Tag Archives: Watership Down

EG: Watership Down and Modern Values

Oh boy, where to begin. I’ll admit that when I saw the news headline saying Watership Down was going to be adapted into a tv miniseries I was not terribly optimistic. The article that I read was pretty thin, mostly just listing a few cast members and saying who was funding it.

No alarm bells went off, but, my experience with adaptations, particularly of Watership Down itself (it already boasts two) told me not to get my hopes up.

I was not prepared to find out that my favorite novel was going to be desecrated in the name of modern values.

I’m only getting around to writing this now because it has literally taken this long for me to calm down. The press release wasn’t terribly long, but the information within it was incredibly offensive to me.

Most people who read it will be disappointed to find out they are toning down the violence. I’m not too bothered by that, the movie version added a main character death and quite a lot of excess blood. “Toning down” the violence will probably actually bring it more in line with the book.

I, on the other hand, am disappointed at their need to meddle with the female cast and characters. I say cast and characters because they are giving one male character a sex change in addition to giving the females a dose of “doe power”.

Excuse me while I gag.

Sorry, I’m going to try and keep it together and have this be a logical dissection rather than a ragefest.

I’m going to tackle the decision to turn Strawberry, a male character (buck) in the novel, into a female character (doe) first. Now, I am going to assume that the reporter got the name right and they don’t actually mean Blackberry, who was turned into a doe in the previous tv series (which went far afield of the book anyway). The problems with converting that character are different and much simpler. Which only makes their decision to pick Strawberry all that more confusing. I can only assume they picked him because he is one of the characters with an “effeminate” name.

Oh, spoiler warning to anyone who hasn’t read the book. I’m going to need to discuss in depth character stuff, so I can’t avoid talking about the plot and character development.

In the book, Strawberry is a member of the Warren of the Snares, aka Cowslip’s Warren. He lives a luxurious lifestyle built entirely around accepting death in exchange for safety and good food, this leads to himself and all his compatriots acting strangely because they have to abandon the very things that make them rabbits to live this lifestyle.

Our heroes end up shattering their facade when one of the strongest in the group is nearly killed and they refuse to just let him die. They leave of their own accord only to find Strawberry (who had shown them around the warren when they arrived) is chasing blindly after them.

He catches up to them and begs to join them, revealing himself to be grief stricken over the recent death of his doe. While we know she died in one of the snares, the implication is that she died a few days prior, but he had been going along to get along to help hold up the facade. The heroes leaving broke the hold the warren had over him, rendering him unable to cope with the loss of his mate and destroying his ability to pretend all is right in the world.

In short, he suffers a devastating loss that causes him to reject the fantasy he’s been living in and attaches himself to the group, because he knows he’s too weak to strike out solo.

Choosing to turn him of all characters into a doe, as opposed to say, simply fleshing out any of the preexisting does that don’t get much screentime, is rather baffling to me. If they had to convert a character, Bluebell would have been a much more sensible choice.

I can see them handling the change in one of two ways, playing it completely straight or turning Strawberry into a sassy doe who was never playing along to begin with. The funny part is, both of those is going to draw ire from the very people they’re hoping to appease.

If they play it straight, Strawberry is changed from a broken buck who begs stronger bucks to help him learn to live in the real world, to a broken doe who can’t cope with the loss of her mate and goes running to a bunch of rogue bucks to save her from her own emotional distress. Basically, Strawberry becomes feminists’ most hated trope in the name of feminism. Also, guys, next time a woman tells you you need to be more vulnerable, think of what they did to Strawberry, the most emotionally vulnerable male character in this book.

If they play it the second way, it’s going to annoy the fans of the book because the whole reason the society in the Warren of the Snares works is because everyone plays along 100%. Their entire mindset revolves around accepting death at regular intervals in exchange for easy food and pretending that this is a preferable way to live. If Strawberry isn’t playing along, then why is she still around? Why hasn’t she left or else been forced into one of the snares? The only way that could really work is if she’s being kept under the thumb of her mate or else she just keeps it to herself. The former would destroy everything that was notable about the original character (and make Strawberry a damsel in distress), while the latter would render her a doormat. I don’t think I need to point out how feminists are going to feel about these respective possibilities. Either way she still has to be rescued by the heroes, who are all male.

Now to tackle the part that really angers me. The supposed need for Clover and Hyzenthlay to be “upgraded” and participate in “heroics”. Firstly, if you honestly think that heroic deeds are what make the characters in this book noteworthy, I have to question your reading comprehension. There are three main characters, Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver. The only one who participates in what we typically consider heroics is Bigwig. He’s the muscle out of the trio. Part of what makes the book so interesting is the push and pull between Hazel, a non-fighter who has to take on a leadership role over rabbits stronger and smarter than he is, and Bigwig, a hugely strong rabbit with a temper and a need for direction.

Despite his lack of action scenes (he only really has one and this is later described by himself and others as a very stupid thing), no one doubts Hazel’s courage or bemoans his lack of character development. No one can deny that he rises to his challenges and grows immensely despite his lack of bloodied claws.

Yet people are saying that Hyzenthlay and Clover, who display similar courage and rise to their own challenges, need to participate in more heroics.

