The Cultural Gutter

the cult in your pop culture

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Watership Vortex

James Schellenberg
Posted March 22, 2012

Some books just grab a hold of you and never let go. The subject matter could be almost anything, from a big fat fantasy to, say, building a cathedral. Or rabbits! On the short list of absolute classics, Watership Down by Richard Adams, a story of rabbit life in pastoral England, takes pride of place behind few others. What makes this book tick?

My first reason for the involving nature of Watership Down is given away by my list of examples. For each of these books, The Lord of the Rings, The Pillars of the Earth, and Watership Down, the authors poured a great deal of passion into their books. Watership Down is one of the great obsessive works of the 20th century; like Tolkien, Adams worked on this for a long time before it was published (Follett’s case is a little bit different, but it was certainly a labour of love that his publishers were not expecting from him).

There’s something fascinating about a work of art that has been polished and repolished far past the limit usually imposed by commercial concerns. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a fast-paced adventure that follows a formula (which sounds derisive, but I mean it as a compliment, since this is actually difficult to do well). But obsessive works usually show a large amount of disregard for typical writing advice, and that’s sometimes enthralling in a strange way. I’ve  just re-read Watership Down, after about twenty years, and I was a little startled to find how many pages are taken up with descriptions of delicious-sounding flowers. Which of course makes sense for a book about rabbits, and it falls into line with the whole down-home English countryside thing going on.  If I had a hankering to eat flowers, Watership Down would make my mouth water on just about every page! But I don’t think that’s what would be at the top of a shortlist of content requests from publishers out to make a buck.

Secondly, Watership Down gets a lot of mileage out of the nature of its protagonist and the adventures he encounters. Our hero is a lowly rabbit named Hazel. He’s not terribly bright himself – that’s his buddy Blackberry. He’s not good at fighting off threats (either other rabbits or farmyard animals or random carnivores) – that’s his friend Bigwig. He certainly doesn’t have helpful (and terrifying) visions of the future like his brother, Fiver. Like a lot of heroes, he’s a leader but more for his knack for bringing out the best in others, attracting friends, and actually listening to them. A bit like Harry Potter.

The plot starts with a bang – Fiver has a confused vision of danger for their home burrow, and only Hazel takes him seriously (yup, there’s a sign by the road that indicates a new subdivision will be built in the area). Only Hazel and a few of his friends get away. The rest of the book, in the most simplified terms, is about their search for a new home, complete with family, a safe burrow, plentiful flowers to eat, and so on. Not surprisingly for a relatively weak animal like a rabbit, this is difficult! Lots of encounters with carnivores and humans ensue, with some fairly tense scenes along the way.

Finally, I liked the level of anthropomorphism at play in the book. I get the feeling that Adams calibrated this very carefully – the book is filled with material about rabbit biology that is eye-opening yet true. So while there’s the whole talking-animal thing and lots of human-style interaction (or at least interaction that is comprehensible to the average human reader), the rabbits have their own view of the world. There are one or two scenes with Blackberry that I liked a lot: he’s trying to figure out something in the environment put there by humans, and it is an enormous struggle. And the others just don’t get it, most of the time, even though they come to rely on him.

Watership Down was Adams’ first book, and he went on to write a wide variety of novels afterwards. I have sometimes wondered what Tolkien would have written had he cared to write something other than The Lord of the Rings and its backstory. Adams, another English eccentric, of the retired civil servant variety, had one of those careers where he did whatever he wanted! His subsequent books feel much more grown up (although it’s true that Watership Down isn’t a particularly cuddly book either). I’m most familiar with two of Adams’ books, Shardik and Maia, both of which are heavily into satire of religion and empire (and Maia has a fair amount of sadomasochism)… not exactly tales to tell your kids at bedtime.

Watership Down is part of a long history of talking animal books. Too many to mention really. But I’ll point to an interesting trend of talking animal debut novels. I reviewed Redwall here on the Gutter three years ago, which was Brian Jacques’ first novel, and off the top of my head, I can think of Tad Williams breaking into print with Tailchaser’s Song. Any other titles come to mind? Any other thoughts on Watership Down and its appeal?

