April 2, 2006

Watership Down

Watership Down -- My younger son has been insisting that I read Richard Adams's 1972 novel about talking rabbits. I finally broke down and started reading and ... holy cow, this has to be one of the best epic war-adventure stories ever. The tale of a band of male rabbits who flee their native warren, which is slated for extermination by human land developers, and set off across the English countryside to establish a safe new warren high up on Watership Down. (A "down," oddly enough, is a tall bluff. "Watership" probably originally meant "water sheep" or place where sheep could be watered). Then they raid a totalitarian warren to liberate lady rabbits, followed by the frightening General Woundwort's massive counterattack.

It's a fairly violent but still idealized picture of the English at war. Unlike their enemies, this squad of rabbits cooperate well with each other, with each showing initiative in contributing his individual talents. Hazel, the leader of the rabbits, is portrayed as the ideal young British officer. Adams wrote in his Introduction, "To Hazel I gave the qualities of an officer under whom I had served [in WWII]. He had the natural power of leadership. He was not only brave but modest and retiring, yet with excellent judgment." The brilliant Blackberry is Hazel's tactical planning staff officer, while the intuitive genius Fiver, a sort of nontragic Cassandra whose visions are acted upon by Hazel, serves as his strategic planning aide. Adams writes, "Bigwig was based upon another officer I knew, a tremendous fighter, who was at his best when he had been told exactly what he had to do."

Leaving aside the question of whether "Watership Down" is children's literature at all (the difficulty of vocabulary is at the same high level as a typical literary novel for adults), it's noteworthy what a large proportion of the classics of children's literature have been written by "environmentalist tories" like Adams and J.R.R. Tolkien, the kind of "crunchy cons" who, if they were American, would be derided by supposed mainstream conservatives like Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz. Adams, for example, was a civil servant in the Department of Environment until the sudden success of Watership Down in his mid-fifties (it has now sold something like 50 million copies) allowed him to turn to writing full-time.

An article entitled "Quidditch quaintness: The values that triumph in the Harry Potter books are those of a nostalgic, conservative Little Britain" from the leftwing Guardian by a different Richard Adams snidely points out J.K. Rowling's conservatism:

However, the Harry Potter fanclub extends well beyond Tory supporters, in part because the books have a visible element of diversity. The problem is that it is little more than a veneer. While women make up many of the main characters, they receive little attention. Even Harry's friend, Hermione Granger, is a well-worn stereotype: the middle-class "girly swot" who tries to talk Harry out of taking risks. It's no surprise to learn that her parents are dentists...

A careful racial inclusiveness includes obviously Asian and black characters as students. But cultural identities are heavily connected to social background, and these have been scrubbed out by Rowling. Hogwarts celebrates Christmas and Halloween, but there are no feasts for Rosh Hashanah or Diwali. This is not so much multiculturalism as naive monoculturalism.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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