The Furry Canon: Watership Down (Roundtable)

This article in our series debating the Furry Canon is a roundtable discussion of Watership Down by Richard Adams, first published in 1972. Your panelists are JM, Jakebe and Huskyteer.

JM

Jakebe, Huskyteer

Thanks for letting me lead off this roundtable exploration of Watership Down for the [adjective][species] Furry Canon project. Jakebe, I know that this is a book close to your heart, as it is close to the heart of many lapine furries, and by asking me to read and comment you’re risking have me piss all over something personally important.

But before I do just that, let’s look at the book in more general terms. Watership Down is a 1972 children’s novel—my copy is published under Penguin’s Puffin imprint—about rabbits trying to survive in the Hampshire countryside.

The environment is one of rolling green fields and small family farms, an idyllic version of England but one that still exists today. Our rabbits are intelligent, quick-witted, and vaguely preternatural. The story is, at heart, an episodic adventure: our heroes fight various obstacles for their safety and their future.

It’s an easy read and also rather long. I can imagine that it is the sort of thing that young bookworms lose themselves in, become immersed in the world and form bonds with our lapine heroes.

Jakebe, to kick off, can you talk about your own relationship with Watership Down?

Jakebe

Hello JM and Huskyteer!

First off, let me tell you how thrilled I am to be talking about a book I love with two people whose opinion I respect a great deal. It’s pretty awesome. :D :D

I have to admit that I came to Watership Down pretty late, all things considered — up until the time I read it about ten years ago in Arkansas, it wasn’t much of a touchstone for me. The books that had informed my early furry aesthetic were The Wind In The Willows, and Mrs. Brisby and the Rats of NIMH, and the Spellsinger series from Alan Dean Foster. Now that I’m thinking about it, I really *wish* I had discovered Watership Down a lot earlier than I did — I’m pretty sure I would have made my way to rabbit as a species a lot more quickly than I did.

For me Watership Down is a simply amazing book — it talks about the importance of individuality, but also the importance of being a part of a community; it deals with learning how to be brave in an enormous, confusing, and often hostile world; it introduces the idea of spirituality as something that deepens your experience of reality instead of encouraging you to ignore parts of it, and it allows the rabbits to make sense of their world in a way that enables them to be more fully involved in it. The trials of Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig show us how people bond through shared experience even though they’re incredibly different, and how those bonds enable us to tolerate a wide range of personalities and beliefs. For me, the really impressive thing about Watership Down is how it deals with a kaleidoscope of personalities all struggling to accept the same lot in life, and how and why certain choices lead to such disaster down the road.

Personally, Rabbit is a Totem for me; it’s a spiritual partner that teaches me how to deal with fear and feelings of powerlessness. Watership Down was the first novel that felt like it dealt with those ideas head on, and showed the full scope of what it means to be brave instead of fearless. I think for most kids who are struggling to understand a complicated and scary world, the book can be an invaluable way to introduce a lot of concepts that would be difficult to explain head-on. It’s a story that serves as a wonderful escape, but also gives you something to take back with you to the “real world”.

Does that make sense? I hope I’m not talking it up TOO much, but it’s one of my favorites. :)

Huskyteer

By contrast, I came to Watership Down when I was young enough to be genuinely terrified by it. I must have been about 8 when I stumbled across the Film Picture Book, a large format book of stills from the animated movie with short narrative text. I was fascinated, and went on to the novel, which must have been the longest thing I’d ever read. I was all about the rabbits for some time, drawing pictures, attempting to turn the book into a play, and getting the one friend who claimed to have read it to join me in Watership Down playground games.

Strangely, although it’s a wonderful book which I re-read often, the novel has not left me with a particularly deep connection to rabbits. But I can’t see one peacefully nibbling the roadside grass on a summer evening without the word ‘silflay’ popping into my head.

