when the world was young: “watership down”

Two weeks ago today, I published my latest novel, Lost Dogs, about a German Shepherd named Buddy, and a Beagle/Basset mix named Sally, who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles are just beginning.  It’s already received great reviews, but it would not be possible without Watership Down.

 

 

If you’re just awakening from a 40-something year coma, Watership Down is Richard Adams’ first novel, about a group of rabbits who leave their warren before catastrophe can strike, and set out in search of another home.  The book chronicles the rabbits’ journey over the southern English countryside as they contend with predators, humans, and rabbits degenerate (Cowslip’s warren) or totalitarian (the Efrefans).

 

Published in 1972, Watership Down is Adams’ masterpiece (I am sad to say that The Plague Dogs, another of Adams’ “animal novels,” is not nearly as good), and it was made into an animated film in 1978.  The movie version is one of the few adaptations that I think is better than its source: at about 400 pages, WD the novel tends to be wordy.  The movie is much more streamlined; the visuals are fantastic; and it features an outstanding voice cast, featuring John Hurt as Hazel, Harry Andrews as the menacing General Woundwort, and Zero Mostel as Kehaar the bird.

 

As if that weren’t enough going for it, WD the movie has Art Garfunkel’s haunting “Bright Eyes,” which plays while Fiver searches for Hazel after he’s been shot.  If you can watch the film to that point and keep a dry eye during that song, you’re made of sterner stuff than me.

 

 

 

As you might imagine, Watership Down was a big inspiration for Lost Dogs, starting with…

 

“Talking” animals.  Well, “DUH,” you might say, but while Watership Down gives its animal characters dialogue, there are plenty of other stories—such as The Incredible Journey—that do not.  And many of the stories that allow their animals to talk don’t do a very good job of it: as I’ve mentioned before, the canine protagonists of Rover Red Charlie often sound like smart-alecky humans in dog costumes.  Adams himself drops the ball with the Tod in The Plague Dogs: why should a fox speak in Geordie?

 

Watership Down gets it perfectly, however: each character has a distinct “voice”: you’d never confuse Hazel’s lines with Fiver’s or Bigwig’s.  Most importantly, the characters sound authentic, like rabbits (if rabbits could speak) and not people.

 

I tried to do the same in Lost Dogs: each of the major characters has their own way of talking.  Not being terribly cerebral, the dogs “speak” in short, direct sentences; the Border Collie Rex, being the smartest, is prone to longer speech.  Rex is also the only one able to understand and use sarcasm, but he does so sparingly.  While some of them might not always say everything they know or are feeling, intentional deception is beyond their mental abilities, even for Rex.  So, yeah: man’s best friend doesn’t know how to lie.

 

The “Lapine language” that Adams created and sprinkles throughout Watership Down is sheer genius, further differentiating his rabbits from any other creatures.  What a marvelous word is “silflay.”  I did something similar in Lost Dogs, introducing a few new words for things (such as the scent of snow) that the English language doesn’t cover.

 

The world as perceived by an animal.  Reading Watership Down, one is immersed in what it must be like to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel as a rabbit does.  For example, the journey from their original warren to their new home is only a few miles, yet it seems very long—as well it should for small animals not meant to travel far distances.  Adams also perfectly conveys the constant wariness that rabbits must exhibit if they want to live a long time in a world filled with predators.

 

 

Aided by Alexandra Horowitz’s excellent nonfiction book Inside of a Dog, I likewise attempted to portray the world as a dog would experience it, starting with the understanding that smell is their primary scent, not sight, as is ours.  The dogs have little sense of time, reflected in the present tense in which I wrote the novel; they have great difficulty recalling the past, except in dreams.  Categories also largely elude them: they do not much distinguish among the different sorts of cats, rodents, birds, insects, trees, grasses, and other vegetation they encounter.  As for people and their paraphernalia…

 

Humankind as perceived by animals.  In Watership Down, the rabbits rarely encounter humans, and when they do they, people are often dangerous and inscrutable.  At the beginning of the novel, the rabbits are flummoxed by the wooden sign promising the “development” of the site where their warrant lies, and the construction of human habitations; similarly, they don’t fully grasp the concept of cars and many other accoutrements.  They do, however, realize that humans are not their friends, and have a variety of methods and implements for killing rabbits.

