That to me is the point of the book. Watership Down is about leadership, a fundamental of human existence. Leadership is gained by people who can acquire moral ascendancy by example and ability. During the first half of the book the good leader gradually establishes his moral ascendancy, and then during the second half of the book, the bad leader, the bully, comes up against him.
The good leader wins out against the bad leader by his readiness to sacrifice everything if necessary. In writing my book I had very much in mind these two ideas: One, that it wouldn't talk down to the child reader. That's why I say there's no such thing as a children's book. Two, that it would be a real novel. Of course, all of this is filtered through the storyteller, who has himself been influenced by many other tales. Greek drama influenced the telling of the story in more than one way. It gave me the narrator's voice. I heard the voice of the Greek chorus when I went to Bradfield school.
In one respect Bradfield is entirely unique: in the late nineteenth century the then headmaster, a rather enterprising man called Dr. Gray, had the idea that he and his senior pupils should convert a disused chalk pit that belonged to the school into a Greek amphitheater. And this they did; they actually dug it with their own hands, then had the stone for the tiered seats imported. For a hundred years now Bradfield has had a Greek amphitheater, a miniature of the great ones in Epidaurus and places like that. It's three parts of a circle with what is known as the orchestra, the central space at the bottom, and then the skene, which is the equivalent of our modern stage.
This has become a tradition at Bradfield; the Greek play is performed every third year. Greek drama, half a religious liturgical service beginning with an invocation to Apollo or to Dionysos, is conducted on a tripartite basis: You have the protagonists who are up in the skene, which is, as it were, behind the proscenium arch. Then you have the chorus in the orchestra, the central space.
The chorus would be continually sprinkling incense throughout the action on the altar to Dionysos. When I was at Bradfield, the way they did this they had the altar in the center of the orchestra and inside it was a cylinder, and a little way down there was a biscuit tin lid, and under the biscuit tin lid there was a Primus stove, which was kept going throughout the action; you couldn't hear it. So when the chorus put the incense onto the altar, it automatically went up in smoke. And then you have the audience, which participates in the action as it is mediated by the chorus.
In writing Watership Down I had very much the concept in my mind that I was the chorus, talking to the reader and commenting upon the action. The job of the chorus, that never leaves the stage from the beginning of the play to the end, is to mediate the action, to tell the audience what it should be thinking, to pray to the gods, to ask them perhaps to intervene or put their blessing on the protagonist or in some way to help. The leader of the chorus will have dialogues with the protagonist, with the principal characters, and tell them what the audience is thinking.
You're never free, if you're seeing a Greek drama, from the intervention of the chorus, commenting on the action, talking to the protagonists, telling the audience how it ought to be feeling, speaking on behalf of the audience, or even praying. And I in writing, and in any creative work I do, constantly have this in mind. The chorus in Greek drama invoked the gods in recognition of the metaphysical dimensions of human life; I felt that Watership Down would be richer if the rabbits had some kind of metaphysical dimension to their lives.
Of course this would have to be kept very simple. For example, the rabbits have respect for what seems a creator or at least some type of providential, protecting care. At moments of exhilaration or rescue, they say, "Oh, Frith," with an awareness of something beyond themselves. There are prayers of gratitude to Frith: "Oh Frith on the hills," cried Dandelion, when they arrive at Watership Down for the first time, "he must have made it for us. They also show sympathy for the intuitive, the visionary, and the prophetic.
It is Fiver's original vision of blood and his continuing prophecies that cause much of the action of the story. And at the end, when young Threar predicts the coming of a man on a horse, Hazel says, "Fiver's blood? As long as we've got some of that I dare say we'll be all right. Of course, there is also the presence of death—the chorus in Greek tragedy is honest about death, as is the narrator of Watership Down. Death enters as that faint silver light, in sharp contrast to that opening quotation from Aeschylus, the Agamemnon, "the house reeks of death" and the narrator's comment, "the primroses were over.
He says, "I have something for you, some new whiskers and some new ears. It's only very faint. This was how Hazel recognized him when he turned up. In this way, the narrator makes death a friendly person who ushers Hazel into a new life, "where the first primroses were beginning to bloom" The end of the book came about quite naturally in my relationship with my own daughters.
They said, "What happened to Hazel in the end? We've all got to die sometime, but I tell you what we'll do. We'll give him what Pallas Athene promised Odysseus; she promised him the gentlest death that may be, she says in the Odyssey. And that's what we'll give him. As I told and wrote the story, I never forgot my listeners and readers. At least two characters entered the story because of my daughters. I came home one evening from work and found young Rosamond in tears over her violin practice. I said, "What's the matter? She was struggling with a piece by Rowsby Woof.
