be traumatised, but young enough not yet to have grown cynical. [Or old enough again to have become, as adults hopefully do, cynical about cynicism]
Adrenaline: 3/5. Patches rise to 4, or even 5. On the other hand, it is pretty flabby in the middle.
Emotion: 5/5. I don’t think I physically cried this time, and to be fair there’s plenty of the novel that isn’t emotional, so I could have knocked it down a point. But those later chapters do carry a serious emotional wallop. It’s impressive, given that the characterisation is actually much more loosely-sketched than you probably remember… [wait, no, I did cry. Not during the climax, but in the epilogue, briefly. Yeah yeah, I’m sappy, I know…]
Thought: 4/5. It isn’t unfair to say that the novel never really reaches deep into philosophical topics as some adult novels do. But it has sufficient depth and breadth and urgency in its intellectualism to enthrall a curious child, and even to intrigue a jaded adult.
Beauty: 4/5. Adams’ prose tends to the longwinded and a little purple, and his imagery can become repetitive and shallow. But when it works out, it produces moments of real, memorable beauty.
Craft: 4/5. A book filled with marks of talent – but, to be crude, it could now and then, here and there, have benefited considerably, both in prose and in structure, from a less generous editor.
Endearingness: 5/5. I was uncertain for a while there in the middle, but as the final thunder broke I was reassured: yes, this is a book I love.
Originality: 4/5. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it; on the other hand, most of the elements are familiar, with Adams clearly leaning both on previous work in the genre and on a long tradition of adventure storytelling in general.
OVERALL: 6/7. VERY GOOD.
P.S. apparently there’s a new TV version being made by Netflix! John Boyega, Ben Kingsley, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Gemma Arterton, Olivia Coleman, etc. When asked whether it would traumatise children, Arterton replied: “It is the most traumatic story. It’s awful.” Now that’s marketing…
[And apparently Coleman is playing Strawberry. She has a fairly rich voice, so it’s conceivable that the character may still be male, but I’m guessing it means they’ve gender-swapped him. And frankly that makes sense. I can see why they wouldn’t want to piss off fans too much by changing Fiver or Hazel, but Strawberry makes sense and could, as I say above, actually add an interesting dynamic.]