 

The former pets in Lost Dogs have a much closer relationship with people, but they, too, struggle to understand us.  Buddy is sometimes baffled by the behavior of Rob, his master, and has resigned himself to often being able to perceive smells or sounds that humans can’t.  Rex wonders where his owner would go all day, most days, and what she did while she was gone.  Doors and fences keep dogs in or out of places, sometimes with tragic effects.  Cabinets and containers are often too high to reach or impossible to open.  The Golden Setter Lil comes to realize that everything in the world is for humans, and nothing is meant for dogs.  This belief fuels her growing discontent, which affects the others as well.

 

Addressing stereotypes.  Before reading Watership Down, one might have thought of rabbits as cute, fluffy, harmless, lovable “bunnies”; or (if you’re a gardener or farmer) as thieving pests best exterminated as quickly as possible.

 

Adams masterfully deconstructs our notions of what rabbits are: yes, they can be quite endearing, but they’re also capable of cruelty and violence.  There’s no way one would think of General Woundwort as anything close to “cute,” “harmless,” or “lovable.”

 

Not so much, no

 

Likewise, one might gain some sympathy for animals that yes, often help themselves to what humans grow, but also face a myriad of threats every moment of their brief lives.  After finishing Watership Down, I had a much better appreciation for rabbits, even conceding them some nobility. I’m always happy to see them on my lawn, before dawn or around sunset—and I always warn them to look out for my cat.

 

I brought to Lost Dogs Adams’ re-examination of animals we are overly-familiar with.  In today’s culture, dogs are too often portrayed as clownish simpletons: doing inane tricks like “Fetch” and “Sit” and “Play Dead;” chasing cars and cats and squirrels; licking their genitals and dragging their butts; sniffing crotches and humping legs; etc.

 

Or they are cast as deeply devoted to their owners, loving them more intensely and with more loyalty than any human could.  They bear any hardship, travel any distance, overcome any obstacle, brave any danger for their masters.  How many times HAS Lassie saved little Timmy, anyway?

And then there’s Dug from Up, who is silly AND loves everyone

 

The dogs in my novel occasionally do typical silly “doggy” things, and yes, some of those involve pee and poop: it would be very out of character if none of them ever chased a rabbit (sorry, Hazel) or marked his territory with a cocked leg.  But while there are some lighter, funnier moments, the dogs are not played for laughs.  Okay, except for Poppy the Pomeranian: he is plainly some much-needed comic relief.

 

On the other side of the coin, some of them are very attached to their owners: Buddy the German Shepherd is convinced that his owners (his “Belongings,” as most dogs refer to people) have survived the catastrophe at the beginning of the novel, and he spends much of the story searching for them.  Some of the other dogs, however, are not nearly so eager to be reunited with their masters, and at least one is glad to be rid of them….

 

I wouldn’t dare claim that Lost Dogs does for canines what Watership Down did for rabbits: no, the acme of stories about dogs is and always shall be Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.  But Watership Down definitely influenced Lost Dogs, and I hope that my story reflects a sliver of its brilliance.

 

 

LOST DOGS is the story of two dogs who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun.  Kenton Kilgore is also the author of DRAGONTAMER’S DAUGHTERS, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief.
 

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2 Responses to when the world was young: “watership down”

  1. And it makes me want to read it or see it or hear John Hurt and Bright Eyes. And of course, it makes me want to read your book Kenton. Very interesting and you do give your dues to those it is due to.

  2. Thanks, Shalagh! You definitely must read WATERSHIP DOWN. I think I saw the movie at least a half a dozen times on HBO as a teenager in the ’80’s.