Do and Die

The Reason Why, Cecil Woodham-Smith (1953)

History is a branch of literature, not of science. That’s why it’s so important that historians be good writers. Cecil Woodham-Smith (1896-1977) was a very good writer and this is one of the best works of military history ever written. I don’t know whether she – that “Cecil” is misleading – was influenced by Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) but Strachey’s sublime “Cardinal Manning” is an obvious comparison. Like Strachey’s, her prose has grace, lightness and concision:

Military glory! It was a dream that century after century had seized on men’s imaginations and set their blood on fire. Trumpets, plumes, chargers, the pomp of war, the excitement of combat, the exultation of victory – the mixture was intoxicating indeed. To command great armies, to perform deeds of valour, to ride victorious through flower-strewn streets, to be heroic, magnificent, famous – such were the visions that danced before men’s eyes as they turned eagerly to war.

It was not a dream for the common man. War was an aristocratic trade, and military glory reserved for nobles and princes. Glittering squadrons of cavalry, long lines of infantry, wheeling obediently on the parade-ground, ministered to the lust both for power and for display. Courage was esteemed the essential military quality and held to be a virtue exclusive to aristocrats. Were they not educated to courage, trained, as no common man was trained, by years of practice in dangerous sports? They glorified courage, called it valour and worshipped it, believed battles were won by valour, saw war in terms of valour as the supreme adventure.

It was a dream that died hard. Century followed century and glittering armies faded before the sombre realities of history. Great armies in their pride and splendour were defeated by starvation, pestilence and filth, valour was sacrificed to stupidity, gallantry to corruption. (ch. 1, opening paragraphs)

But Woodham-Smith is a more masculine writer than Strachey: more serious, more sober and much more at home with military affairs. It would be wrong to call The Reason Why a pleasure to read, because although it is often is, it treats of horrors both on the battlefield and in civilian life. The Irish Famine played its part in forging the character of Lord Lucan, one of the chief figures in “The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade”, as the subtitle of a modern re-issue of the book puts it. Woodham-Smith later wrote a book called The Great Hunger (1962) about the Famine, but I’m reluctant to read it: what she describes here is horrible enough.

I have, however, read her biography Florence Nightingale (1950), the book that began her career amid an explosion of plaudits. I was disappointed, just as I was by Strachey’s Queen Victoria (1921). Both writers set such high standards in their best work that the rest of it can suffer by comparison. And history is difficult to write well. Against that, however, are the gifts it offers its practitioners: the wholly improbable situations that no writer of fiction could expect his readers to swallow. The Charge of the Light Brigade was like that. Who would invent a concatenation of incompetence, misinterpretation and personal enmity that sends a brigade of cavalry charging down an occupied valley against a battery of artillery?

No-one would invent that. But it is precisely what happened during the Crimean War. If any small link in the chain of causality had broken, the charge would not have been launched. Nor would it have been launched if Lord Lucan had been less stubborn, Lord Cardigan less stupid, Lord Raglan less incompetent and Captain Nolan less impetuous. Nolan was the rider who delivered Raglan’s scribbled order to Lucan, descending hundreds of feet from a perspective where Raglan’s meaning was clear to a spot where it wasn’t clear at all. That was part of why the charge took place. Another part was Nolan’s contempt for Lucan and Nolan’s misinterpretation of the order:

The crucial moment had arrived. Nolan threw back his head, and, “in a most disrespectful and significant manner”, flung out his arm and, with a furious gesture, pointed, not to the Causeway Heights and the redoubts with the captured British guns, but to the end of the North Valley, where the Russian cavalry routed by the Heavy Brigade were now established with their guns in front of them. “There, my lord, is your enemy, there are your guns,” he said, and with those words and that gesture the doom of the Light Brigade was sealed. (ch. 12, pp. 233-4)

So was Nolan’s own doom. Within in a few minutes he himself would be dead, killed by one of the early volleys fired by the Russian guns. He seems to have realized his error and tried to stop the charge, committing “an unprecedented breach of military etiquette” as he overtook Lord Cardigan at the head and shouted with raised sword “as if he would address the Brigade”. Woodham-Smith asks:

