One of my most vivid childhood recollections is listening to the ABC radio. They had weekly readings of stories that were read by a man with a rich baritone voice in an English accent. How could you not be mesmerised? And the story that I remember most vividly is, Watership Down by Richard Adams.
I can remember sitting outside in the sun with the radio balanced on a fallen log, my mother in the distant garden, my ear almost glued to the speaker, the reader’s voice oozing out of the radio like pure treacle. From then on my love for the written word was deeply ingrained.
The combination of the wonderful reading and of course the story that transported me to another world full of rabbits, provided me with the knowledge that writing has no limits and that, as a writer, you are powerful because you can create these worlds without boundaries.
Of course, Watership Down is much more than a story about rabbits. Most probably, at the tender age of seven, I didn’t understand all the messages woven into the narrative but I did get the basic messages.
Watership Down is an heroic fantasy novel about a small group of rabbits. The rabbits are anthropodomorphised (animal characterised as human), possessing their own culture, language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry and mythology. Each member of the small group of rabbits is mostly considered weak in character or physical stature but manage to overcome adversity when they are unwittingly thrown into an epic journey as a matter of survival. The novel recounts their journey from their warren, about to be destroyed by humans, to freedom at Watership Down, but not without many trials along the way.
Find me a reader who does not like the ‘little guy’ to win. There are so many themes in this story but the one that struck me, as a seven year old, was that Hazel became the leader of this hapless bunch despite the fact that he was neither big nor powerful but he was loyal and brave and a quick thinker. Then compare him to the big, fierce rabbits, like General Woundwort, who tried to control all rabbits with bully tactics. Maybe every child or even adult can relate to being bullied at some stage of their life, because these themes really resonated for me.
The author, Richard Adams, has created a total social order with the rabbits. It has been argued since it was first published that the social order of the rabbits in Watership Down is very male chauvinistic because the does (female rabbits) play such a small role in the epic journey. In fact, as one reviewer in the 70s, Selma G Lanes New York Times Book Review, commented that “the first two thirds of the story is a ‘celebration of male camaraderie, competence, bravery and loyalty as a scraggly bunch of yearling bucks arrive triumphant at their destination’ only to realise that they have no females for mating”. This is unfortunately quite true about the story but it did not take away my enjoyment of it and could be testament to the time of publication. It may be that if it were written now that an editor might make more of an issue of it and suggest making it more politically correct and gender sensitive.
Thirteen publishers rejected Watership Down before being published in 1972. It is Adams most successful novel to date and has never been out of print. Reviewing a novel like Watership Down, begs the question ‘What is it that makes it so appealing?’ and really ‘What makes a story work?’ I asked myself that question when I pondered the reason that this story had so much of an impact on me. Was it the wonderful reading by that British man or was it the fact that I was only seven and didn’t have a clue about gender issues and was just caught up in the story? On rereading it as an adult, I can’t say that the language is particularly outstanding, or that there are passages of writing in it that make me want to emulate the style. It isn’t particularly beautiful writing but the plot is riveting and the characters interesting.
Of course, I could go in depth and describe the characters and themes but that would not explain how the writing has influenced mine. First and foremost, Watership Down is about story and that age-old love of a good yarn with a few lessons thrown in. It was written originally for the author’s daughters because he had begun to verbally tell them rabbit tales on long drives to the country. It was on their insistence that he wrote them down. It is as basic as getting lost in a tale and being transported to another place. And it is as relevant at seven years of age as for an adult. None of that wonder was lost for me in the rereading of it thirty odd years later.
So, when I now write a story, I look at it from the point of view of the reader. Will the reader care about what I have written and will it engage them? Once the story is written, the rewriting will allow time to put in more of those layers: more rounded characters, interesting themes and vivid details.
But first, you need a story.