Monday, September 30, 2002

Clover's mate - not Speedwell but Holly

I notice that quite a lot of people are under the impression that Clover's mate is Speedwell, drawing such an inference because he is the buck who announces the birth of her litter. But I disagree - only a couple of pages earlier, we're clearly told that Speedwell is digging a hole with Boxwood, one of the farm bucks, rather than hanging around with Clover - and in any case there is plenty of evidence for Holly's paternity of the kittens:

* Quite some while back (ch. 27), we've been told that "Holly had taken to Clover".
* One of Clover's sons is called Scabious, after a rabbit Holly saw killed by men.
* I really doubt whether Speedwell would win a fight with Holly over any doe.
* And finally: it's likely that the kittens were conceived while Speedwell was away on the Efrafan raid (remember that Kehaar brought them the news that "ees all to fight").

Sunday, September 29, 2002

More thoughts on the Radio 4 version

Okay, here are a few more detailed thoughts about the first half of the BBC radio serial.

Today we experienced a rare event - a brand new adaptation of Watership Down, this time for BBC Radio 4. Neville Teller has dramatised the story in two hour-long episodes, of which the first was broadcast a few hours ago. This covered the story from the beginning until the moment at which Fiver insists that Hazel, who has been shot in the farm raid, isn't dead.

I really don't know what I was expecting from this version - after all, there's never been a version intended for radio before, although the soundtrack of the 1978 film is bordering on that. But, after listening for an hour, I felt... well, not much frankly. The film worked better than could really have been expected because the actors had obviously invested deep reserves of emotion in their characters, but the participants here seemed at times to be going through the motions. Most of us who love the story will find it hard to understand how such a moving story can be rendered so - well - passionless.

That's not to say that the radio version was dreadful - it wasn't. The cast are not the star-studded lineup of the film, but that's not really important, though I doubt any Hazel could have lived up to John Hurt's brilliantly judged portrayal. And there were at least no extra does shoved into the initial deserters to make up the numbers. The voices are reasonably well judged, though Kehaar is not strident enough, and I found that the rabbits stressed almost every Lapine word differently to how I pronounce them!

All the initial band from the book are present and correct, which is a definite plus point - even the minor parts of Hawkbit, Speedwell and Acorn - though poor old Pipkin (who you'll remember I have something of a soft spot for) doesn't seem to be allowed to speak at all (are the BBC that strapped for cash?). As in the film, Holly appears alone in the ditch, without Bluebell, and Silverweed is gone, though as his poem is dispensed with entirely in the radio version (why?), that makes little difference. Strawberry, on the other hand, does join the party, which is nice after his omission from the film.

As far as the story itself goes, things haven't been messed around too much - the opening scene is in the Threarah's burrow, and there's only one visit to the farm (which is a bit hard on Pipkin, who therefore misses his adventure), plus there are the inevitable losses of some of the peripheral subplots - the lendri for example, and the crossing of the Common (which is a shame, as it's an early test of Hazel's leadership). No real complaints, though - much as I'd love a 15-hour marathon with absolutely everything included, realism demands that something has to go.

However, now I have to be a bit harsher. One of the great pleasures of listening to an adaptation of a favourite book is in listening out for and speaking along to the "great lines". Sadly, Mr Teller doesn't seem to realise how important this is, and has taken from us some of the genuinely great speeches from the book. For example, Fiver's "the field! It's covered with blood!" is replaced by a bland line about dead bodies, Bigwig's "I'm finished with you" to Fiver at the Warren of Shining Wires is gone too, and also removed is Frith's great promise to El-Ahrairah: "be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed".

Worst of all, though, the scene where Bigwig is saved from the snare is robbed of almost all the power it has in the book (and the film, which did an excellent job here), and absent entirely is possibly the most extraordinarily moving line in the whole book: "my heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today". I can't see any excuse for that, and this particular change annoys me more than any other.

Finally, I felt that the cliffhanger was in the wrong place - after Fiver had said that Hazel was alive. It would have been much more effective to have stopped a few moments beforehand, when the farmer's gun went off, with it left hanging as to who - if anyone - had been shot. There's no "Bright Eyes" here (the music, incidentally, is a rather strange choice of ooh-arr countrified folk fiddling, pleasant enough on the ear but paling by comparison with Angela Morley's excellent film score), so there's no need to put the "interval" in the same place as in the movie.