Had he suddenly realized that his interpretation of the order had been wrong, and that in his impetuosity he had directed the Light Brigade to certain death? No one will ever know, because at that moment a Russian shell burst on the right of Lord Cardigan, and a fragment tore its way into Nolan’s breast, exposing his heart. The sword fell from his hand, but his right hand was still erect, and his body remained rigid in the saddle. His horse wheeled and began to gallop back through the advancing Brigade, and then from the body there burst a strange and appalling shriek, a shriek so unearthly so to freeze the blood of all who heard him. The terrified horse carried the body, still shrieking, through the 4th Light Dragoons, and then at last Nolan fell from the saddle, dead. (ch. 12, pg. 240)

Nolan was Irish and his death-shriek was like something from Celtic mythology, as though he had been possessed by a spirit of the doom that was about to engulf the splendid ranks of the Light Brigade. And the charge was a mythic occasion: a pointless slaughter enabled not only by the incompetence, stupidity and arrogance of the British officers, but also by the courage, discipline and skill of the men they led:

And now the watchers on the Heights saw that the lines of horsemen, like toys down on the plain, were expanding and contracting with strange mechanical precision. Death was coming fast, and the Light Brigade was meeting death in perfect order; as a man or horse dropped, the riders on each side of him opened out; as soon as they had ridden clear the ranks closed again. Orderly, as if on the parade-ground, the Light Brigade rode on, but its numbers grew every moment smaller and smaller as they moved down the valley. Those on the heights who could understand what that regular mechanical movement meant in terms of discipline and courage were intolerably moved, and one soldier burst into years. It was at this moment that Bosquet, the French General, observed “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” (ch. 12, pg. 242)

But the charge occupies little space in this book, just as it did in the War and the history of the Victorian Age. Woodham-Smith magisterially sets the stage for 232 pages, describing the horrors of the war, the incompetence of the officers, and the courage of the troops that enabled some improbable victories against overwhelming odds. Then she devotes a single chapter to the charge. It was both horrible and glorious, representing both the worst and the best of the British army in Victorian times. And the army represented both the worst and the best of Victorian Britain. Like Eric Ambler, Woodham-Smith can re-create a complex world and its participants on paper. And like Ambler, she is sympathetic to all her characters, from the best to the worst. Strachey mocks and subverts in Eminent Victorians, partly because that was in his nature as a homosexual outsider and partly because he blamed the horrors of the First World War on the legacy of the Victorians.

By 1953, when The Reason Why was published, that legacy was much further in the past, many reforms had taken place, and a second, and much less senseless, world war had been fought by Britain and her allies. Woodham-Smith could be more objective than Strachey. Moreover, men like Lord Cardigan hardly need a satirical or subversive pen: his absurdities speak for themselves. But if you want a humorous take on the Charge of the Light Brigade, I recommend George MacDonald-Fraser’s Flashman at the Charge (1973), in which the bully, coward and liar Flashman is caught up, wholly against his will, in the two astonishing cavalry actions that took place that day: the Charges of both the Light Brigade and the Heavy Brigade.

Neither of them could plausibly be invented by a writer of fiction, but the Charge of the Heavy Brigade was a success, not a tragic farce. That is why it is much less well-remembered. But the Charge of the Light Brigade has never been so well-remembered, or well-explained, as it was by Cecil Woodham-Smith. If you want to know the Reason Why – or the Reasons – then you’ll find them here. You’ll also find an excellent introduction to Victorian England and one of the best military histories ever written.

