– Viking 2012 ISBN: 0241953235; ISBN 13: 9780241953235
Read from November 10th to December 5th 2015
My rating :
One of my dearest nostalgic books has always been Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, for whenever I’ve felt sad and blue I returned to leaf through it and recapture some of the innocence of my childhood thinking. I’ve had the same feeling while reading Richard Adams’ Watership Down, with its enthralling story about animals which is much more than a fable or an allegory, even though the characters have some human qualities.
I remember that Margaret Atwood, in her study Survival, discerned between British, American and Canadian stories about animals, observing that the first ones depict social relations, the second ones are mainly hunting and / or quest stories, whereas the Canadian animal stories are failure stories, told from the point of view of the animal, in which the animal is always a victim, eventually killed however brave it is. If her distinction is accurate, then I would like to think that Adams’ novel is a glorious synthesis of the three, for it presents indeed a society in the making, it is for a while a quest story and not in the least it is inspiringly told from the point of view of the animal, whose greatest enemy, even if here it is not victimized by, remains mankind:
“There's terrible evil in the world."
It comes from men," said Holly. "All other elil do what they have to do and Frith moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they've spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.”
According to Wikipedia, the book develops some epic themes inspired by Greco-Latin antiquity (especially Homer and Virgil) such as “exile, survival, heroism, leadership, political responsibility, and the ‘making of a hero and a community’”. It is true that some episodes seem to allude to some well-known myths or legends, for example the Efrafa warren attack that made me think (but who wouldn’t?) of the Rape of the Sabines; however, the novel seemed to me more a settling tale than a conquering one, or if you wish, a retelling of the founding myth and not of the eschatology myth. In other words, it stresses the importance of the ordinary, shying away from the tragic, and the tales about Frith, the Black Rabbit of Inlé, El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle, as mesmeric as they are, are just useful narrative tools to create a veridical and picturesque world with its past, legends and religion. This lack of tragisme, moreover, this incurable optimism makes the comparison with Greek and/or Latin epic poems a little pretentious while emphasizing the author’s refusal to consider his novel either an allegory or a parable, and forcefully recalling his candid statement: "I simply wrote down a story I told to my two little girls."
I incline to agree with him, for Watership Down is in fact a story, with all connotations the word implies, that is simple in the same magical way fairy tales usually are. In this respect, it has that pure quality of the simple values these sort of tales always communicate: that the Good has to and indeed does overcome the Evil, that the happily ever after for heroes and an appropriate punishment for the wicked do exist, that the immortality is gained through little actions ritualistically performed again and again:
This was their way of honouring the dead. The story over, the demands of their own hard, rough lives began to re-assert themselves in their hearts, in their nerves, their blood and appetites. 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.
For this reason (there are others, which I won’t bother to cover here for they are equally obvious), the accusations of chauvinism brought by some mighty feminists is, to put it euphemistically, embarrassing (although we live in an era so much dominated by political correctness that the border between sublime and ridiculous is no longer visible), as it should be whenever the confusion between the ethic and the aesthetic gives birth to monstrosities of hybrid thinking, like in Selma G. Lanes’ essay "Male Chauvinist Rabbits", summarized by Wikipedia, in which she accuses the author of demeaning the role of the females of the species and concludes that the entire book is "marred by an attitude towards females that finds more confirmation in Hugh Hefner's Playboy than R. M. Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit." If this is not a comparison between apples and oranges I don’t know what it is! A part from the fact that this is not a story about does and rabbits but a founding story, and the scheme of founding stories is supposed to stress the male military and hunting qualities and the female contribution to the continuity of the species, there is the error of using the wrong criteria in judging the book, for art ceased a long time ago to try and be “utile e dulci” (if it ever were). Just imagining Shakespeare interpreted by such dedicated feminists I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry!
As I see it, it won’t be long and all literature will be called once again to answer these kind of accusations as it was called in the past to answer those of pornography, sorcery, tendentiousness, and so on. But, hopefully, it will once again come out, because, just like the cunning rabbit, it always finds its way to trick its enemies and gloriously survive. Therefore, what more adequate reply for Ms Lanes and all those of her kind than the prophetic words of Frith, the rabbits’ god, which can be read not only as the place He allocated rabbit in the world, but also as the place He allocated art:
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”