I said, "I'll fix it for you; I'll put him in the story. Because the children were commenting all the time on the writing of the book and making suggestions as we went along, Bluebell comes into the story when he does. You can't have forgotten, we've got to have him. The oral form of the story entered the written form because the children remembered what I had forgotten.
In a way, my daughters were also the arbiters of the choice of quotations at the beginning of each chapter. I asked Juliet about those epigraphs. And then as you read on, you see how it does, and I like that. I think that's fun. I did manage to get in a bit of Dostoevsky and a bit of Jane Austen , and even a bit of Cosi fan Tutte.
I placed their distinct voices in the context of Watership Down. The voices of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer , important parts of my education both at home and at Bradfield, also came to be part of the narrative voice. I've always been grateful to my father and Bradfield for grounding me in the narrative parts of the Old Testament , the Gospels, and the Acts.
This has remained with me all of my life, and I think it resonates in the narrator's voice. It appears consciously in the epigraph from Psalm 59, where the psalmist's enemies "grin like a dog. Otten has suggested that it appears unconsciously in phrases like "in the fullness of time. The seagull comes out of my experience in World War II. Kehaar's character, even his voice, is based on a Norwegian Resistance man whom I knew in the war, a splendid chap, Johansen.
Norway was not involved, but he had been anyway. We met on a troop ship, and one night Johansen got very drunk, and finally the purser of the ship semiforcibly conducted Johansen downstairs to his cabin. And I cherish the memory of Johansen being led away shouting, "You say you in the last war? I was there too! I never see you! Of course, the storyteller, the narrator, is not merely a product of home and reading and education and personal experience.
Storytelling is a timeless and universal occupation. People have been doing it since time immemorial. And it is a wonderful thing to have people hanging on your every word. When I was a boy at school, I used to tell stories in the dormitory before lights out, and it was terrific. They'd say, "Go on, Adams, what happened then? What happened then, Adams, what happened to him? I didn't imagine that anybody else would go for this particular private story told to my own two little girls, told for their pleasure as we drove to Stratford, and written at their insistence.
Yet naturally it's intensely gratifying that this rather private and personal idea of mine, which started as nothing but that, has sold itself all over the world. But like Lewis Carroll 's Alice, which was improvised by Charles Dodgson in a boat on the Isis on a summer afternoon, Watership Down was entirely spontaneous and unself-conscious, and written to the order of two little girls. Booklist 70, no. It is not often that the opportunity to learn Lapin rabbit language arises, but Adams fills the knowledge gap in [ Watership Down, ] a saga about a warren of rabbits that encounters every conceivable crisis during and after a long enforced trek to a new home in England's Watership Down.
These animals who talk endlessly and have an elaborate mythology and social structure carry their anthropomorphism with grace: their world becomes real and that of man's is seen in a new perspective. The delightful nature descriptions combine a sense of the poetic with an intimate knowledge of plant and animal life. By the end of , Rex Collings, a small British publisher, took the risk of publishing Richard Adams's first literary attempt, a novel about talking rabbits called Watership Down.
Despite the fact that the book had been rejected by several agents and publishers before Collings, Watership Down became an enormous success, a film was made and Adams, now rich and famous, decided to give up his job in the civil service to become a full-time writer. However, what are the reasons for the public's positive response? A few answers have been given by critics over the last few years see, for instance, James S. Nevertheless, the key to the understanding of the novel's success has never been pointed out; to a large extent the success of Adams's book is due to the fact that it subjects the reader to a two-sided defamiliarization.
In order to explain this process it is necessary to examine the relationship between a number of technical devices used by Adams, and the nature of the adventure itself. Watership Down began as an oral narrative; Adams told his two small daughters the rabbits' tale to entertain them during several journeys to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Later on he decided to write his tale down. This explains to a certain extent the existence of some links which connect the novel to the folktale. The involvement of the readers—of the audience—is all-important, and the storyteller does not hesitate in addressing his public now and then in order to draw them closer to the plot: "And 'what happened in the end?
The first one is the traditional indirect free style, by means of which the characters' doubts and worries are scattered all throughout the book, as in the case of Hazel, the rabbit leader who, through the narrator's voice, asks himself, "What was in the bracken? What lay around the further bend? And what would happen to a rabbit who left the shelter of the holly tree and ran down the path? He turned to Dandelion beside him" p. The second technical device to attract the reader's attention is not, however, as traditional as the indirect free style. It consists of the effect provoked in the reader when he is made to perceive external reality from a rabbit's point of view.