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Performativizing Papyrocentricity #55

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Arms and the ManagerPassage of Arms, Eric Ambler (1959)

Tods and ToadsThe Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne 1989)

La Guerre et la GauleLe Tour de Gaule d’Asterix, René Goscinny et Albert Uderzo (Hachette 1967)

The Hurt Shocker – an exclusive extract from Titans of Transgression, ed. Dr Miriam B. Stimbers and Dr Samuel P. Salatta (TransVisceral Books, forthcoming)

Schlock XpressThe Bad Movie Bible: The Ultimate Modern Guide to Movies That Are So Bad They’re Good, Rob Hill (Art of Publishing 2017)

Brott und der TodThe Maximum Security Yoga Club, Mikita Brottman (TransVisceral Books 2017)


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Performativizing Papyrocentricity #54

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Protean ProseThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

SchmetterlingsschmuckButterfly, Thomas Marent (Dorling Kindersley 2013)

Criblia – ბიბლია / Biblia (Georgian Bible) (2013)

Micro MacroSuper Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Chute: The LotThe Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

Twice Has Thrice the VicePisces, Peter Sotos, with an introduction by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2017)


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Science or Sorcery?

Note: I was surprised when I re-read this article on CAS from 2004, because I didn’t find its prose particularly painful or embarrassing. I’ve made only one big change, restoring the comparison that I originally began the essay with but which I suppressed for publication at the Eldritch Dark for fear of seeming gratuitously offensive. Everything in the essay, including the comparison, is of course intended to be taken with complete seriousness. Tolkien is one of the authors I have most often re-read, but, as I’ve said before, I wish that someone would translate Lord of the Rings into English.


Science or Sorcery? Interrogating the Supratextual Interface of Klarkash-Ton and the Hobbitual Offender, Simon Whitechapel

The scientific spirit, which cannot leave anything alone and aspires to draw the whole universe of objects, people, ideas and even feelings into its own dull, inhuman empire, was certain, sooner or later, to cast its screwed-up, calculating eyes on the splendour in the grass and the glory in the flower. — Peter Simple, The Stretchford Chronicles (1980).1

Où sont les neiges d’antan? (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) — François Villon, Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (1461).

If the Earth were a human body, the United States of America might well be identified as a cancer. There are three strong parallels: growth, greed, and influence. Cancers grow explosively, gobble energy, and spread in their worst forms to every part of the body. Mutatis mutandis, the United States has done the same, growing in a couple of centuries from a tiny colony to a continental superpower that now consumes perhaps a fifth of the world’s resources with only a twentieth of the world’s population,2 and that exports its culture and language to every corner of the world. More and more people outside its borders are growing up to think, act, and talk like Americans, discarding their own histories and cultures as they do so. This American triumph has coincided with, and in part been built on, the triumph of modern science, and like science the United States is based on a rejection of tradition and a belief in the possibility, and even the necessity, of progress.

But as Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), one of the founders of modern science, pointed out, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. He was talking about physics, but actions have reactions in the mistier world of culture too and simultaneous with the rise of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came the rise of the literary genre of fantasy. Like its coeval science fiction, fantasy represents a flight from the present, but where science fiction flies more or less optimistically into the future, fantasy flees more or less pessimistically into the past: it could be defined as an attempt to write as though America did not exist. America offers democracy, science, and rationalism; fantasy rejects them in favor of monarchy, magic, and mystery.

And understandably so: like America itself, democracy, science, and rationalism are profoundly unnatural things, appearing very late in human existence and truly accepted and appreciated by very few of us, for they do not appeal to the irrational and numinous aspects of our nature. America is unnatural because it is deracinated, a conscious, rational experiment in nation-building whose immigrant citizens are cut off from their roots in ancestral history and homeland. The popularity of fantasy in America and the societies its rootless culture has most heavily influenced proves that millions of us feel the loss. Fantasy’s rejection of science and flight from the scientific American present can be summed up by these lines from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-5) in which the wizard Gandalf describes his confrontation with the wizard Saruman, who has recently exchanged his white robes for robes of many colors:


“I liked white better,” I said.
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
“In which case it no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”3


Isaac Newton broke white light in precisely that way with a prism, gaining knowledge as he discarded wisdom. But there was more to Tolkien’s rejection of Newtonian reductionism than simply science: Newton was also a Protestant, and America is a Protestant nation. Like science, Protestantism is based on a rejection of tradition, and because, like America, it is deracinated, it withers very readily: where its offspring rationalist secularism leads, Protestantism sooner or later follows.4 Tolkien (1892-1973) was Catholic, belonging to a church with deep roots, and though his books are early symptoms of her present decadence, they contain all the anti-rational, loss-assuaging ingredients listed above: monarchy, magic, and mystery. One of those books is, after all, called The Return of the King, and the pessimistic, future-fleeing aspects of fantasy are clearly symbolized by the way Tolkien sets his evil empire of Mordor in the east, where the sun rises, and his haven of peace in the west, where the sun sets.

