Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Revisiting Watership Down, and some thoughts about stories

A while ago, a friend of mine started "The Most Awesome Book Club Ever": a book club where the idea is to read books that are considered "Great Books" that you might have been asked to read in school but somehow missed. Books you're supposed to have read. Things like War and Peace, or the Odyssey, or The Origin of Species. (Which was our first book, actually. I didn't like it that much.)

This month's book is Watership Down, by Richard Adams. I've read it before: in fact, I grew up with it. I went to see the movie when I was seven: my family was living in Indiana at the time, and I think it was screened at the university there, but I don't really remember - I do remember images from the movie, some of them quite terrifying, and some of them quite beautiful. I think my parents read me the book first, as part of our usual bedtime stories. (My parents read me all kinds of books at bedtime, from Watership Down to The Lord of the Rings to Robinson Crusoe, and if they had scary bits, we dealt with that. In various ways. Depending on the book.) So when I was a kid, I sometimes pretended to be Hazel or Fiver (usually Fiver: I always liked psychic characters) and I had nightmares about the Black Rabbit of InlĂ©.

And I read it again, this week. I just finished it. Correction: I just finished wiping the tears off my face, after finishing it. How dare a book about rabbits do that to me? 

I re-read another of Adams's books recently, The Plague Dogs, because I'd just been to the Lake District, where it's set, and so I had the literary equivalent of an earworm. They're very different books, and for a while I thought I liked The Plague Dogs more. It's certainly more aimed at adults. It's also preachier. Angrier, maybe. In Plague Dogs Adams goes off on long flights of reference, paraphrasing chunks of Shakespeare and Ovid. In part I think it's deliberate: he's echoing the hyper-associative, disjointed internal world of his insane protagonist Snitter, a dog who's undergone brain surgery as part of an experiment. But it has always struck me as a bit self-indulgent. It's a satirical voice, and being satirical can often mean getting self-indulgent. You can read it as Adams being arch and sarcastically angry and having fun with his overblown language, and I did, and I do like The Plague Dogs. But now that I've reread Watership Down, I've revised my best-Richard-Adams book order. Watership wins, hands down.

It's his economy in Watership Down. It's a long book, sure, but because I read it as a kid, it all seemed to take longer (reading is so immersive when you're ten or so). I realized, this time around, that in fact a whole lot happens in a few pages. There's so much detail packed in, neatly, unnoticeably, that it feels longer. The friend that started the book club mentioned, as she was reading it, how information like "human activity causes background noise that disturbs animals" can be delivered almost indetectably by describing the silence of Watership Down, where our heroes establish their new home. Points like "domestication takes something vital away from species that are meant to be wild" are illustrated rather than stated, by the strange, semi-domesticated Cowslip and his warren and the hutch rabbits Hazel frees, who are so inept.

And there's the subthread about storytelling. Alongside Hazel and his group's adventures, there's a counterpoint series of folktales about El-ahrairah, the rabbit trickster hero. To Adams's rabbits, storytelling is a central social glue. Rabbits love a good story, well told, and while it's being told, they live it. They spread news by telling stories - when Captain Holly arrives at Watership Down, having narrowly escaped the destruction of their old warren, they wait until they can all gather and he can tell the story as a story before anyone asks him for details about what happened to him. Then, when  he does, all of the rabbits suffer through the same feelings and experiences as he did, and by doing that, they get their grief out and over with. The idea, I think, is that for a species with "a thousand enemies," the best way to learn survival skills is to tell these stories: you can learn from a story without running the risk of being killed by a fox or something. 

Tellingly, in the warrens in the book where the rabbits are not living natural lives - in what I call "the Stepford warren" where the rabbits are actually being semidomesticated so they can be trapped for fur and meat, and in totalitarian Efrafa - the rabbits no longer tell stories. Instead, they recite poetry. Instead of sharing an external social narrative, they share an internal, psychological narrative. They turn inward. (But, to be fair to the poets, in both of those warrens, poetry is also an act of subversion, of saying things that are forbidden.)

Adams' rabbits lead an immediate kind of life, where real threats and dangers force them to be clever and fast and strong: he may be hinting that we, as humans, lead a life much more like that of the creatures we domesticate, where our stories don't teach, our art is internal and reflective, and our instincts are dulled. He certainly uses the two dystopian warrens to show us two different outcomes of surrendering your self-determination. In one, luxury stultifies a whole culture: in the other, a dictatorship takes over and imposes a rigid, unnatural way of life.

And yes, the characters are simple. I think of them as the classic adventuring party from a fantasy. You've got your born leader, your staunch and loyal lieutenant, the clever one, the mystic, the storyteller and charmer, a couple of rank and file types, and the one that needs protecting. 

I think the characters being simple is a strength, rather than a weakness, in the book. They're already talking rabbits, after all. We're already dealing with a metaphor, or a myth, or an allegory, or something. The subthread about storytelling underpins that. So there's never really much question that Hazel, the leader, is going to be the leader. He's a perfect leader - not particularly strong or clever himself but able to see the skill sets at his disposal and put them together, and also able to read a mood and know how much he can ask of his people. In the same way that you know who Hazel is because you know the "leader" archetype, you also know what to expect of the rest, and it's satisfying when they fill those roles well: Bigwig being tough and loyal and self-sacrificing, Blackberry thinking up the clever plan, Fiver never, ever, once having a bad feeling that turned out just to be a badly digested carrot or something.

By halfway through the book, you can't help seeing that these rabbits we're reading about are living out an El-ahrairah story. They even start reflecting on it themselves. Which brings the whole subtheme of storytelling back around, rather neatly. And in the final pages, when El-ahrairah comes to take Hazel away to join the pantheon of stories. . . well, that's the bit where I had to stop and blink and wipe away the tears. Maybe I'm sentimental, but "our children's children will hear a good story" (as Hazel said to Bigwig), resonates with me. "It matters not if you live one day, so long as your deeds live on after you," is the ancient Irish saying.

I'm looking forward to the conversation when the Most Awesome Book Club Ever gets together to talk about this one. Because I know that alongside talking about the different dystopias and false utopias the rabbits encounter, and the ecological points that are made, and the characterization, and the plot arc, there will be the times when one of us will say, "And there was the bit where Bigwig was standing in the tunnel, saying, 'My Chief Rabbit told me to defend this tunnel, and I will,' and Woundwort's thinking, 'Shit, if he's not the Chief Rabbit, then how big must his Chief Rabbit be?!?'" or something like that. We'll share our favorite bits of the story with each other. We'll tell them again to each other. Because that's what stories do, it's what they're for.

And it had never occurred to me before, but I think that's a big part of what Watership Down is all about.

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