All our senses must be continuously alert to follow the small animals in their quest: "The rabbits had gone only a short distance through the wood when they sensed that they were already near the river. The ground became soft and damp. They could smell sedge and water. Suddenly, the harsh, vibrating cry of a moorhen echoed through the trees, followed by a flapping of wings and a watery scuttering.
The rustling of the leaves seemed also to echo, as though reflected distantly from hard ground. A little further on, they could distinctly hear the water itself—the low, continuous pouring of a shallow fall" p. Furthermore, Hazel and his friends are talking rabbits but they do not wear clothes, smoke cigars, or do things which real rabbits could not physically do.
Adams's intention is not only to draw a picture of the landscape in which the small animals live, he also wants us to identify with them, to perceive what rabbits perceive. The natural scenery in which the novel takes place—a landscape which the reader knows or thinks he knows—opens now from a new viewpoint, producing an effect of defamiliarization once we stop to think who the characters are and how they perceive the countryside of this part of twentieth-century England.
However, as previously mentioned, the defamiliarization in Watership Down has another side: the nature of the adventure itself. Adams is deeply influenced by Jung's works. He even underwent a full-scale Jungian psychoanalysis in the early s which lasted for three years.
Both authors—Jung and Campbell—pay considerable attention to myth in their works, pointing out that some cultural activities such as esoteric teaching, rites of passage, legends and tales are nothing less than external manifestations of man's psychic struggle to attain the ultimate meaning of life or what Jung exactly terms "the integration of the personality". According to Campbell The Hero, p. Don't tell me to forget about it and go to sleep. We've got to go away before it's too late'" p.
The rabbit-seer represents here the first manifestation of what Campbell calls the "Supernatural Aid" The Hero, p. The call is answered by Hazel and a small group of young bucks who depart from their warren, experiencing in that way the process of separation which characterizes the first stages of the monomyth. From this point onwards they have to overcome a number of dangers—Campbell's "Road of Trials" The Hero, p.
In this way, Hazel's band becomes integrated little by little into a compact unity, the real hero who shall achieve his main aim in the book's second part. Even the narrator makes this idea clear when he affirms that since "leaving the warren of the snares [the rabbits] had become warier, shrewder, a tenacious band who understood each other and worked together" p. The second essential period of the monomyth, the process of initiation, ends when the rabbits obtain the "magic elixir" represented by the does, the female principle without which life cannot continue. However, the hero is bound to become the winner, and Hazel's brains and Bigwig's strength achieve the final victory defeating Woundwort and granting, in this way, the survival of the new warren.
The final stage of the monomyth comes when the hero—the psychic struggler—experiences the vision of the cosmogonic cycle; he perceives life material forms running into death and the void but he also witnesses the ceaseless action of the Imperishable, the source of existence which gives birth to life again from the void. Watership Down is certainly not a metaphysical work of the kind other novels by Adams were to become mainly The Plague Dogs, a few years later.
But the novelist also wants to suggest the hero's final vision of the cosmogonic cycle and so he starts and concludes his first book in a symbolic way. He begins with "The primroses were over" and he finishes by closing the circle—the cycle: "and together [Hazel and El-ahrairah] slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom" emphasis added. Defamiliarization was made possible, therefore, by a number of closely interrelated factors.
Watership Down 's characters are a group of twentieth-century English rabbits who physically behave almost as real rabbits do.
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The narrator brings us closer to them by very often focusing the story from these small animals' viewpoint. Finally, the story itself proves to be an adaptation of the monomyth; the rabbits walk along the same path which many a great human hero—real or fictitious—has followed from the beginning of time. Furthermore, this path has been understood by many—Adams among them—as the external expression of man's inner struggle to search for the meaning of life; therefore, we can also speak of a conscious psychological appeal on the part of the author. But, after all, the truth which remains is that the mythical hero who fights almost to the death to fulfill his quest is a simple small rabbit—or, to be more precise, a group of rabbits.
Defamiliarization arose because the storyteller, coming again from the past, has chosen to tell us the old adventure of a new mythical rabbit-hero. Is Richard Adams's Watership Down an epic? This is exactly what a veritable army of reviewers 1 have called it, and it is so proclaimed on its own dust jacket. Yet certainly more traditional scholars would hold the term "epic" in careful reserve. It is the purpose of this paper to investigate this question and to consider what such an investigation might tell us of the existence the epic and the epic hero hold in today's world and in the heroic literature it reads.
A brief summary of the work will facilitate its discussion.
Watership Down was published in and was Adams's first work. It was conceived as a tale to be told to his daughters as he drove them the long distance from his home to Stratford-on-Avon to view Shakespearean performances. Perhaps for this reason the book was at first promoted as children's literature, a choice contrary to Adams's tastes. The original warren, Sandleford, is proclaimed doomed by Fiver, a prophetic rabbit who is the brother of Hazel, the hero of the piece.