Half-time report, then: Mr Teller's adaptation is by no means a disaster, but it simply does not live up to the glories of its source. It's inoffensive - and yes, I know I'm damning with faint praise here. I'll still be listening to the second half of the story next weekend, and if that's better then I will be delighted - and will say as much here. I think a lot depends on the people playing two characters: General Woundwort, of course, and Hyzenthlay. If we imagine a scale of 0 to 10, with the book at 10, then the 1978 film would score around 7 or 8, and the TV series 2 or so. This would get 5 - it doesn't excite strong emotions either way, which is really not something I often feel about Watership Down.
First thoughts on the Radio 4 dramatisation

More here later on, but I thought it was adequate. It wasn't great; it wasn't awful. It didn't change the story much, except that for some reason Dandelion replaced Pipkin on the farm raid, and Haystack was a bit more talkative. But it lacked passion, and left out several of the most famous lines, ones which every fan would expect to have heard. I hope this wasn't just being different for the sake of it.
UK Radio alert!

To mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of Watership Down, BBC Radio 4 are putting on a brand new, two-hour dramatisation of the novel by Neville Teller! The play will be in two parts, the first today at 3pm BST (repeated at 9pm on Saturday). Not a terribly well known cast - the complete opposite of the Nepenthe film - but that's not important - what is important is that the producers resist the temptation to "modernise", as seen so disastrously in the telly series. It's not often we get something as new and exciting as this in the WD world, so let's keep our claws crossed that it lives up to its illustrious name!

In the UK (and some closer parts of Europe), you can get Radio 4 on 198KHz long wave; otherwise you can hear it via the internet (you'll need RealPlayer) at: - click the "listen live" button.

Saturday, September 28, 2002

"Passive baby-factories"? - the treatment of does in Watership Down

Nicholas Tucker, in his otherwise complimentary Afterword to the Puffin Modern Classics edition of Watership Down[1] states that the bucks' sensitive attitude towards each other is not reflected in their attitude towards the does, quoting the phrase "some mating, and a scuffle or two" from Watership Down itself as evidence that the does are shown as "little more than passive baby-factories". This is, on the face of it, a valid objection - almost all the principal characters in the novel are bucks - but I think it's a rebuttable one.

Tucker is hardly the only person to make this complaint. For example, Bob Dixon says[2] that "Hazel's leadership is sanctioned and the seal of approval put on ... the treatment of does as breeding objects ... to say that rabbits are like this is beside the point, in terms of the story". This is utterly mistaken - Watership Down only works because it does follow closely the group dynamics of real rabbits. Would Mr Dixon also object to the portrayal of an all-male Roman Legion? Perhaps he would. And in any case, he shows signs of not knowing his source that well, for example saying that it is "Lord Frith" who comes for Hazel at the end of the book. Whoever it is who appears (there's some argument on this point), it isn't Frith.

A much more sensible expression of concern comes from Jane Resh Thomas in a well-known American children's fiction journal[3], who worries that Adams "grafted exalted human spirits to the rabbit bodies of his male characters and has made the females mere rabbits. The [bucks] are superhuman and the [does] sub-human". John Rowe Townsend, referring to this comment[4], points out that it "does not seek to condemn the whole book", and says that "it would be a pity if it were met with yawns or instant resentment".

Yawns seem unlikely, but resentment is another matter - as with any book which has become a cult, fans of Watership Down [raises a paw] react strongly to any suggestion that their beloved masterpiece is less than perfect in any way. For myself, I feel much more uncomfortable with Adams' occasional references to "simple African villagers" and the like than ever I do about the sexism or otherwise of the novel, but I think that the role of the does is rather undervalued by many critics.

Of course, I must make it clear here that it is the book to which I refer: the TV series is in effect a different story, and can (and should, if you ask me) be ignored, but the 1978 animated film, though largely respectful of its source, does let itself down in one way: by having a doe, Violet, included in the initial leaving party from Sandleford. This is a bad move: her presence means that she has to be killed off (by the crow in the beanfield) in order for there to be an absence of does later on. This also means that we lose the passage in the book where Hazel proudly tells Holly that all the initial party are still alive, an early example of Hazel's leadership skills. It's noticeable that Violet does not appear in the cast-list - perhaps the producers were slightly ashamed of this particular piece of meddling.