JM

I find myself with mixed feelings, because I agree with all those positive things you have to say (and will undoubtedly continue to day). Watership Down is  such a special book, with so many terrific features that any reader—adult or child—can love and appreciate.

The characterization of our rabbit heroes is terrific. As you say, Jakebe, there are big personality differences between them, and its their ability to work together while taking advantage of each other’s strengths that shows the value of both community and individuality. And the lapine language is great, not least because it gives the author elegant euphemisms for certain unwholesome activities (i.e. “hraka” for “poo”). But I especially loved the rabbit fables, of El-Ahrairah exploring and defining what it means to be a rabbit. There’s great humour and a timeless quality to them: they could be published in a book of their own.

Yet I have some problems with Watership Down. There is an intrusive element to many of Richard Adams’s metaphors and similes that call attention to the time and place the book is written and set: Hampshire circa 1971. I found these aspects to be jarring on two levels: firstly because they don’t fit into our lapine narrative, and secondly because they are often political and negative.

On the benign end of the scale, there is a cricket metaphor describing Hazel’s confidence as he heads to Nuthanger Farm for the first time. It fails because it draws the reader out of the natural lapine world and firmly into the human one. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Adams specifically wants to cast Hazel as an Englishman, enjoying an appropriate English activity, in this case “a batsman [playing] a fine innings”. That undercurrent of slightly intrusive middle Englishness rears its head less benignly in a different metaphor that characterizes the Cornish as coarse, and another that aimed at the Irish which is unambiguously racist: “a rabbit can no more refuse to tell a story than an Irishman can refuse to fight”.

And can I float a theory about Kehaar? I know from background reading that he is supposedly based on a Norwegian soldier, but I can’t see that reflected in his pidgin English: in fact, I read his patois as Caribbean. His character as an honourable simpleton, his deference to the authority to the rabbits, his poor hygiene… I find it easy to see him as a racist stereotype.

To put things in context: the UK had seen significant Afro-Caribbean immigration following WWII (the Windrush generation) and race was a political flashpoint at the time Watership Down was written. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act contained explicitly racial, and racist, provisions designed to reduce the numbers of black people coming to the UK. Kehaar is a foreign interloper into the English lapine world: that he is a positive character is neither here nor there, as with Huckleberry Finn’s Jim.

I have some other, related issues – the characterization of the does (as Kehaar would put it, as “mudders” rather than fully-fledged actors), and the rabbits’ specifically Christian God. But I’ve complained for long enough. Hopefully, though, this explains my mixed feelings about Watership Down. On one hand it’s quite brilliant; one the other it’s tarred by a bigoted Little England sensibility.

Am I being unreasonably harsh? I feel sometimes like I cast myself as a wet blanket when I write about furry (and furry-adjacent) art here on [adjective][species], but I promise it’s not out of any pre-determination to find fault. I really do love reading, and there are many books that I truly love. Unfortunately Watership Down, for all its strengths, isn’t one of them.

Jakebe

I don’t think you should worry about being a wet blanket on this one at all, JM. It’s perfectly all right to turn a critical eye towards the things we love; in fact, I’d say it’s more important to do so. Engaging with the entirety of a work — its strengths and its flaws — shows a complete understanding and commitment to it that “mature, respectful admiration” requires. At least, I think so.

And Watership Down definitely has its flaws. People have taken Richard Adams to task for his treatment/erasure of women in the novel, and he’s taken strides to correct that in subsequent work; in the (sorta?) sequel Tales From Watership Down, Hazel’s mate is the co-chief of the warren and the female characters are given much more page-time and agency. At least, that’s what I’ve heard because I never actually read the collection. I’m a bad rabbit. :)

As far as the attempt to “humanize” the rabbits leading to Adams’ use of time- or place-dependent metaphor, I’ll give him a pass on that. As far as I know, he wasn’t a professional writer at the time he constructed the novel and even among a lot of the pulpy SFF writers of the time metaphors and allusions that dated the text were common practice. It may speak to the somewhat-myopic social outlook of Adams that he didn’t think about how non-white Englishpeople or people from other countries might take them, and that’s a fair criticism. But I was never taken out of the story because of that.