No one will heed the warnings of Fiver and Hazel, least of all the doddering head rabbit of the warren. Hazel decides to leave anyway and that evening leads forth a band of ten bucks. They make their way south, bravely crossing a small river on an improvised raft, an idea thought up by Blackberry, the thinker rabbit of the group. They then come to Cowslip's warren, whose strange inhabitants are sleek and cultured they even sing, dance, and produce works of art.
These unnatural lapines open their warren to the travelers and offer to share their greatest prize with them, a mysterious supply of lettuce which is left for them each day. Fiver, however, senses danger and danger there is, for with the lettuce come snares.
These unusual rabbits are, in fact, being kept by humans for eating purposes. When Bigwig the strongest of Hazel's rabbits, named for a tuft of hair on his head is almost killed in a snare, the frightened band escapes, taking along one member of the warren. The wanderers quickly reach Watership Down, where they establish a warren and embark on Hazel's policy of befriending local animals, especially an injured gull which they nurse back to health.
Soon two members of Sandleford join Hazel's group and relate in graphic detail the gassing of the rabbits to make way for a housing project. But what future can there be without females? There is not a single doe in the new warren, and without them Watership Down will again be deserted in two or three years, the life span of a rabbit in the wild. Hazel decides to seek does locally, and the gull, named Kehaar, is sent out to reconnoiter. He spots a few domesticated rabbits at a local farm and large numbers at a badly overcrowded warren named Efrafa.
Hazel sends a small group to Efrafa to negotiate peacefully for females. In their absence Hazel pursues his own glory by attempting to raid the nearby farm himself. He frees some does but is shot in the attempt. Meanwhile the scouting party returns with a tale of horror. Efrafa is headed by a militaristic rabbit named General Woundwort and is run in a most unnatural, regimented way. Hazel's rabbits had been branded and imprisoned and had just barely escaped as they fled across railroad tracks seconds before a train which fortuitously cut down their pursuers. Led by a now recovered Hazel, a second party heads for Efrafa.
A combination of cleverness, boldness, and kindness allows many does to be led out. Under Kehaar's aerial protection, the group reaches a river where it leaps into a boat and escapes by gnawing the rope and floating away. All seems well until Woundwort, raging in defeat, attacks Watership Down with superior numbers. His fierceness almost wins out, but is thwarted by the strength and cunning of Bigwig and by a stratagem of Hazel in which he lures a dog from a nearby farm into the midst of the attackers.
In the process, however, he is captured by a cat, but is rescued by a kindly human doctor who delivers him back to the wilds in a car. As the story ends, Efrafa and Watership Down are peaceful and are interbreeding. Hazel is an old rabbit and, in the final chapter, is taken up into heaven to join the council of the archetypical rabbit hero, Elahrairah, the trickster idol of all lapines.
In fact, mythical tales of the wily deeds and exploits of Elahrairah punctuate the entire story line of Watership Down and often parallel what is happening in the story itself. As he rises to his place in the heavenly council, Hazel hears tales being sung already about his deeds. He is now a perfect, deified hero.
All stories suffer in outline, of course, and this is especially true for this novel. For Adams has created more than merely an exciting plot. The entire rabbit world is shot through with devices designed to flesh it out. The rabbits have their own myths, including one of the origin of the world, a version of the great flood, and aeteological myths to explain the weakness of the tribe of rabbits.
They have their own folk tales and folk heroes, bards who sing of these wonders, and a created lapine language. And beneath it all lies a solid foundation of accurate lore about rabbit life, all taken from the book of R. Lockley, Adams's friend and later collaborator. Before beginning to analyze this work, it would be well to be sure we are not proceeding too far. For although there has not been much by way of serious scholarly study on Watership Down, it has often been subjected to some quite fanciful interpretations, including criticism of its supposed sexism, 7 an interpretation of the piece as a political tract describing Britain and the Second World War, a description of it as "a scientific novel, a work that embraces the two cultures [literary and scientific]," and even a statement that the work is "about the survival of intuitive and imaginative man in his conflict with modern technology and industrial civilization, those ruled by the right side of the brain as opposed to those ruled by the left side of the brain.
But we must not always trust the comments of authors on their own works. Hemingway reportedly told us that his Old Man and the Sea was simply about an old man who caught a fish, and Mark Twain attached the following notice to his most deeply studied work, Huckleberry Finn : "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. What is needed, then, is a careful evaluation of the evidence which neither stretches that evidence too far nor chooses totally to accept the traditional reticence of authors to analyze their own works.
