The Watership Down Legacy
Let me put on my fuzzy ears and talk about the strange sub-genre of books about talking animals. I tend to write this kind of fiction myself; it interests me, what can I say? The tricky part is writing talking-animal stories for adults. I honestly believe that we grown-up types like the genre, possibly because we can project ourselves more easily onto furry critters. After all, Aesop’s fables were meant to showcase all the follies of mankind. But books about animals still tend to get shunted into the kiddie lit department, except when they don’t. “Adult” talking animal stories seem to fall into three main categories. You’ve got your Redwall types: stories that cut out humans altogether and present themselves as fantasies that happen to star critters. That’s what I like to write. Then you’ve got the feel-good, uplifting, triumph-of-the-furry-heart tales like Babe or The Incredible Journey, which often get marketed as children’s books anyway. Finally, there’s the dark little niche genre that was possibly defined by Richard Adams’ Watership Down: books about talking animals that are ostensibly set in the real world, but are most certainly not for children. These are what I want to talk about here.
Watership Down is, of course, an ultimately uplifting adventure in which a group of wild rabbits look for a new home in the British countryside. Adams had trouble publishing it, but now it has entered onto the list of Best Books Ever and spawned an incredibly grim and bloody cartoon adaptation. I recently reread it and it’s as gripping as ever, but I’m not going to talk too long about it because I prefer drawing attention to books that you might not have heard of, books that followed in the elongated footsteps of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and their band of heroic lagomorphs. I will say that Adams definitely struck some kind of gold. Watership Down can be read to a mature child, but it’s really a book for adults, and clearly adults like to read an adventure story about bunnies. Why? Because they’re cute? Because heroism is a universal thing that inspires us, no matter what physical form the hero takes? Because Adams put a ton of work into creating a bunny society with its own language, customs, mores, and mythology? All of the above, probably. Here are three other books that tried the same formula, with varied results.
First off, the most obvious copycat (pun definitely intended)...Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams. Now, I adore me some Tad Williams, but I’d be the first to admit that he initially built his career off of paying heavy homage to other writers -- Tolkien, primarily, but also Richard Adams. His debut novel is about a brave cat named Fritti Tailchaser who sets out to find his missing girlfriend and enters a wilderness world where cats have built their own independent culture and something really fucked-up is lurking in the shadows. It’s a very good book (my favorite to read on airplane flights), but yeah, it is reeeeeally derivative of Watership Down, right down to the invented kitty language and myths. Where it differs is in its handling of the premise. Obviously, cats are domesticated, so the humans in Tailchaser’s Song are seen, not as terrifying bringers of destruction, but as foolish yet well-meaning benefactors -- and they appear very fleetingly. Tailchaser’s adventure is more along the lines of a dark fantasy. I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just say that the gods in the cats’ mythology turn out to be very tangible indeed.
I would say that Tailchaser’s Song is the most accessible of the books in this post, because while dark and disturbing things do happen, it’s more along the lines of a whiz-bang adventure than an unflinching look at the harshness of life. Williams’ story leaves reality behind partway through, which makes it both less unsettling and less compelling. Watership Down works on our emotions because we know it’s “real” and any awful, tragic thing could happen at any moment. That’s how life works, especially when you’re a bunny. Tailchaser’s Song makes the leap into all-out fantasy and thus fails to deliver the same narrative punch, even as we fear for the safety of the feline characters. It follows the archetype of the hero’s journey and there’s never any doubt that Tailchaser and his sidekicks will make it through. The ending is really good, though -- Tailchaser does find his ladylove, but then things get complicated. In a good way. I definitely recommend the book; just know that it’s not as profound or grueling as Watership Down. For many people, that will be a plus.
And to those people who can’t handle the gritty miseries of Watership Down, I say this: in the name of all that is holy, DO NOT read The Plague Dogs. This is another book by Richard Adams, written five years later and concerning dogs rather than rabbits. Having just read it, I can safely say that it is a gripping and powerful work of fiction, I loved it, and it will utterly destroy your fucking soul. This book is BRUTAL. It will make you cry and almost lose your faith in humanity. It’s about two dogs, a big black mutt named Rowf and a fox terrier named Snitter, who are having unspeakable things done to them in an animal testing facility. Rowf, for instance, is drowned in a water tank every day just to see what’ll happen. They escape and, with some help from an enterprising fox, attempt to eke out an existence in the harsh, windswept landscape of England’s Lake District. Unfortunately, they must kill sheep to survive, which sparks a manhunt, which leads to an accidental death, which leads a vicious reporter to theorize that the dogs are carrying bubonic plague from a bioweapons experiment. And then things get really bleak.