Let me explain why it makes me so angry that people think that. It makes me angry because what they are actually saying is that female characters that are truly strong, truly brave, and truly very important characters are worthless in their current form because they don’t have an action scene. They are saying that female characters who are strong in their femininity are worthless for the very fact that they are feminine.

They say that Clover, who decided she would rather brave the dangers of the outside world than continue living in the safety of her hutch, who copes with the loss of her mate while adjusting to a vastly different life, is weak and worthless because she isn’t a sassy action girl. Clover, who has the pride of being the first doe to bear a litter and bring life to a warren that would otherwise die off in a generation, isn’t a role model for young girls because she hasn’t abandoned what makes her female to run with the boys. Because her strength is implicit rather than explicit, they cannot comprehend the fact she is already an excellent character.

And Hyzenthlay, my beloved Hyzenthlay, who I long to be as strong as, is decreed to need a power-up in order to be an interesting character. If they could be bothered to actually read the book for comprehension, they would realize that the great escape from Efrafa would not have been possible without her. Bigwig was in completely over his head, loaded down with the strain of his task, unable to even believe that he could carry out his mission. Without Hyzenthlay’s support, he never would have been able to bear up under the weight of it all. She was his soft place to land when he was surrounded by hostility and danger, separated from his support network and facing a task that was beyond his abilities. And that doesn’t even include the work she did to gather sensible does to take part in the escape or the courage she displayed before Bigwig even arrived in Efrafa.

Her true shining moment comes later though, and this is why she will always have my deep and abiding admiration.

She has finally acquired the life she longs for. She is pregnant, she has literally built a home, she has helped establish a community filled with hope for the future. Then it happens, those she escaped from are coming to take her and the other does back, or kill them all trying.

She is one of the first to find out that the forces from her old warren are coming, yet she does her best to remain resolute. Unlike one of the bucks, she does not advocate abandoning the warren and fleeing. She listens to the other does, who whisper in fear about how the bucks will be killed and they will be forced to return to the oppressive warren they came from. She knows that death could very well be in her immediate future. She is afraid, terrified, just as they all are. And yet,

“Be quiet,” said Hyzenthlay. “The bucks aren’t talking like that and why should we? I’d rather be here, now, as we are, than never have left Efrafa.”

She would rather die in the home she built beside the bucks she has come to love than have continued living an unfulfilled life in near perfect safety. Despite the fact that everyone can tell she is afraid, her announcement helps to spur Hazel and Bigwig to search harder for a way to defeat the incoming forces. While her role on the road to victory is not as glorious as Bigwig’s, it is not unimportant. Just because she did not fight does not mean she wouldn’t have if it had come to that, but it didn’t come to that because the bucks that did fight took it up a notch so she wouldn’t have to. Her strength is the feminine strength of support and encouragement, of helping the males around her face the oncoming storm with courage.

But, instead of praising her for the great female character she is and the strength she has, they instead want to turn her into a pale imitation of Bigwig. Who, I might point out, gets bloodied beyond recognition in his battle with Woundwort. I wonder if the makers of the miniseries are prepared to have her brutalized in the same fashion? If they are not courageous enough to bring this book to the screen without making it palatable to the type of people it was meant to criticize, I highly doubt they will be courageous enough to do that. Especially since they have already stated their intention to tone down the more “brutal images”.

It is such a sad and pathetic thing. They’re so hung up on male strength that they can’t even recognize a strong female character when she bites their hand. Because she doesn’t fit their (oddly masculine centric) definition of heroics and power she is seen as weak and pitiable.

In their attempt to pander to women, they reveal what they really think about them. Not very complimentary, is it?

I won’t be watching the miniseries. I don’t want to be insulted or see one of my favorite female characters be ruined. Besides, if the makers can’t understand the book well enough to realize Hyzenthlay and Clover are already solid characters, then I don’t want to see their interpretations of the book’s meatier aspects.

And I definitely don’t want to see what they will do to Hazel.


EG: Watership Down, an Anti-feminist Novel

I first read Watership Down by Richard Adams as a sixth grader, the book was a gift from a houseguest. I loved it immediately and since then it has been my favorite book. Once, several years later I looked up the Wikipedia page (and the Sparknotes, which notably has errors) and found that there was an accusation that the book was anti-feminist in nature. Being young and not knowing what feminism was really about, I became incensed. That was ridiculous, the does (female rabbits) are valuable characters and the only human girl is intelligent and kind. There was nothing inherently anti-woman about it. The article referenced a segment where the author explained that the bucks (male rabbits) did not see the females of their kind in the same light as human men see human women, that they had no real understanding or use for romance and could view the does as breeding stock. Not that this keeps them from being very devoted to their mate of choice, including grieving their deaths. So basically the author sets it up that their relationships are more straight forward with less froofy, stupid romance.

However, now that I know more about feminism and having read the novel at least a dozen times, I can see it is in fact anti-feminist. Not because of that passage though. It’s because it embraces the idea of gender roles and that women are happier when fulfilling their traditional roles of homemaker and mother. Let’s take a look at a few passages.