We will begin with a careful study of the literary roots and assumptions which lay behind Adams's casting of his lowly heroes in a decidedly epic-like environment. If it can be shown that there are epic parallels in the work and that Adams knew they were there and deliberately chose to call them to his readers' attention, then it is a fair assumption to conclude that matters concerning the epic were on his mind.
With all this as background, then, the question remains as to what extent, if any, the promoters and reviewers of this immensely popular and award-winning book are justified in applying to it the term "epic. Watership Down is a narrative, to be sure, but it is certainly not in poetry.
We do have a hero, but he is a rabbit and the scope of the journey and the deeds is less than lordly. For example, the entire action of this "odyssey" lasts but from May to October of a single summer and covers some five or six miles only.
The great deeds of the "heroes" are, to human eyes, rather limited, being confined to such things as crossing a small stream on a bit of driftwood, helping a sea gull, and outwitting a fairly stupid farmyard dog. Neither are the heroes of the piece born of great houses or of divinities. At first glance, therefore, the reader acquainted with "real" epic will refuse to call this an epic and will fall back on the Random House 's second definition: "resembling or suggesting such poetry, an epic novel.
It is an important one for classicists and all students of the epic, for it is of some moment to decide whether the great genre is in fact dead or can still be recognized in contemporary works, albeit in changed form. A careful reading of Watership Down shows that Richard Adams had the epic in mind when he wrote his book. This is shown first by actual parallels between his book and the ancient epics, parallels which range from conscious borrowings and parallels to similarities in atmosphere and tone.
Secondly, and more importantly perhaps, it can be demonstrated that these are more than mere literary cribs. They are present to challenge the reader to rethink the role of epic in general and, most especially, the epic hero, in today's world. Certain scenes in Watership Down are undeniably based upon earlier epic and heroic literature. Indeed, the entire work opens with such a scene. Fiver, Hazel's brother, falls into a trance and predicts ruin for the home warren of Sandleford:.
Two piles of earth lay on the grass. Heavy posts, reeking of creosote and paint, towered up as high as the holly trees…. The two rabbits went up … wrinkling their noses at the smell of a dead cigarette end somewhere in the grass. Suddenly Fiver shivered and cowered down…. But it's coming—it's coming. Oh, Hazel, look! The field! It's covered with blood! No one in the warren except Hazel will believe Fiver, however.
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Least impressed of all is the old Threarah Chief Rabbit , a leader well into the staid skepticism of senescence and as such, an apt image of the Priam before whom Cassandra must have chanted in vain. Adams obviously wants his readers to make this connection, for he heads this his very first chapter with the following quote:. The vision, the prophecy, and even the olfactory sense employed to obtain it are all the same.
Adams is making his ancient parallel quite clear and does so elsewhere as well. When Hazel's band of hlessil wandering, homeless rabbits reaches Cowslip's warren, they at first seem to have found a perfect home. The place is but sparsely populated with large, albeit passive, rabbits who invite the wanderers to stay on in this strangely underpopulated warren. The benefits seem great. The leisure which results from a daily dole of lettuce has led to time for cultural, though un-lapine, pursuits. But they have also developed dangerous habits, such as lack of concern for those rabbits which are snared the price for the lettuce , atheism, and even an uncontrollable, eerie laughter which always seems to presage doom.
So we have it. Cowslip and his warren are and here we must forgive Adams his pun the "lettuce eaters. These scenes are carefully constructed to call the ancient scenes to mind. Thus, within the first sixty-three pages of his page novel, Adams has carefully warned his reader to look below the surface, to seek out the classical parallels. It will be best to defer until later a discussion of what Adams meant by all this, and first to note scenes and characters which seem also to have their roots in works written long before.
In general, of course, the plot is close to that of the Aeneid, though it owes much to the Odyssey as well. A local seer is ignored and a small band escapes at night. Their first act is a journey over water during which they try a series of homes but find them false and are at their destined home early in the work.
The rest of the tale parallels the last half of the Aeneid as the newcomers fight to keep their place and to solidify intermarriages and alliances. The plot, then, is quite familiar from antiquity, but individual scenes are equally revealing of borrowings from major works of epic and heroism from many sources. The plight, for example, of an all male band of rabbit fugitives who desperately need females to insure the survival of their exiled race is evocative of Livy's tale of the Sabine Women.
From another sector, it has been noted that a train which cuts down soldiers as they flee their imprisonment in exile is surely modeled on the famous Red Sea episode from Exodus. If the scale is different, the terror and helplessness at the mercy of the elements are identical. A similar parallel can be seen when the punt in which the rabbits flee Woundwort becomes stuck on a bridge. Kehaar, the gull the rabbits have nursed back to health, flies down in the storm and convinces the despairing troop to jump overboard and ride the current to shore where Hazel.