Your scan of the Sandleford rabbits as white Englishmen is something I had never really considered before, and it opens up a very rich vein for criticism. If we’re to look at the novel as a fable, then it stands to reason each and every character should/does have a real-world counterpart that people in Adams’ social group would be in contact with. I took Adams at his word with Kehaar, but it kind of blows me away that you’ve taken a different (and problematic) meaning from it. I’m not from Great Britain, and I don’t have much knowledge about social and racial politics there. But if Kehaar (and now that I think of it, the mice and hedgehogs the rabbits meet along the way) are meant to be stand-ins for different groups, then it’s a good idea to unpack that.

Huskyteer, what do you think? Would you agree with JM’s assessment that the personalities and outlook of Hazel and his crew are distinctly…middle English, for better and worse? What do you think of the representation of the does in the novel, and do you find that his characterization of other animals have some real-world analogues that those of us in the States might have missed completely?

Huskyteer

I thought I was writing a short reply. Apparently I thought wrong.

Watership Down is indeed set firmly in the England I, born in the late 1970s in a county next door to Hampshire, grew up in. It’s not a place that changes quickly; today there would be more fields of oilseed rape and less smoking, but the landscape and people are still recognisable. 

The book is written from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, which is often necessary to get across concepts outside the rabbits’ experience without wasting thousands of words on them. But the voice of that narrator occasionally slips and becomes the voice of Richard Adams, which I think is what JM is complaining about. 

The ‘hedgerow patois’ in which other species are represented as having foreign accents is one of many items Adams contributed to the talking-animal-story toolkit; it’s much less subtle in Garry Kilworth’s Hunter’s Moon, where, if I recall correctly, foxes speak standard English, badgers sound German and cats French.

(Adams’s mouse sounds Italian to me. I’d love to think this is a jokey reference to Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse puppet who was popular in the 1960s, but that’s a bit of a reach.)

I always interpreted Kehaar as a comedy German, one of the key British stereotypes, though that may be because Norwegians, and indeed Jamaicans, were outside my experience the first time I read the novel. 

I see it’s been left to the Brit to talk about class. Well, I would certainly pop the rabbits firmly in the middle class, with hedgehogs and mice as the slightly dim but hard-working lower class. The upper class is probably represented by certain elil, like foxes and weasels: frightening, respected, and everyone likes a joke in which they get their comeuppance. (I’m now picturing a rabbit joke with the punchline “The name of our act? The Elil!”.) 

Rabbits seem a pretty good metaphor for middle England, in fact; resistant to change, and highly committed to the natural order of things and the ‘green and pleasant land’.

The treatment of women (or, more properly, does) is problematic. Looking at the principal cast, I can’t see any reason why one, some or all of them shouldn’t have been female. Adams does make more of an effort in Tales from Watership Down, and props to him for trying, but I don’t think he manages to pull it off. Frankly, I’ve read WD fanfic that works far better than Tales

Several excuses can be made, besides the obvious one that the lack of does is what leads to the conflict with Efrafa (not good enough; I’m sure the Watership rabbits would have run foul of Woundwort’s warren in some other way sooner or later). 

Firstly, Adams was writing based on rabbit behaviour, and the dispersal of young males in the wild. However, this isn’t an accurate reflection of dispersal (more males than females tend to leave their birthplace, and males tend to go further, but travel is not the exclusive domain of the bucks). Similar excuses are used to justify the exclusion of women and minorities in sci-fi, fantasy and historical fiction, and are deservedly shot down.

Secondly, Adams famously based the cast of Watership Down on humans he had known in the military. It’s apparent that he is comfortable working with male characters and the relationships between them. 