The earliest doe to appear in person in Watership Down is Strawberry's doe, Nildro-hain[5], but her only importance to the story is that her death at the hands of the Shining Wires prompts Strawberry to join Hazel's band. The does in the hutch are another matter. Clover, "a strong, active rabbit" is "clearly excited" by the thought of freedom[6], and is the first doe to mate with a Watership rabbit, Holly in all probability - we're told that "Holly had taken to Clover"[7]. This also means that hers are the first kittens to be born - a vital sign of the Watership warren's long-term viability. In fact, one of the last scenes in the book is that of Bigwig teaching a proto-Owsla made up of Clover's sons, one of whom is called Scabious after a rabbit Holly had seen killed by men - a nice symbol of renewal.

For all Clover's strength, though, she doesn't do anything particularly out of the ordinary. The same cannot be said of a couple of the Efrafan does, Thethuthinnang and - especially - Hyzenthlay. We first encounter her in Holly's description of the initial expedition to Efrafa[8], but she really comes into her own once Bigwig realises that he had found "a strong, sensible friend, who would think on her own account", and who is quite clear about who is to be trusted (Thethuthinnang) and who is not (Nelthilta). Hyzenthlay is also the one who organises the does' escape party from Efrafa - a vital task requiring a great amount of intelligence and common sense, and not at all one for a second-rate camp follower[9].

In conclusion then, it is perfectly reasonable to accept the view of John Rowe Townsend that dismissing the criticism of sexism out of hand is unfair. However, Bob Dixon's charge that what real rabbits do is irrelevant misses the point of Watership Down entirely - what real rabbits do is central to the whole book. The does are not, it is true, the great wandering adventurers that the bucks are, but they are - Hyzenthlay in particular - a great deal more than "passive baby-factories".

[1] Nicholas Tucker, Afterword, within Richard Adams, Watership Down, Puffin Modern Classics, London 1993.
[2] Bob Dixon, Catching Them Young 2: Political Ideas in Children's Fiction, Pluto Press 1977.
[3] Jane Resh Thomas, The Horn Book, August 1974.
[4] John Rowe Townsend, Are Children's Books Racist and Sexist?, within Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, Oxford University Press (Canada), Toronto 1980.
[5] Watership Down, ch. 13.
[6] ibid., ch. 24.
[7] ibid., ch. 28.
[8] ibid., ch. 27.
[9] ibid., ch. 35.

This essay may be freely reproduced for non-commercial use, so long as credit is given.
A very happy International Rabbit Day to hrair!

See the Rabbit Charity's page, here, for more.
Pipkin's Progress

Page numbers vary by editions - I'm using the 1974 Penguin edition here, which is probably the best known - so I'll also include chapter references.

Pipkin - Hlao-roo in Lapine, the "-roo" being a diminutive suffix here used affectionately - is a rather overlooked character, it seems to me. He's not the only rabbit to develop and change, of course, but the very fact that he does so largely in the background is what makes it most interesting. We first meet Pipkin in ch. 4 (p. 29), where he is introduced as "a friend of Fiver ... small, and inclined to be timid". Hazel and Fiver had spent some time persuading him to leave (which in itself suggests that they thought he would be worth having), and felt "extremely nervous", deciding to "keep close to Hazel and do exactly what he said". His next important appearance is at the river crossing (ch. 8), where he is clearly almost tharn and has to be "bullied" onto the makeshift raft by Blackberry. In ch. 9 he is clearly limping from the thorn in his foot, yet does not complain and bears it as best he can until Hazel removes it. (Echoes of the mouse and the lion here.)

So far, so ordinary, but in ch. 14 (p. 91), it is Pipkin who comments that Cowslip and his fellow rabbits are "like trees in November", and who offers the opinion that, despite their size and shining coats, "I don't believe they can fight". "You notice a lot, don't you Hlao-roo?" responds Hazel, but nothing more is made of it. This is a piece of wild speculation, but I sometimes wonder whether Pipkin might just have a very faint version of Fiver's intuition. And - another vague clue? - they are the only two rabbits who are given the "-roo" suffix.