They crept beneath the twigs and leaves, settled themselves in the smooth, curved trough … and slept at once. This scene is close indeed to that of Odysseus as he loses his raft and floats toward Phaeacia. The parallels in these crucial scenes are too close to ignore. The divine agent in each is a diving bird, the situation is exactly the same in that a ship must be abandoned and its passenger s must swim.
Finally, the similarities of tone and actual wording of the final scene of peace, coupled with the fact that each author chose to end his chapter or book with this scene, secure the link between the two. Later, when reading the account in which Bigwig single-handedly blocks a burrow and holds off the entire opposing force of Woundwort, anyone who has read his high school Livy will have Horatius Cocles in mind, standing alone on the Sublician bridge, facing the forces of Porsenna.
Bigwig, with his large build, brusque manner and simple emotions, is also reminiscent of Ajax the Great and the tuft of hair on his head which gives him his name is quite tempting as a nodding crest. Chapter 31 contains an equally clear borrowing. In this tale, sung by the bard Dandelion, El-Ahrairah visits the Black Rabbit of Inle, the god of the dead in Adams's lapine mythology. His aim is to free his people from a dreaded disease and he first tries, unsuccessfully, to defeat Death at a game of bobstones, a theme that ranges from Heracles to Bergman.
His ultimate victory over Death and the release of his people parallel the ultimate tasks of heroes such as Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante, and Milton's Christ. Again, Adams calls up the oldest tales in having his hero be very careful not to eat anything in the underworld, a motif best known from the tale of Persephone and Hades. Other minor characters in the piece also have their ancient parallels. Dandelion, the bard of the group who is often called upon to ease tension among the rabbits with a tale of El-ahrairah, is highly reminiscent of Demodocus in the Odyssey.
Finally, Adams has added stylistic clues of the debt Watership Down owes the ancient epics. We are offered, for example, fairly obvious Homeric similes, a device he used, perhaps to excess in his second novel, Shardik. As a bull, with a slight but irresistible movement, tosses its head from the grasp of a man who is leaning over the stall and idly holding its horn, so the sun entered the world in smooth, gigantic power.
He also treats the reader to an occasional Homeric epithet, the most notable being "Bigwig Pfeffa-rah" that is, "Bigwig, King of Cats," a tribute to the latter's dauntless courage. Adams's chapter 20 is headed with a quote from The Epic of Gilgamesh, and chapter 25, in which Hazel leads the raid for does at the nearby farm, is prefaced with a quote from Renault's The King Must Die dealing with the heroic selfsacrifice of Theseus. Likewise, in a passage explaining the rabbits' ability to forget past evils and to press on into the future we read:.
Would that the dead were not dead! But there is grass that must be eaten, pellets that must be chewed, hraka that must be passed, holes that must be dug, sleep that must be slept. Odysseus brings not one man to shore with him. Yet he sleeps sound beside Calypso and when he wakes thinks only of Penelope. All the facts listed above are, when taken as a unit, extremely telling.
One or two such incidents may be accidental, but the sheer weight of them in this case makes it clear that Adams had the ancient examples of epic and heroic literature before his mind as he wrote his own work and that he has consciously set forth clues in his work which are to remind us of that fact. But what does this prove? Does it in fact make Watership Down an epic?
Adams has stated clearly that "I decided I would write a novel [for the children], the best novel I could possibly write. An epic. But seen from another perspective, this may be too narrow a criterion. Do we deny that Shakespeare is a tragedian because he lacks a formal chorus or do we deny that title to Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller because they do not write in verse or because their characters are "low men? The matter is too large and too complex to be dealt with from the point of view of a single article on a single novel.
But I think that it is possible, from carefully studying what Adams is about in this work, to come to some significant conclusions concerning one aspect of epic literature, namely, that of the hero and his role in today's "epic" literature. Hazel is far from the normal epic hero. He is, after all, a rabbit and even as such is lowborn, not one of the elite. Further, we are constantly informed throughout the book that Hazel does not begin the journey as the group's chief rabbit. It is a post into which he must grow and it is not until some distance into the book that he is given the title Hazel-rah, that is "King Hazel.
This is not the normal epic hero of antiquity. Bowra has studied the epic hero carefully and concludes that "A hero differs from other men in the degree of his powers…. He is a marked man from the start, and it is only natural to connect his superiority with unusual birth and breeding…. H e is recognized from the start as an extraordinary being whose physical development and characteristics are not those of other men. In short, epic heroes are "men of superior gifts, who are presented and accepted as being greater than other men….