I’d like to draw a parallel with J.R.R. Tolkien. Here we have two authors who each fought in a world war (Tolkien in the First, Adams in the Second), and survived to write stories about bands of travellers who defend a pleasant, cosy place against a dark and powerful enemy. This view might not excuse the resulting bunch-of-white-blokes ethos, but I believe it goes a long way towards explaining it. 

Bottom line: I don’t think it’s at all surprising that the novel reflects a society that is white, middle-class, male-dominated and Christian, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter for condemnation. Dismiss the novel for its limitations and you miss out on the rich story it tells, as well as characters who might all fall into the same social class but are still an interesting and varied bunch.

The world of Watership Down is necessarily a small one, with the rabbits’ exhausting and dangerous journey covering only a few miles. I think this, too, reflects small communities on a small island, where national and international affairs often take a back seat to local news.

JM

I think that’s good analysis and it gets to the nub of my real issue with Watership Down – that to drill too deeply into the novel’s structure is to miss the point. It really is a special book, with a combination of characterization, anthropomorphization, and adventure that doesn’t have any parallels in my reading experience. (The Hobbit is as close as I can get.)

Watership Down is a children’s book, and doesn’t hold up well to analysis. And that’s why I am going to vote against its inclusion in the [a][s] Furry Canon: while it excels in its relevance to furry and persistence in general, it’s just too simple for to me recommend it as an exceptional book.

I’m pretty confident that my vote is going to overturned by the two of you, and Watership Down will be recommended to our canon 2-1. And I don’t have a problem with that. In fact I suspect that my opinions are, in this case, less valid than yours, simply because you both clearly love the book. So I guess I’m casting myself as the [adjective][species] Antonin Scalia: contrarian but ultimately irrelevant.

Given that, I’ll halt my final contribution to this roundtable here. There’s a fine line between being contrarian and being belligerent. This has been great though, and I look forward to reading your final thoughts.

Huskyteer

I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Watership Down for the Furry Canon. I say that as a fan, but I think and hope I would have the same opinion if I hated it. Here’s how it matches up to the entry requirements:

Quality: The novel was critically acclaimed on its release, winning the Carnegie Medla and other accolades, and regularly turns up on lists with titles like ‘100 Books You Must Read’ and ‘Best Books of the 20th Century’. It has become the standard by which all books about animals who talk but otherwise lead more or less natural lives are judged. 

Longevity: See above. First published in 1972, Watership Down has, as far as I know, been in print ever since. Spinoffs have included the 1978 animated film, the late-90s television cartoon, theatre and radio adaptations, and a roleplaying game, Bunnies & Burrows. In 2016, UK broadcaster Channel 5 came under fire for airing the film on Easter Sunday, proving that it still has the power to traumatise small children, and at the time of writing a new four-part mini-series has been announced, with voice talent including Ben Kingsley and John Boyega.

Relevancy: Watership Down has a sizeable fandom within furry, with roleplayers, fanfic writers and artists presenting their own interpretations of both Adams’s cast and original characters. For some, Watership Down in one format or another was the gateway or catalyst that led them to furry in the first place. Finally, how many readers of furry news website Flayrah realise that the name is taken from the Lapine word for especially tasty food?

Jakebe

I would second the motion to recommend Watership Down for the Furry Canon. I realize how biased I may be about this, but there are also a ton of terrible rabbit-oriented stories out there that I really wouldn’t suggest anyone should read.

Quality: When most people outside the fandom think about anthropomorphic characters in literature, Watership Down is one of the very first works they think of — and for good reason. It really is an excellent book that stands up well to re-reading as you age; as a child, you get pulled in by the fantastic danger of these cute and relatable animals, and as an adult you realize how the various social systems set up in the warrens they visit have real-world analogs that are fairly disturbing. It’s a book that sticks with you, from the wonderful cosmology of the rabbit’s inner life to the rather visceral violence that frequently visits them.