Bravery in adversity is first noticeable in the following chapter, where he sheds blood in the - ultimately successful - rescue effort for Bigwig. He is also starting to risk the occasional lone foray outside, as when he comes to find Hazel and Bigwig in the ditch where Holly and Bluebell are found (ch. 18, p. 149). "You stood by me at the river, so I thought I'd come and look for you, Hazel", says Pipkin with the loyalty that is second-nature to him. (Note that even Pipkin is not yet using "Hazel-rah" - Strawberry, in ch. 20, seems to be the first to do so as a matter of course.) Pipkin seems to have a lot of pride in being a useful member of the warren, and would surely have been pleased to hear Dandelion praise him as "first-rate" (ch. 20, p.154) in keeping the recovering Holly talking to avoid his going to sleep and suffering nightmares. Indeed, once the Warren of Shining Wires has been escaped, the party "had become closer together, relying on and valuing each other's capacities" - there's no question now of anyone merely making up the numbers.

Of course, Pipkin is still timid in other ways - Holly's story of the Sandleford Warren's destruction in ch. 21 causes him to shudder, cry and tremble piteously (p. 161), though other rabbits are equally deeply affected. Later on, during the story of El-Ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé (ch. 31, p. 278), he confesses to Hazel that "I don't like this story. I know I'm not brave", just in time to go out (with Fiver - see above for the significance of this) and save the rabbits from the fox which does for Efrafa's Captain Mallow. Actually, I think Pipkin is putting himself down rather in the latter case, as by this time he has already participated in a dangerous, and nearly disastrous, adventure - the raid on Nuthanger Farm. The film of Watership Down rather overdoes Pipkin's terror if you ask me - in the book (ch. 24) he's very nervous, but by no means a gibbering wreck. And by the time of Bigwig's mission to Efrafa, Pipkin has clearly found new reserves of courage: when Hazel says (ch. 37, p. 347) "if he [Bigwig] doesn't come tomorrow, I'm going into Efrafa myself", Pipkin's immediate response is "I'll come with you, Hazel-rah". It might be that his terror of losing Hazel exceeds even that of going into Efrafa, but I don't think so - I think it's real bravery.

Finally, we come to ch. 46, in the midst of the Efrafans' final assault on the Honeycomb. Fiver is lying inert and cold in the middle of the floor, and Pipkin is desperate to rescue him. "Oh Bigwig," cries Pipkin (p. 446), "let me stay out there with him! you'll never miss me, and I can go on trying-". Although Bigwig and Silver refuse to contenance this plan on the grounds, as Holly says, that "if we lose no one but Fiver ... the Lord Frith himself will be fighting for us", it illustrates just how much courage Pipkin does have - it is quite clear that he is prepared to die a horrible death at the claws of Woundwort and his cronies on the off-chance that he might be able to rescue a friend. Hlao-roo, we honour your name.

This essay may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes so long as credit is given.

Friday, September 27, 2002

Oh, why wait, eh? Let's have a small piece now, just to stop the damn page looking so empty.

Bigwig's early use of "Hazel-rah" - author error or deliberate plot development?

Anyone read "Watership Down All According to Captain Campion"? That has titles like this, though with rather more in the way of scholarship beneath them!

Anyhow: before the farm raid, Bigwig says to Hazel: "do you mean to go tonight, Hazel-rah?". This is pretty odd considering that the "-rah" honorific suffix is not otherwise used by Bigwig towards Hazel until the very end of the book, and in any case, "Hazel-rah" otherwise comes in very subtly and gradually - this occurrence is a wrenching break with that pattern. There seem to me to be two possible reasons:

1) A pure mistake on the part of Adams, missed at the proofreading stage.

2) A slip of the tongue by Bigwig. He's made it quite clear - particularly in his "that'll be the day" speech - that he has no intention of calling Hazel "rah", but we're told later on that he is "generous and honest", and that honesty might lead him, in his heart of hearts, to accept that Hazel has become de facto Chief Rabbit already.

Interesting as option 2 is, I regret that I have to come down on the side of option 1. Reasons for this include the complete lack of reaction from Hazel when addressed as "rah" (unlikely to say the least), Bigwig's own ignoring of the event and Adams' own reference, after Bigwig's "that'll be the day" speech, to his use of "Hazel-rah" being a "momentous speech", which this hardly is.

This essay may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes so long as credit is given.
Greetings to hrair! This is a test message and no more, really, but when and if I discover that it actually works, I'll get writing properly. As many of you will have guessed, Watership Down is (probably) going to be the main focus of this blog. I don't have anything particularly startling to say, but there are some small comments and suchlike I'd like to make about the book, film and TV series, and here seems like a good place to do it!