But beside being Catholic and anti-rationalist, Tolkien was, more importantly, a bad writer. His most famous book, The Lord of the Rings, epitomizes what Europeans would see as the worst failings of American popular culture: it is sentimental, shallow, and clumsy.5 His attempt to flee the American present in some ways carries America with it. And that is one of the great ironies of fantasy literature: its most popular, and least subtle, exponent is European, while one of its greatest and most subtle is not merely American but Californian, living and dying in the most “future-crazed”6 state of all: Clark Ashton Smith was born in 1893 in Long Valley, near Sacramento, and died in 1961 a few miles north in Auburn.

But CAS had an English father and did not grow up in any of California’s cities, which may be much more important than it appears. California is one of the youngest states of one of the world’s youngest nations, but its landscape is ancient and its landscape is what CAS was most familiar with: he grew up on his father’s “forty acres” of homestead.7 Straight lines and right angles are rare in nature, ubiquitous in modern cities, and they may have much stronger effects on our psychology than we realize.8 In the old worlds of Europe and Asia, where cities are thousands of years old, streets wind and twist, because the cities of Europe and Asia have grown rather like plants; in the new world of America, streets run in straight lines intersecting at right angles. American cities are planned, rational attempts to conquer and control unplanned, irrational geography, and perhaps the reputation of New Englanders for subtlety and guile rises from their surroundings. Cities like Boston are old enough to have grown in the winding, twisting old world fashion, and perhaps they train their modern inhabitants in the oblique and indirect. CAS’s friend and mentor H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an urban New Englander: could he have developed his subtle, allusive fiction had he grown up in a city like Chicago or New York, where the streets may train the mind in linearity and directness?9 Could the rural CAS have developed his subtle, allusive fiction had he grown up in a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles?

I would suggest not, but that there is more to an artist’s growth than his physical surroundings is clearly proved by Tolkien, who lived in ancient, alinear England and wrote his crude fantasy amid the winding, twisting streets of Oxford. However, human beings inhabit societies too, and though Lovecraft and CAS may have escaped the stultifying effects of American town-planning, perhaps they benefited from the liberating effects of American politics. The races of Tolkien’s world are clearly based on the English class system: the hobbits, for example, are the rural proletariat and minor bourgeoisie, the orcs are the industrial proletariat, and the elves are the aristocracy whose well-nourished scions Tolkien encountered at Oxford. Compare these passages, the first from Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), the second from Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937):


About six of them came into my room, the rest stood mouthing outside. My dear, they looked too extraordinary. They had been having one of their ridiculous club dinners, and they were all wearing coloured tail-coats – a sort of livery. ‘My dears,’ I said to them, ‘you look like a lot of most disorderly footmen.’ Then one of them, rather a juicy little piece, accused me of unnatural vices. ‘My dear,’ I said, ‘I may be inverted but I am not insatiable. Come back when you are alone.’10


‘Well, well!’ said a[n Elvish] voice. ‘Just look! Bilbo the hobbit on a pony, my dear! Isn’t it delicious!’ ‘Most astonishing wonderful!’ Then off they went into another song as ridiculous as the one I have written down in full. At last one, a tall young fellow, came out from the trees and bowed to Gandalf and to Thorin.11

Tolkien and Waugh were both snobs and both, as it happens, of below average height. Tall Lovecraft’s and tall CAS’s fiction does not suffer from this snobbery, and although the stories of their friend Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) – who grew up in rural Texas – continually pluck the chords of monarchy, magic, and mystery, his hero Conan becomes a king by brawn and brain, not by birth. But Howard, although a far better writer than Tolkien, is the least interesting of the Weird Tales triumvirate, and CAS’s fiction is aristocratic in more than its mention of kings and emperors. He did not write for the canaille, which is why he used words like canaille:


Yes, indeed, one could write numerous reams on the subject of style. The style – or lack of it – required by nearly all magazine editors, [sic] would require a separate treatise. The idea seems to be that everything should be phrased in a manner that will obviate mental effort on the part of the lowest grade moron. I was told the other day that my “Door to Saturn” could only be read with a dictionary.12

One of the reasons popular American culture has been so successfully exported is that it has evolved to appeal to the lowest common denominator: it is “phrased” so to “obviate mental effort”, and ideally to bypass the intellect altogether. The simplicity and directness of an American export like rock’n’roll, whose appeal is based on strong rhythms and high volume, are mirrored in the simplicity and directness of American exports like hamburgers and Coca-Cola, whose appeal is based on fat, salt, and sugar. In short, American culture is democratic and inclusive, not aristocratic and exclusive like European culture. And so a second great irony of fantasy literature is that the European Tolkien is far more democratic and far more successfully exported than the Californian Clark Ashton Smith: Tolkien’s writing is crude and strongly flavored, the literary equivalent of hamburger and coke, while the haute cuisine of CAS remains unknown to many of the millions who read and re-read Lord of the Rings – or watch and re-watch its recent translation into film.

And perhaps that is another part of the key to CAS: fiction that can be translated readily and successfully into film, as Tolkien’s has been, tends to be superficial and direct. CAS’s greatest stories could not be successfully translated into film without being transformed in fundamental ways; that is, without being mutilated. This is another way in which CAS is profoundly un-American. America’s most successful and most characteristic export, advertising its culture to the world, has been film, and film, because it is the most powerful of media, is also the most destructive, killing imagination and feeding passivity and voyeurism.13 Cinema’s inbred cousin, television, exaggerates cinema’s failings and commits the additional crimes of trivialization and superficiality: watching a film at the cinema at least has a sense of ritual and occasion, and lasts about as long as a religious service; watching the same film using a television has no sense of ritual or occasion and can be interrupted and postponed at will.

CAS, born blessedly long before television and no movie-goer, was defiantly logophilic and logocentric, and in that sense is far more modern than artists who work in or are influenced by film: vision has existed for many millions of years among animals and the art based on it, appealing to universal simplicities, crosses boundaries of culture and even species with relative ease: recall the Greek tale of Zeuxis’s trompe l’oeil grapes pecked by birds. True language, on the other hand, appeared only with human beings and the art based on it, being far richer and far more subtle, does not cross barriers of culture with ease and without transformation and distortion. And here is a third great irony of CAS’s relation to JRRT. Tolkien, the professional scholar of language in the homeland of English, wrote with far less sensitivity and richness, beating drums and blasting trumpets where CAS played flutes and citheræ. But if fantasy is an attempt to write as though America did not exist, perhaps it took an American to know precisely how best to perform the nullification.


Notes

1. The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Bristol, 1980, “A graded land”, pg. 165.


2. A factoid often dragged out (with varying figures – sometimes consumption goes as high as two-thirds) by whining liberals and eco-puritans. The precise ratio is impossible to know, but America certainly out-consumes Europe, just as Europe out-consumes the Third World.

3. The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, ch. II, “The Council of Elrond”.

4. “Mark 4:5 And some [seed] fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: 6 But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.” Because they have deep roots, Catholic and Orthodox Christianity resist the scorching sun of secularism much more effectively.

5. The Hobbit, with much less ambition, achieves much more.

6. Peter Simple, The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Bristol, 1980, “Let them be left”, pg. 173: “Environmentalists, conservationists, anti-pollutionists: the dull, pseudo-scientific words, endlessly repeated – imports, like so much else, from future-crazed America – can arouse in certain moods a perverse rage to build oil-refineries all over Dartmoor.”

7. “As I Remember Klarkash-Ton”, George F. Haas, from The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith, Arkham House (see online copy).

8. In one famous psychological experiment, Zulus who lived in round huts and ploughed in curves were found to be much less susceptible to certain optical illusions (e.g. the Müller-Lyer arrow illusion). See, for example, the discussion in R.L. Gregory’s Eye and Brain: the Psychology of Seeing.

