A friend just got a tattoo that reminded me of El-ahrairah, the progenitor rabbit from the mythology in Watership Down. That reminded me to google for some information about the book (since I didn’t know how to spell El-ahrairah anyway), and I was especially interested in the story of its publication.
I read the book maybe
25 or 30 years ago and I loved it. But I long wondered how it ever got
published, a book about rabbits and their troubles and their religion.
I always said I would have liked to be in the room when it was finally
approved for publication, or maybe just when it was being pitched.
Watership Down was rejected seven times before it was accepted by Rex Collings.
The one-man London publisher Collings wrote to an associate, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” The associate did call it “a mad risk” in her obituary of Collings; “a book as bizarre by an unknown writer which had been turned down by the major London publishers; but it was also dazzlingly brave and intuitive.” Collings had little capital and could not pay an advance but “he got a review copy onto every desk in London that mattered.”
A one-man publisher, that explains a lot. Of course, once it was published, it won all kinds of book prizes and became a best-seller and was made into a movie.
read it in a long time, but I recall it really is an interesting and
engaging and well-written book. I know it’s sort of aimed at children
now, because, you know, bunnies, but I didn’t think it came across as a children’s book at all. It actually has some pretty adult themes.
A much more lightweight book (that really is a children’s book, but certainly a few notches above Where the Wild Things Are) is Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which Wikipedia informs me, to my surprise, came out before Watership Down. I was initially attracted to the book because, you know, rats,
but it’s really a pretty charming and clever story. Several times I
have given the book to adults to read, and they were always surprised by
how much they enjoyed it.
Rats of NIMH was made famous
because it was made into an animated film by a group of renegade Disney
animators. It was probably the last classic Disney animated film,
though it wasn’t made by Disney Productions. I don’t remember much
about the film, except for the one scene where the rats of NIMH set up
machinery to move the mouse Mrs Frisby’s home (a concrete block) out of
the way of a farmer’s plough during a nighttime thunderstorm. Some
pretty breathtaking ink-and-cell animation, that scene.
Later when I was noodling around with science fiction stories of my own, I borrowed the rats of NIMH idea (they were hyperintelligent rats as a result of experiments at the National Institute of Mental Heath), considering it was plausible that genetically engineered hyperintelligent rats would be useful in the maintenance of space ships, since they could crawl into all kinds of tight spaces.
Back to Watership Down, apparently it irritates the feminists:
In “Male Chauvinist Rabbits,” an essay originally published in the New York Times Book Review, Selma G. Lanes criticized Adams’s treatment of gender. She observed that the first third of the story is a “celebration of male camaraderie, competence, bravery and loyalty as a scraggly bunch of yearling bucks … arrive triumphant at a prospectively ideal spot”, only to realize that they have no females for mating. “Fully the last two-thirds of Adams’s saga,” Lanes argued, “is devoted to what one male reviewer has blithely labelled “The Rape of the Sabine Rabbits”, a ruthless, single-minded and rather mean-spirited search for females – not because Watership Down’s males miss their companionship or yearn for love, but rather to perpetuate the existing band.” For Adams, Lanes continued, the does are only “instruments of reproduction” to prevent the achievement of reaching Watership Down from “becoming a hollow victory.” As evidence, Lanes pointed to Hazel and Holly’s assessment of the rescued Nuthanger does’ value: “it came naturally … to consider the two Nuthanger does simply as breeding stock for the warren.”
Lanes argued that this view of the female rabbits came from Adams himself rather than his source text, Ronald Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit. In Lockley’s text, by contrast, the rabbit world is matriarchal, and new warrens are always initiated by dissatisfied, young females. Hence, Lanes concluded, Adams’s novel 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.”Wikipedia
Those are all
fair criticisms as far as they go, but what’s the point? It’s a
children’s book, a fantasy about rabbits, written in the late sixties by
a guy born in 1920. What a tiny little world people like this must
occupy if they seek out ways to be offended and then actually spend the
time to write a detailed attack on Watership Down. My reaction
to essays like this is, fine, how about instead of writing pointless
feminist critiques of children’s books you go out and write a children’s
book of your own, politically and socially pure, that is as
entertaining and engaging and thrilling and just plain wonderful as Watership Down?
But they never do.
And I know why they don’t: they can’t. These people are attacking the very narrative archetypes at the basis of Western thought, of civilization itself. They might not like them, but they can’t make them go away and they discard them at their peril (and ours!). No feminist, rejecting Genesis and Gilgamesh and Homer and Star Wars and everything else on which we base our literature and indeed our very morality, will ever produce a work that will resonate through the ages as, for one simple example, this novel about bunnies making the hero’s journey.