Wandering Imaginary Places

watership down
View from Watership Down towards Nuthanger Farm || by  Peter S and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

When I was teaching, I often had students create maps for fictional “imaginary places.” Some settings in novels are so real that we might think they exist in reality. Many authors create imaginary places but base them on real places they know. We did some quite detailed maps of the half-real/half-fictional Tulsa, Oklahoma in the young adult classic The Outsiders. Creating settings maps required very close reading and a lot of critical thinking and sometimes some research into an author’s life and real maps.

Much later, I discovered that there were books about these places, such as the Atlas of Imagined Places: from Lilliput to Gotham City, An Atlas of Imaginary Places, and the Encyclopedia of Imaginary and Mythical Places.

The mystery writer Harlan Coben was a student of mine when I taught in Livingston, New Jersey. He often uses that town and part of New Jersey (he still lives not that far away) in his writing, but things are changed as needed. I recognize names and people (including my own) on those pages. When he describes a street he’s driving down, in my mind I can see that street.

I know from my child psychology classes that the creation of imaginary worlds and people is an important part of child development.

As a young reader, I loved books that had maps in them. Some books had a map on the inside covers. I had a Treasure Island and a Lord of the Rings that had maps. I also had a copy of Richard Adams‘ 1972 novel, Watership Down, that had a map.

picture book
Page from a picture book adaptation of Watership Down

That book is about a rabbit named Hazel who leads a group of his kind out of a dangerous place through an even more dangerous place. Their original home was being taken over by humans. The dangerous place they travel to is dangerous because of the rabbits that live there.

I love that novel and read it multiple times. I have always felt a connection to rabbits. It has been more than just liking these cute, fuzzy creatures. I feel some higher connection to them. A Native American teacher once told me on a mini-vision quest that my vision of a rabbit being chased by a wolf made these two my totem animals.

The rabbits finally reach Watership Down which is a chalk hill in England’s North Hampshire countryside. Adams lived in the nearby town of Whitchurch. He would take walks with his children to the top of Watership Down and, like some other authors such as A.A. Milne with Pooh – he told them stories about the rabbits who lived there. Eventually, he wrote them down and so the book was born.

All of the locations described in the book are real places and you could do a tour of the settings using the map in the book.

I have looked the place up online and apparently, it is a popular spot with cyclists, walkers, and exercising horses along Wayfarers’ Walk. A section of  Watership Down is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Going way back, the Down is in the midst of an area is with Iron Age burial mounds, enclosures, and field systems.

There is a tree that was planted at the north end of the wood to mark where the rabbits choose to make their new warren. That tree replaced a beech tree that was destroyed by a storm in 2004. The roots of that beech tree is where the rabbits’ warren is in the novel.

I have read that the wooden fence protecting the tree has been, perhaps understandably, “vandalized” by visitors who have carved the names of some of the rabbits from the novel, such as Bigwig, Fiver, and Hazel.

I had a shelf in my classroom with some novels that had maps in them and a few books about imaginary places and creating imaginary worlds. (click on the book covers below for info).  I always had a few students who would fall into those books and linger longer than necessary in them and sometimes ask if they could borrow one over the weekend.

I was such a dreamer thinking and sometimes drawing maps of Atlantis, Xanadu, Shangri-La, El Dorado, Utopia, Middle Earth, Treasure Island, Wonderland, Freedonia. These days I’m sure readers and watchers have been imagining Jurassic Park and the world of Harry Potter – although movies kind of ruin imaginary places by making them seem “real.”

I always thought that one day I might walk Watership Down with Karen, my longtime friend, and a fellow rabbit person. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe just in our imagination.


Mad as a March Hare

March hare
The March Hare as illustrated by John Tenniel.

“Mad as a March hare” is a common British English phrase. It is still in use today and was in use in the time of Lewis Carroll when he was writing his books about Alice’s adventures. The phrase appeared in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs published in 1546.

The origin of this is thought to come from a popular (though not scientific) belief about hares’ behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season. (In Britain, it would be from February to September.) Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that this “fighting” was between two males competing for breeding dominance.

The March Hare as a character is called Haigha in Through the Looking-Glass. The March Hare most famously appears in the tea party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice says, “The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”

A Scrub Hare (Lepus saxatilis) with prominent ears

Hares and jackrabbits (leporids belonging to the genus Lepus and classified in the same family as rabbits) are similar in size and form to rabbits and have similar herbivorous diets, but generally have longer ears and live solitarily or in pairs rather than in groups or families. They are very independent creatures and unlike other rabbits, their young are able to fend for themselves shortly after birth. They are generally faster than other rabbits.

illustration from Alice in Wonderland
The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot – illustration by John Tenniel.

The March Hare character is certainly more hare than rabbit. he is friends with The Hatter character. The Hatter also appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Readers often call him the “Mad Hatter” but Carroll never uses that adjective for his name. But at the tea party, the Cheshire Cat refers to The Hatter and the March Hare as “both mad.”

In Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the March Hare is shown with straw on his head, which apparently was a common way to depict madness in Victorian times, perhaps alluding to to a straw-stuffed scarecrow head.

For all you language fans, jackrabbits are hares, rather than rabbits. Should they be jackhares? A hare less than one year old is called a leveret. A group of hares is called a “drove.” And the march Hare’s real name in the books, Haigha, should be pronounced to rhyme with “mayor,” according to Lewis Carroll – which would mean it is pronounced “hare.” Madness indeed.

Watership Down Revisited

I suppose some people think of Watership Down as a children’s story, but it very adult in its language and themes.

I passed on reading the book to my sons and stuck to Peter Rabbit and, like Watership‘s author Richard Adams, I made up stories about rabbits for my sons’ bedtimes. My stories had a way of closely paralleling the boys’ lives, but they never seemed to notice.

I saw the animated adaptation of the novel and my kids did watch that, although I waited until I thought they were ready because these rabbits do battle and there is blood.

Rabbit battles? Is this an allegory?  I didn’t read it that way, but these anthropomorphic rabbits certainly seem human in many ways. But they are also very rabbit with their own language (Lapine), culture, history and mythology. And I learned a lot about real rabbits by reading it.

I had rabbits as a child – Coffee and Thumper. And my sons had a rabbit pet named Merlin (because his upright ears seemed to form a pointed wizard’s cap).

My wife had read the book before we met and it was something we had in common and talked about. When we were driving and we saw rabbits on the roadside in early evening, we knew they were at silflay.  We knew that the passing of our hrududu might frighten them, although rabbits get pretty good at living in or around human living spaces.

Emily Ruskovich, a teacher and writer who wrote a piece for the Paris Review about her own connections to the novel, and I could relate to much of it.

I revisited the novel this week via an audiobook. It read the book for the first time in 1973 and again the late 1980s as part of own bedtime storytelling inspiration. Not being a child or a young man or the father of children, it was a different story. Of course, books don’t change – we change and the times we read them change and have changed us.

People have read the book and compared it to the hero’s journey, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, and see different types of religious themes in it. For example, the character of Frith created the world and promised that rabbits would always be allowed to thrive, and in Lapine his name  “the sun”.

I don’t doubt that those things can be found in the novel, even if Richard Adams maintained that those earlier tales were not its origin and the intents were not the same. He set the story in the real Watership Down that he knew, a hill, or down, at Ecchinswell in the civil parish of Ecchinswell, Sydmonton and Bishops Green in the English county of Hampshire.

Entrance to rabbit warren

I identify more nowadays with the aging rabbits. Hazel is the “protagonist” of the novel who is able to unite two rabbit societies and they live a peaceful life in the downs. But Fiver is my favorite rabbit. I guess I identified more with this runt of the litter who is a kind of a seer. He is not the leader, but others follow him or at least follow his advice through Hazel.

At the end of the story, Hazel is visited by the mythical black rabbit of death. I suppose he is “Death” but this ghost rabbit is quite peaceful and he comes to invite Hazel to join his Owsla, a rabbit warren’s military caste. The black rabbit says “If you’re ready, we might go along now.”  Hazel didn’t need his body any more, so he left it on the ground and made a leap into the afterlife.

Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve 2016 at the age of 96. Like most rabbits, Adams lived until his death in Whitchurch, which is within 10 miles of his birthplace. You don’t need to travel the world to find a good story.