I expected The Plague Dogs to follow similar lines as Watership Down, but it really doesn’t. It’s darker, weirder, less accessible, and more pessimistic about the direction humanity is going in. Most of it revolves around the personalities of the dogs. Rowf is simpleminded and has known nothing but abuse, and so can’t not be angry. Snitter is smart and cheerful, but since the researchers literally carved his brain up, he exists in a constant state of delusion. His shattered thoughts serve as a template for the narrative, which moves along with nightmare logic as things just escalate and the cruel world closes in on the two hapless canines. Make no mistake, I recommend this book...just know that your emotions will be put through hell.
The book’s one major weakness is its portrayal of animal testing. Yes, I wholly agree that it’s bad. But Adams clearly has an axe to grind, and so he makes his human researchers into sociopathic monsters who calmly pour coffee while discussing the kittens they just poisoned, or the rabbits who have cleaning products squirted into their eyeballs. This over-the-top depiction seems to suggest dark satire, but since the rest of the book is played without a wink, I’m not exactly sure what Adams was trying to accomplish. So, yeah, the overall tone of The Plague Dogs is uneven, but most readers will be too busy sobbing and biting their nails to care. Read this book if you have a strong constitution. A very strong constitution.
(By the way, this one also got a cartoon adaptation, but while the book manages a last-minute happy resolution, the film's conclusion is closer to what Adams wrote before his publishers made him change it. Keep that in mind, because the original ending may make you want to kill yourself. Just saying.)
I seem to have ranked these in order of weirdness, so it’s appropriate that I’m ending with Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber. What a batshit book this is, starting with the simple fact that we’re sliding down the evolutionary ladder from warm furballs to unlovable insects. Or maybe up the ladder, for ants actually have incredibly advanced societies and are capable of great feats of engineering and adaptive technology. In fact, some speculate that when humans are gone, ants will inherit the earth. That’s certainly what Werber implies. He tells two stories that, for most of the book, are barely connected. The first concerns a French family who move into a new apartment and discover something very strange in the cellar. The other is about, yes, a mighty ant colony where a few individual ants realize that something invisible is killing their brethren and there seems to be a conspiracy to cover it up. Unfortunately, Empire of the Ants suffers from the disconnection between these two stories and their radically different tones; the humans’ tale is pitched like a horror story, while the ants’ adventures are like a Pixar film directed by Dario Argento on shrooms.
Frankly, the book would have been better if the boring humans were mostly or entirely absent (the awkward English translation doesn’t help). Werber clearly did a ton of research on the inner workings of ant colonies, and the result is quite fascinating. He succeeds in making his ants kind-of sort-of sentient while never forgetting that their “culture” is so different from ours that we can’t really understand what’s going on in their little heads. Every ant character is defined by his or her role in the colony; they have no fear of death and share a kind of pheromone-based collective consciousness that adds many layers to their wordless conversations. We see how each ant species has its own tricks, its own technology, and we learn about the complex and ever-shifting series of wars and alliances between the ants and the other insects they share their world with. It’s neat! The actual plot is sort of a distraction, really, and none of the ants get much personality because, well, they’re freaking ants. Werber is definitely saying something ironic about the nature of humanity, especially at the end, when the human and ant stories finally intersect. I’m not sure he quite succeeds -- but then, this is the first book in a trilogy, and the sequels have apparently never been released in English. So maybe I’ll never know. Bottom line, Empire of the Ants is an odd and engrossing little book, for all its narrative faults. It’ll definitely make you think before you step on an anthill.
Sooooo....yeah. Here are three interesting books that explore the idea of an animal society in the human world. I’ve had a little trouble writing this concluding paragraph because I don’t quite know why these books work the way they do. Certainly it’s difficult to get an “adult” novel about talking critters published, but it happens anyway when the planets are properly aligned. I believe that a good story is universal and readers will respond to it if the protagonists are humans, rabbits, ants, cauliflower, whatever. And that there’s a definite link between the way we anthropomorphize animals and the way we view ourselves. I guess you should give one or more of these books a read and draw your own conclusions. Read Tailchaser’s Song if you want a rip-roaring adventure, The Plague Dogs if you want a depressing essay on human evil, and Empire of the Ants if you want a weird, cerebral metaphor. Or just read Watership Down, the book that started all this brouhaha. Because it totally holds up. So there’s another reason these books exist: our compassion for animals will never die. We have the ability to love them and fear for them. So maybe there’s hope for the human race after all.