There are certain things you aren’t supposed to do in literature. I had always figured mixing (a sort of ) realism with non-human characters was something of a no-no. Sure, you could have the fantastical and all too human blood-splattering animals of Brian Jacques’ Red Wall series, but in those you are quite simply projecting human will and action upon another creature.
Adams has done something I didn’t think could be done: told a classic hero tale using arguably the most benign creatures to ever inhabit a field. I mean, they are rabbits. They sniff, twitch-nosed and whiskered, rarely make a noise, and seem content upon having heart attacks as a sort of defense mechanism (this may not be true, I am not a biologist, but I do sometimes play one on TV). Despite this Adams studied them and incorporated their action, mannerisms, applied a small amount of logic to them, gave them speech, and told an epic largely along the lines of the Odyssey or the Aeneid.
Its prose are pleasant, and while it dips far too heavily into the pastoral at times, I feel like when you are writing about rabbits, a part of you must think you are writing to rabbits, and I can think of little else they would be more pleased to read about. This does, however, slow down the book and end up creating a pace through the first half of the book that may turn a lot of readers away, which is a shame because there is a lot of charm and comradery once things start to feel like they are falling into shape. The characters are distinct and borrows gracefully from the heroic tradition and in the process exploring the themes of the genre in a world that is wonderfully and distinctly its own.
That is until about 2/3 of the way through the book when things take a turn for the chauvinistic. Oh dear god, the chauvinism. A bunch of bucks (boy rabbits) have separated themselves from their warren and managed to establish their own, but then it dawns on them…they need does (girl rabbits) in order to sire children, lest the warren fail. And so they begin to plan a way to steal away some females from another evil fascist warren. The entire thing feels like they are planning some sort of jewel heist.
I realize this was written in the early 70s, but the way the does are turned into some sort of commodity needed to be harvested, while the men plan and develop politics and personality is atrocious. No female, even those given a small bit personality end up amounting to anything other than breeding stock. Even in the final conflict they are relegated to things needed to be comforted by fables. And it’s not subtle. I’m not some super-enlightened feminist who can detect the more ingrained aspects of patriarchy, but this, this is like being smacked by a misogynistic salmon across the face.
The book is excellent despite this, but it shows its age, and while the ancient classics can be given passes on their lack of female volition, Watership Down exists far too closely to 2nd wave feminism to be given a complete pass. It’s more a sign of the times than an indictment of the writer, but one still can’t help but feel disappointed.
“Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.” ― Richard Adams, Watership Down