“Long ago
The yellowhammer sang, high on the thorn.
He sang near a litter that the doe brought out to play,
He sang in the wind and the kittens played below.
Their time slipped by all under the elder bloom.
But the bird flew away and now my heart is dark
And time will never play in the fields again.

Long ago
The orange beetles clung to the rye-grass stems
The windy grass was waving. A buck and doe
Ran through the meadow. They scratched a hole in the bank,
They did what they pleased all under the hazel leaves.
But the beetles died in the frost and my heart is dark;
And I shall never choose a mate again.

The frost is falling, the frost falls into my body.
My nostrils, my ears are torpid under the frost.
The swift will come in the spring, crying “News! News!
Does, dig holes and flow with milk for your litters.”
I shall not hear. The embryos return
Into my dulled body. Across my sleep
There runs a wire to imprison the wind.
I shall never feel the wind blowing again.” (Adams, pg 321-322)

This is a poem spoken by one of the does, Hyzenthlay, who is an intelligent doe who recognizes the issues of the totalitarian, overcrowded warren she is in. But let’s ignore the narrative for a moment and look at the poem as it applies to life in the modern Anglosphere.

The first stanza conjures the image of a mother with her children playing outside. Not something anyone sees much anymore. These days it is unusual to see children playing outside at all. Why is that? Well, first there is an obsession with helicopter parenting, so parents aren’t about to let their children do anything without supervision. Add to this the fact that both parents tend to be at work and you have a bunch of kids who are trapped in school and daycare because their parents aren’t home to supervise them. Mothers are not home to raise their own children, they are not there to read to, play with, and love on their children. This leads to a certain amount of frustration. You don’t have to look far to find polls that show that mothers would rather work less and care for their children more.

The second stanza conjures the image of a happy couple that is beginning their life together, doing as they please, but also approaching the relationship in a dedicated manner. It’s certainly still possible to do that, but at the same time it is unusual. You don’t have to be an expert on relationships to know that the divorce rate is high and the never married group is growing quickly. More and more children are being born out of wedlock because their mothers are simply choosing not to get married, citing “no good men” as their reasoning. Women who want to marry get cautioned by their parents and peers that they need a career “just in case he leaves”. Essentially no one operates under the assumption that marriages will last…or should. After all, people have divorce parties these days.

The final stanza can be looked at from a two perspectives. It could speak the truth about the damage done to women who choose to have abortions. It could also speak to those trapped in the late marriage and abstinence conundrum. These are the two options that most women face these days. While the former is more feminist than the latter, they both have the mark of feminism on them. Both are damaging to a woman’s psyche, in quite similar ways. Delaying or outright destroying children is unnatural, and if a woman makes the mistake of delaying too long only to find herself permanently childless, the heartache is incredible. I’ve seen it in women I know, that grief and the attempt to accept that they will never have a child of their own. It’s bad enough to watch. I can’t imagine what it is like to experience. One way or the other, the final stanza speaks to the truth that most women long for children of their own, that being a mother is what her heart cries out for.

Let’s look at another passage.

“Biwig realized that he had stumbled, quite unexpectedly, upon what he needed most of all: a strong sensible friend who would think on her own account and help bear his burden.” (Adams, pg 330)

The “her” being spoken of here is Hyzenthlay again. Bigwig has been given a seemingly impossible task of liberating some does, until he decides to approach the task by bringing a doe in to help him with the plan. In this small phrase we see the incredible importance of the wife in a man’s life. She gives him a place to come and rest, a confidant who will listen to him and help him. She gives him a concrete reason to do what he is doing and when he calms her fears, he calms his own. This single sentence embraces the idea that a man and a woman can do more together than apart.

Another small, subtle piece:

“”But you’re Efrafan. Do you think like that, too?”

“I’m a doe,” said Hyzenthlay.” (Adams, pg 390)

Men and women are different. They think differently, they act differently, they need different things. All summed up in one matter of fact statement from Hyzenthlay. I’m starting to think I should do a write up on Hyzenthlay as a feminine role model.

One final, longer passage:

“The warren was thriving at last and Hazel could sit basking on the bank and count their blessings. Above and under ground, the rabbits fell naturally into a quiet, undisturbed rhythm of feeding, digging and sleeping. Several fresh runs and burrows were made. The does, who had never dug in their lives before, enjoyed the work. Both Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang told Hazel that they had no idea how much of their frustration and unhappiness in Efrafa had been due simply to not being allowed to dig. Even Clover and Haystack found that they could manage pretty well and boasted that they would bear the warren’s first litters in burrows that they had dug themselves… The contentment of the does spread to everyone else,” (Adams, pg 395-396)

Before analyzing I will quickly note that earlier in the book it is established that does are the ones that dig the tunnels of warrens and bucks don’t much care for the task. Not that this needs much analysis, it’s written rather plainly as it is. The warren thrives because the bucks and does are living in interdependency as they were meant to. The does are happy because they can carry out their natural roles. Homemaking and being mothers are marks of pride. The scene painted here is the very thing that feminists have selfishly set out to destroy. So yes, Watership Down is in fact, an anti-feminist novel and I’m proud to call it my favorite.

All quotes are taken from the 2001 Perennial Classics edition of the book.