9. See Lovecraft’s short story “Haunter of the Dark” (1936), set in the New England city of Providence but with a protagonist from the straight-lined, right-angled Wisconsin city of Milwaukee: “As Blake climbed higher, the region seemed stranger and stranger, with bewildering mazes of brooding brown alleys leading eternally off to the south. … Twice he lost his way …”

10. Op. cit., Book One, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2

11. Op. cit., Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”.

12. Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Necronomicon Press, West Warwick (Rhode Island), 1987, pg. 23, “c. mid-December 1930” (see online copy).

13. In fantasy’s sister genre, horror, England and America again provide the most successful writer and one of the greatest, but this time England wins: the American Stephen King (1947-     ), the most successful writer of horror, is a cinematic writer weaned on film and has nothing of the subtlety and depth of the English M.R. James (1862-1936) (see CAS’s appreciation “The Weird Works of M.R. James”).

© 2004 Simon Whitechapel

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #53

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Pocket to LaroussiaLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Translated to HeavenLes Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

The Eyes of the Infinite MindFicciones, Jorge Luis Borges

Caught by the FurzeFrancis Walker’s Aphids, John P. Doncaster (British Museum 1961)

Commit to CrunchMaverick Munch: Selecting a Sinisterly Savory Snack to Reinforce Your Rhizomatically Radical Reading, Will Self (TransVisceral Books 2016)


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Performativizing Papyrocentricity #52

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Reds in the HeadThe War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)

Canine the BarbarianThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

Star-StuffThe Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)

An Island of Her OwnThe Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon & Schuster 2016)


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Performativizing Papyrocentricity #44

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Lesser LettersYou’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (Heinemann 1990)

The Light of DaySJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police, Vox Day (Castalia House 2015)

Sextual KeelingSextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans, David Barrie (William Collins 2014)

Twy Defy the EyeThe World of Visual Illusions: Optical Tricks That Defy Belief!, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber (Arcturus 2012)


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Sward and Sorcery

Watership Down by Richard Adams with cover by Pauline BaynesWatership Down, Richard Adams (1972)

A book is a magical thing. Black marks on white paper create words; words conjure worlds. But the sorcery of Watership Down is remarkable even by literary standards. The world conjured here defies expectation and suspends disbelief. Richard Adams took a seemingly ludicrous subject – the adventures of a group of rabbits – and made it something that could grip the imagination and stir the emotions of readers at any age.

He did this by combining two distinct traditions of writing about animals: the realism of Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) with the fantasy of Wind in the Willows (1908) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Jack London’s animals are real and don’t speak, but Grahame and Potter turned animals into miniature humans, bringing them into our world, taming and civilizing them. Adams does the reverse: he takes us into the world of animals. He kept his rabbits wild and on all fours, sworn to the sward that they create with their teeth, but he used one piece of anthropomorphism. Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other rabbits can all talk. They have a language, Lapine, and communicate with other animals using a “very simple, limited lingua franca of the hedgerow and woodland” (Part II, ch. 20).

How else could there be a proper story? But that one piece of anthropomorphism is actually an umbrella sheltering many other things: intelligence, memory, planning, persuasion, story-telling, the ability to lie, and so on. With language, the rabbits become like a tribe of primitive humans, pre-literate, almost innumerate:

Rabbits can count up to four. Any number above that is Hrair – ‘a lot’ or ‘a thousand’. Thus they say U Hrair – ‘The Thousand’ – to mean, collectively, all the enemies (or elil, as they call them) of rabbits – fox, stoat, weasel, cat, owl, man, etc. There were probably more than five rabbits in the litter where Fiver was born, but his name, Hrairoo, means ‘Little thousand’, i.e. the little one of a lot, or, as they say of pigs, ‘the runt’. (Part I, “The Journey”, ch. 1, “The Notice Board”)

At the beginning of the book, Fiver is the unacknowledged shaman of Sandleford Warren and foresees the doom that approaches it. Unfortunately, few rabbits believe him, which is why Adams heads the first chapter with a quote from Aeschylus, Cassandra’s warning that “The house reeks of death and dripping blood.” Every other chapter has its apposite quote, ancient or modern, poetry or prose, whimsical or serious: Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Napoleon, W.H. Auden, Dr Johnson, Clausewitz, Walter de la Mare and so on. The quotes stitch Watership Down deftly into the literary canon and into history, because the book is, in part, a celebration of story-telling and the possibilities of language.

That celebration is echoed inside the book, because the narrative is broken up by stories of El-ahrairah, the rabbits’ trickster-prince and protector. He’s like Odysseus and Watership Down is like the Odyssey. It’s a cycle of folk-tales in the making. Like Odysseus, the rabbits have to rely on their cunning and their speed, tricking monsters, not directly confronting them. Their own adventures will, in time, be attributed to El-ahrairah. Without writing, they have no history and sooner or later real events will melt into myth. But that’s the natural way: writing is a mysterious and evil thing to those rabbits who can intuit its purpose:

In the livid, foggy twilight, Fiver stared at the board. As he stared, the black sticks flickered on the white surface. They raised their sharp, wedge-shaped little heads and chattered together like a nestful of young weasels. The sound, mocking and cruel, came faintly to his ears, as though muffled by sand or sacking. ‘In memory of Hazel-rah! In memory of Hazel-rah! In memory of Hazel-rah! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!’ (Part II, ch. 26, “Fiver Beyond”)

Like Tolkien in The Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings (1954-5), Adams is writing against the evils of technology and modernity; unlike Tolkien, he lists writing among those evils. A book that condemns writing is a paradox, but Adams is adopting a rabbit’s perspective. Tolkien’s books were, I’d suggest, a strong hidden influence on Watership Down. Rabbits are hole-dwellers like hobbits and the band of rabbits who set out from Sandleford Warren are rather like the Company of the Ring. Adams treats Lapine the way Tolkien treats his invented languages, using it to make us aware of the gulf across which the story comes to us:

With them was a third rabbit, Hlao – Pipkin – a friend of Fiver. (Hlao means any small concavity in the grass where moisture may collect, e.g. the dimple formed by a dandelion or thistle-cup.) (Part 1, ch. 4, “The Departure”)

Meriadoc was chosen to fit the fact that this character’s shortened name, Kali, meant in the Westron ‘jolly, gay’, though this was actually an abbreviation of the now unmeaning Buckland name Kalimac. (Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, “On Translation”)

But I think Adams is more linguistically creative and subtle than Tolkien, whose invented languages still seem like real ones: Welsh, Finnish, Old Norse and so on. Lapine isn’t reminiscent of anything familiar and some of its words – pfeffa, “cat”, and hrududu, “motor vehicle” – are cleverly simple, just the sort of onomatopoeias you can imagine a talking rabbit would use.

Cover of a recent edition of Watership Down

Cover of a recent edition of Watership Down

Lapine is also like Nadsat, the teen-speak invented by Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange (1962). Adams leaves some words of Lapine untranslated at first, letting context give them meaning, sprinkling them through the text and allowing them to sink slowly into the reader’s mind. By the end of the book, you’ll find that you can understand basic Lapine: “Siflay hraka, u embleer rah,” says Bigwig to General Woundwort and the line doesn’t need translation.

General Woundwort is the Polyphemus or Sauron of Watership Down: a rabbit almost as big as a hare, the cunning and vicious megalomaniac who leads the slave-warren Efrafra. His wickedness is on a much smaller scale than Sauron’s, of course, but that makes it more credible and so more powerful. Lord of the Rings is more ambitious than The Hobbit, which is admirable, but also less successful, which was inevitable. Bilbo sets out to slay a dragon, not save the world. The rabbits in Watership Down are unwilling refugees who want to found a permanent warren of their own. It’s a small thing within the wider world, where humans rear giant metal pylons, span rivers with bridges, and speed to and fro in hrududim, but then human affairs are small within the wider universe.

It doesn’t matter: significance is not determined by size, purpose doesn’t have to be blunted by futility. The rabbits’ instincts drive them on and their ambitions are big enough for their abilities. They don’t need more. It’s General Woundwort’s desire to be great that prevents him from being so. He’s the most human of the rabbits and so the most evil: “All other elil do what they have to do and Frith moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.” (Part II, ch. 21, “For El-ahrairah to Cry”)

Man’s restlessness and meddling are a theme Adams took up again in The Plague Dogs (1977), a novel about two dogs that escape from a research laboratory in the Lake District. It’s a weak book set beside Watership Down, written more self-consciously and less coherently. Adams doesn’t stitch literary allusions into the story: he nails them in like corrugated iron. But his sympathy for animals is still there and so is his ability to describe the world through their sharper and subtler senses. The rabbits of Watership Down are like a primitive tribe of humans, but you never forget that they aren’t actually human:

A robin on a low branch twittered a phrase and listened for another that answered to him from beyond the farmhouse. A chaffinch gave its little falling song and farther off, high in an elm, a chiff-chaff began to call. Hazel stopped and then sat up, the better to scent the air. Powerful smells of straw and cow-dung mingled with those of elm-leaves, ashes and cattle-feed. Fainter traces came to his nose as the overtones of a bell sound in a trained ear. Tobacco, naturally: a good deal of cat and rather less dog and then, suddenly and beyond doubt, rabbit. He looked at Pipkin and saw that he too had caught it. (Part II, ch. 24, “Nuthanger Farm”)

That’s describing a raid on a farm that keeps pet rabbits. Hazel wants to find some does for the warren at Watership Down, where he and his fellow hlessil – “wanderers, scratchers, vagabonds” – seem to have finally found sanctuary. They’ve come a long way through strange country, but they’ll go further and see stranger before the end of the book. Watership Down is first and foremost an adventure story, but it’s also a celebration of the English countryside: its flowers, trees, birds, streams and rivers; its sounds, scents, shapes; its delights and dangers. The rabbits have their place there, naming themselves from nature, and unlike man, with his stinks and cacophonies, they don’t desire dominion over it.

The raucous gull Kehaar, their ally in their struggle with General Woundwort and Efrafra, brings word of far-off places and the mysterious sea, but their world is room enough. It fills their senses, challenges their cunning and ingenuity, sustains them, in the end will slay them. The countryside is the biggest character, as the title suggests, and rabbits were the best way to bring that character into a book. They’re social animals, mostly warren-dwelling, occasionally wandering, and if Adams could suspend disbelief and give them language, he could conjure a world of wonders through their eyes, ears, noses and mouths.

He could and did exactly that with the help of R.M. Lockley, who wrote The Private Life of the Rabbit, the “remarkable book” on which he drew for a “knowledge of rabbits and their ways” (“Acknowledgments”). Rabbits are in fact remarkable animals, but most people won’t realize that until they read the remarkable book called Watership Down. It’s a microcosm that mirrors the macrocosm, both reflecting man and reflecting on our ways. Rabbits “don’t name the stars”, Adams tells us, but in truth they don’t name anything, because Lapine doesn’t exist. It was his great achievement to make that impossibility plausible, turning sward-munchers into adventurers, mystics and dynasts with the sorcery of words:

A few minutes later there was not a rabbit to be seen on the down. The sun sank beneath Ladle Hill and the autumn stars began to shine in the darkening east – Perseus and the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, faint Pisces and the great square of Pegasus. The wind freshened, and soon myriads of dry beech leaves were filling the ditches and hollows and blowing in gusts across the dark miles of open grass. Underground, the story continued. (Part IV, ch. 50, “And Last”)

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #40

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Humanist Hubris The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

Paw is Less – The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams (Penguin 1977)

I Like Bike – Fifty Bicycles That Changed the World, Alex Newson (Conran Octopus 2013)

Morc is LessThe Weird Shadow Over Morecambe, Edmund Glasby (Linford 2013)

Nekro-a-KokoaComfort Corps: Cuddles, Calmatives and Cosy Cups of Cocoa in the Music of Korpse-Hump Kannibale, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2015)


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