The fate of Achilles or Sigurth or Roland is the fate not of an abstract Everyman but of an individual who is both an example of pre-eminent manhood and emphatically himself. Hazel, on the other hand, is exactly a sort of Everyman. He is weak and timid, more prone to flight than to fight. At the start he is not even the smartest, strongest, or bravest of his own crew, but by the tale's end he is clearly beyond the measure of most rabbits. He was not born into his leadership, he has grown into it, has come to a heroic stature that did not seem his at the start.
Of course, growth alone does not keep him from true heroic stature. Aeneas surely grows in a certain way, for example, and Telemachus, though a minor hero, is quite a different fellow in the carnage of book 22 of the Odyssey than he was as he wept in books 1 and 2. But each of these is a born hero. Aeneas never loses his strength or courage and all know that Telemachus merely needs confidence to bring out what is there by birth.
Yet, as demonstrated above, Adams clearly wishes the perceptive reader to view this plainest of heroes as a worthy successor to his grander forebears. In so doing, he is grappling with a major need of the modern world, the ever present need for epic heroes and literature and the seeming impossibility of either. The problem lies simply with the fact that a traditional heroic age is no longer possible.
Many factors have contributed to its demise, but technology and rationalism are the greatest villains. If heroes generally possess divine or noble blood, how can we have them in an age that can hardly be called theistic or in which the royal families have dwindled as much in prestige as in number? If heroes should excel in military fortitude or prowess, what personal glory can exist in an age of long distance nuclear slaughter?
Neither are there great journeys or returns for heroes to endure because there simply are no frontiers left. All our continents are fully recorded by satellites and even the great frontier of space has been reduced to a monthly routine. We have, in short, long since sailed through the Pillars of Hercules and have replaced the Gardens of the Hesperides with oil wells in the North Sea. Even the gods of the ancient epics are not left us, as each of their powers is rationally explained away.
Every child knows that it is not a deep-browed god who causes thunder, and who of us does not recognize a microbe and not Apollo as the source of the dreadful plague in book 1 of the Iliad? We have lost the monsters and dragons of epic for heroes to slay. Such promising candidates as the coelocanth are calmly explained away as enduring fossils, and radar and sonar are at this minute tracking down Nessie. The world, in short, has been demystified. There is no room in it for traditional epic heroes or a heroic age.
Thus, a poll taken of students or friends will result in an embarrassing list of contemporary "heroes," mostly confined to media or sports stars with a rare inclusion of a political or humanitarian figure. And yet, in this vacuum, a certain human need seems to remain for heroes of epic proportion. An author who wishes to portray heroic deeds, has, it seems to me, but two basic options. Using the first, he can break the rules of our demystified, "normal" reality and create a heroic realm for his protagonist, what Levy calls the "landscape of adventure.
Heinlein has done just this in Glory Road. In this novel the hero—Oscar Gordon, a disillusioned Vietnam veteran—is taken to a series of universes in which he contends with cannibalistic monsters, hordes of carnivorous harpy-like creatures, actual fire-breathing dragons, a beautiful heroine-princess, and much more. Pointedly, he does all this not with ray guns and lasers, but with swords and wits alone, quite in the ancient tradition and quite in keeping with a personal desire for a true "heroic age": I wanted Prester John , and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake.
I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be—instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is. Heinlein obviously misses the monumental hero and has therefore moved the backdrop to a set of worlds where this old form of heroism can still flourish. In these worlds chivalry is not dead, heroic challenges such as giants and dragons still exist, and they can still be overcome by swords and wits alone.
It is the perfect refuge for a hero born out of his time, tailormade to ignore all that has happened since the days of former heroes, a world where one can still tread the "glory road. Burroughs already felt the demystification of the world and in moved his heroes to appropriate canvases. The same year saw the invention of Burroughs's naturalman hero—Tarzan who fights only with a knife, bow and noose in a world soon to be torn by mustard gas.
Note that in one case the backdrop is Africa, the last unknown frontier of the day, while John Carter is pushed out even farther, to Mars. Carter, like Heinlein's Oscar Gordon, is a warrior at heart recently of the American Civil War who fights only with sword, brawn, and notable chivalry on Mars. Burroughs in turn was greatly influenced by H. Rider Haggard, who earlier King Solomon's Mines, , She, , saw that the world was closing in on heroic deeds and moved his novels to a then darkest Africa.
Adams too has admitted his love of this author, referring to his Shardik as "a Rider Haggard story" and proudly displaying his first edition of King Solomon's Mines. Indeed, in this second novel, Adams has chosen the first of the two choices mentioned above, the choice of Haggard, Burroughs, Heinlein, and countless others. He has moved his tale to his totally invented world of Bekla.