Comments

5 Responses to “Watership Vortex”

  1. James Schellenberg
    March 22nd, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    I should add that lots of people other than old white British dudes have written obsessive and long novels. On my to-read list, I have Ash by Mary Gentle and Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, both of which are reportedly books to lose oneself in. I’d be happy to hear any other titles as well.

  2. Chris Szego
    March 24th, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

    WD was obsessive on the receiving end, too. At least, it certainly was for me. I read it as a young teen, and it was a transformative experience.

  3. Carol Borden
    April 5th, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

    I had a similar experience to Chris’s. I remember my friends and I playing Watership Down and discussing those various flowers and dangers, when I was a kid.

    I don’t remember Tailchaser’s Song as well, but I do remember liking it when I read it as a child. Somehow Redwall wasn’t as enticing to me. I think some of it is as simple as my preference for what you talk about as “the rabbits have their own view of the world.” Where Redwall, and its cousins in comics, Mouse Guard and Mice Templar, are a little more embedded in conventional fantasy. (Though I love those comics, too).

  4. Watership Vortex | Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit
    April 8th, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

    […] FULL ARTICLE This entry was posted in Literature. Bookmark the permalink. ← The Magnet […]

  5. Carol Borden
    April 16th, 2012 @ 10:54 pm

    Also, can I just say: ZOMG, bunnies! So cute!

Leave a Reply





  • Support The Gutter

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    Anne Billson has posted a 1985 interview she did with director George Miller (the Mad Max films). Miller talks about many things including Aunty Entity’s probable past as a hero and Max as, in Mel Gibson’s words, “a closet human being.” (Thanks, Matt!)

    ~

    At New York Magazine, David Wallace-Wells writes about bees, colony collapse disorder and beekeeper Dave Hackenberg. “It’s been a long decade for bees. We’ve been panicking about them nonstop since 2006, when beekeeper Dave Hackenberg inspected 2,400 hives wintering in Florida and found 400 of them abandoned — totally empty. American beekeepers had experienced dramatic die-offs before, as recently as the previous winter in California and in regular bouts with a deadly bug called the varroa mite since the 1980s. But those die-offs would at least produce bodies pathologists could study. Here, the bees had just disappeared. In the U.K., they called it Mary Celeste syndrome, after the merchant ship discovered off the Azores in 1872 with not a single passenger aboard. The bees hadn’t even scrawled CROATOAN in honey on the door on their way out of the hive.”

    ~

    Andrew Nette has a pair of interesting pieces on pulp you might be interested in. First, he writes about “the New Pulp” and a bit about Fifty Shades of Gray in “Fifty Shades of Pulp.” Then he writes about pulp and literacy and furthering social advancement in “Pulp and Circumstance.”  “Most people view pulp as either exploitative lowbrow culture or highly collectable retro artefact. Yet pulp has a secret history which Rabinowitz’s book uncovers. Her central thesis is that cheap, mass-produced pulp novels not only provided entertainment and cheap titillating thrills, but also brought modernism to the American people, democratising reading and, in the process, furthering culture and social enlightenment.”

    ~

    The Projection Booth interviews actor Ed Asner.

    ~

    Transcript from BAFTA’s tribute to director Johnnie To, “Johnnie To: A Life In Pictures.” It’s a great interview with To about his films and process. “Like when I made The Mission I didn’t have a script. It was 1999 and I didn’t have any money so we went to Taiwan and they gave us very little money to hurry up and make a film, so without any script we just started making it. And after 19 days we made the film.” (Thanks to the Heroic Sisterhood!)

    ~

    A gallery of sweet geeky art from Native American artist, Jeffrey Veregge. “My origins are not supernatural, nor have they been enhanced by radioactive spiders. I am simply a Native American artist and writer whose creative mantra in best summed up with a word from my tribe’s own language as: ‘taʔčaʔx̣ʷéʔtəŋ,’ which means ‘get into trouble.'”

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: