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.


Another Journey to Watership Down

I read a review of the new animated series on Netflix based on the novel, Watership Down. The review’s title, “Plenty of Rabbits, None Cuddly”, tells you something about the filmmakers’ approach to the novel.

Watership Down is sometimes mistakenly taken to be a children’s story. Previous animated versions may have encouraged that view, and I suppose almost all animated films are viewed at first as being for a younger audience. But Richard Adams’ book, and this new animated series, is very adult in its language, plot and themes.

I wrote in an previous post that though my wife and I both loved the book, we didn’t read it to our sons. We stuck to Peter Rabbit (who turns out to also have some pretty violent experiences).

I made up my own rabbit tales for my sons to supplement Peter’s adventures and aligned them closely with the lives of my boys. Watership‘s author, Richard Adams, apparently did the same with his children.

The down where Hazel and prophet Fiver live, Sandleford Warren, is not a wonderful place to live. When Fiver has a vision of something terrible coming for their home, he tries to get the others to believe him and leave.

The vision comes true in the form of men and construction that destroys the warren and its occupants.

Hazel, Fiver and only a few others escape. They journey to find a new place and establish their own warren. Their Watership Down is to be a fairer, kinder society than the one they left. But they will need to quite literally fight a battle with the neighboring totalitarian state run by the rabbit tyrant, General Woundwort.

Rabbits fighting battles is not Peter Rabbit and not the other English land of anthropomorphic lovable animals, the Hundred Acre Wood.

Adams denied that he had loftier goals than to tell a rabbit story, but readers and critics have called the tale an allegory and found all kinds of symbols and metaphors for our human world from war to government to religion.

Because Adams created a rabbit language (Lapine), culture, history and mythology, some compare it to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It is not that extensive and does not spread over multiple volumes. I have read studies on the novel that like the rabbits’ journey to The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. The review I read of the new animated series describes Woundwort’s camp as looking like  Auschwitz:.It is no wonder that Adams shrugged off the comparisons.

Adams’ book is not trying to be those other books. But it is trying to be more than just a story about rabbits.

There was (perhaps still is in some form) a real Watership Down that the author knew. It was a hill, or down, in Hampshire, England. He knew and learned a lot about rabbits in writing the book, and a reader will also learn a lot. The animated version does not have the book’s extensive rabbit facts (which I would compare to the inter-chapters on whales that Melville includes in Moby-Dick).

I enjoyed this new version. I like that it is allowed to stretch over four episodes. I appreciate the adult approach to the content. And now that my sons are both grown with children of their own on the horizon, they can watch Hazel and Fiver and then adapt the tales to tell their own children.

My rabbit stories always began as Peter’s story began: “Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter. They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree.” And when I put the boys to bed, it was with that and maybe some bread and milk, blackberries and chamomile tea. No battles for our rabbits.



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.