It is an old tradition, only recently fallen on bad days, into pulp literature … in Shardik, Adams attempts to restore its high seriousness…. Yet he does not succeed. This is true, but only of this, Adams's second attempt at finding the appropriate backdrop for modern epic heroic activity.
And it is fair to say that the earlier attempt was the more successful, for critics universally preferred Adams's first novel to his second. This could be due to the fact that in Watership Down Adams looked to the second choice of authors who wish to recreate the epic hero in today's world. Watership Down is not set in a separate, greater world. Adams has instead looked deeper into the existing world by shrinking his hero and his "landscape of adventure. For Odysseus it is a cyclops; for Hazel, a fox. And one man's small stream is another creature's ocean. The size of the raft each needs for the crossing may differ, but the courage required does not.
The first thought is that such an approach, exacerbated by the use of animal protagonists, could trivialize the action, rendering the piece little more than a violent Wind in the Willows or a depoliticized Animal Farm, 34 but Adams sees to it, through his constant comparison with ancient epics and heroes, that we view this as an acceptable, alternative sort of heroism.
In many ways this is the more challenging and intellectual option, for anyone can portray heroism in a totally made-up world replete with dragons and humans of greater than average powers. But shrinking the hero makes us consider the true meaning of such things as courage and leadership, the latter being the one subject Adams consistently agrees that his book is about. Yet it is exactly this seemingly insignificant struggle—of the conquest of the relatively small over the relatively huge and of a spirit not bred for heroism over itself—that elevates Hazel to the epic stature Adams keeps before his reader.
Why is this so? In Adams's own words, "Human beings don't feel epics any more. Rabbits do—they are down on the ground.
Russell Letson The Faces of a Thousand Heroes: Philip José Farmer
One must hasten to add that merely shrinking the hero and his enemies does not always produce a hero of epic grandeur. Just reducing the size can bring about a pallid version of the first choice, that of creating an optional reality for the hero. Perfect examples of this can be found in many areas of science fiction and fantasy literature ranging from films such as The Incredible Shrinking Man to The Fantastic Voyage in which an entire submarine is shrunk and enters a blood stream to do battle with antibodies and amoebas.
In these stories there is no inward growth of the hero, no ennobling sacrifice for an entire people. Adams who kept his tale in the real world as we know it, and then chose a small hero, has gone farther. He has made his work a study of how heroism can exist today and can still be considered epic in proportion, if not in scale. Adams himself has identified one major aspect of this new, microcosmic heroism for he has often admitted that Hazel is modeled on the real character of John Gifford, Adams's Airborne Forces commander in World War II.
Adams describes him as quiet and unassuming, a quiet person one would ordinarily not look to for leadership, and yet he was one whom people naturally followed because it felt right to do so. Thus, when the "odyssey" begins, there is some doubt as to who is chief rabbit, Bigwig or Hazel. It is some time before the natural leader emerges and until Hazel is officially called "Hazelrah," "King or Lord Hazel. There is, of course, a second aspect to Hazel—indeed to all our heroes—which is quite unusual.
For we must never lose sight of the fact that the protagonists are rabbits. If small epic is different, animal epic is unthinkable. Adams, quoted just above, has said that rabbits "feel epic" since they are "down on the ground. But by showing us events through a rabbit's eyes, Adams exhibits a fine example of what the Russian critic Shlokovsky called ostranenie, often translated "making it strange" or "defamiliarization.
It is by making them strange, through figurative language or excessive description that they can be seen anew. In the case of Watership Down, Adams defamiliarizes our everyday world. We are, after all, quite used to the bridges, rafts, gulls, highways, and streams which so baffle the rabbits. But by letting us experience them through the eyes of a rabbit on an adventure, and for whom this is all new, we are shown the inherent adventure that still exists in the world for those the size of a rabbit.
Adams's choice of rabbits is quite clever. Their limited experience and their timid, cowering nature allow him to make the everyday world strange and exciting for us, the reader. On the other hand, their size allows them to dwell in a world of epic proportion. It is the combination which makes rabbits the perfect choice. An epic world through the eyes of a horse or a bear would hardly have done at all. It would have been strange, but far from exciting. Amid all this rises Hazel, an epic hero of new stamp, one who achieves his heroism not by fulfilling his heroic nature, but by overcoming an unprepossessing one.
Now there is no doubt that Hazel is a full-fledged hero. And a close look at the text shows that Hazel's special power, shared in lesser degree by his followers, is the ability to step, temporarily, outside of or beyond his nature. The power to lead may be natural, as it was in John Gifford, but that of being a true hero in the epic tradition demands overcoming nature. Entertaining, frank and sharp-tongued letters between the great eighteenth-century composer and his mentor father.
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