Longevity: This book has been around for a while; it’s spawned an animated film that’s also a staple of many people’s childhood, an animated series, a sequel of short stories and a role-playing game. And even now, within the viper pit of Reddit, an AMA with Adams brought out a ton of folks gushing about what the book has meant to them. I don’t see its impact diminishing much in the future for those of us in the fandom.

Relevancy: Famous outside of furry, it’s nearly ubiquitous within it. Very few of us haven’t heard about Watership Down, at the very least, and what the book can teach us about courage, community and the fragility of life through the ordeal of the Sandleford rabbits is one of the reasons we get into furry in the first place. It uses animals to make us feel better about being human.

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4 thoughts on “The Furry Canon: Watership Down (Roundtable)

  1. I guess that I first read Watership Down shortly after the American hardcover edition by Macmillan appeared in the Los Angeles Public Library, probably in 1974. I remember liking it extremely much – the hardcover was published as an adult book, and there were almost no adult books about anthropomorphized animals then except Orwell’s Animal Farm and Stapledon’s Sirius, except for s-f novels with animallike aliens like Earthman’s Burden by Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson – and because the rabbit’s god was Frith, which was the nickname of the original Gothic form of my own name, Frithuric, about 500 A.D. Almost all its characters were distinct and memorable. Even General Woundwort, who would have been a shallow villain easily defeated by almost any other writer, was terrifyingly intelligent as well as malevolent. As a s-f fan, one of the highlights for me at the 1978 World Science Fiction Convention in Phoenix was the special premiere of Martin Rosen’s animated feature, two months before its American release.

    When furry fandom got started around 1980-1982, it turned out that Watership Down was a book that Everyone had read, and most s-f fans had seen the animated feature as well. At the 1980s s-f & comics conventions’ special-interest tables during the daytimes and the Furry Parties in the evenings hosted by Mark Merlino & Rod O’Riley, a copy of Watership Down was almost always a part of the display.

    I didn’t review it until 2007, because it wasn’t a s-f genre novel in the 1970s & 1980s, and by the time I started reviewing furry books regularly in the 1990s it was an established classic. I was reviewing new furry lit for Cubist’s bimonthly online Anthro magazine by then, and in 2007 he said that he wanted one of the furry classics reviewed in each of my columns. Watership Down was my second classic, after Animal Farm.

    http://www.anthrozine.com/revw/rvw.patten.0d.html#watership.down

    I consider it still a cornerstone of furry literature. The rolling green fields of England were always far from the urban metropolis of Los Angeles that I grew up in (we do have rarely-seen wild hares), but I could imagine it as the time-immemorial natural habitat or rabbits. It’s become a Bible of furry fantasy literature, both presenting in fantasy form what “realistic” rabbit life must be like, and as the novel that introduced the concepts of an animal species’ language and religion. We’ve seen those in so many animal fantasies since the 1970s. It’s still thrilling and intelligent reading; a bit old-fashioned, but more worthwhile than just about anything else. Other high-quality furry novels have come and gone, but Watership Down seems to be always easy to find, in public libraries especially.

  2. Thank you to Huskyteer, Jakebe and JM for your combined effort on this examination of Watership Down.
    I thought I knew this book. I thought I had read it many years ago, in high school, but now that I have this copy of it, from my local library, I’m not sure that book was actually Watership Down. It was about rabbits but it wasn’t the same book! It might take me a while to get through the 426 pages of this real Watership Down, ’cause I’m kinda busy with another project.

  3. Small bit of funny trivia about the criticism, in one of his other books (the Plague Dogs to be specific) Adams has a couple of characters criticize is own work

  4. Adams himself is on the record saying that the supposed WWII allegory in his story was not his intent. He was writing an fun adventure story about rabbits, I doubt he was thinking, “And this hedgehog will represent the Welsh” or what have you while he was in the process of typing.

    I do think that he might have tended that way subconsciously, some, but dredging politics out of this suggests over-analysation to me. This is not “Animal Farm” and it should not be read as such.

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