Year of Important Books: Watership Down, by Richard Adams

This book, published in 1972, will forever be associated with the taste of malted chocolate Easter eggs in my mind. My parents had a tradition of giving us a small gift at Easter, often a book, and happily in Easter of 1975 I found Watership Down, by Richard Adams, propped up at the foot of my bed as I awoke on Easter morning. After searching through the house on the Easter egg hunt, I happily settled down with my new book and my favourite Easter treat – “robin’s eggs”, malted chocolate eggs covered with a hard candy shell, speckled to look like eggs.

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This book has seen a lot of love, as you can see. 

The other books I have read in my series thus far were classics long before I got to read them. With Watership Down I got in on the ground floor, so to speak, as this book has since become a literary classic, beloved by many. I’m not sure exactly why my mum picked this book for me, but I can guess at two reasons. One being that the cover featured a picture of a rabbit, which seemed to fit the Easter theme, I suppose.; and secondly, in order to forestall my never-ending quest to get a dog my parents had relented a few years previous and allowed me to keep the baby bunny the neighbours had given me. So naturally they would have assumed a tale about rabbits would appeal to me.

And they were right. As I ate my Easter candy and began to read this story of Hazel, Fiver, Pipkin, Bigwig, and the rest, I quickly got caught up in the tale and after that first reading went on to re-read it many, many more times.

Adams was born in 1920 in England, and yes, he is still alive! At the time of this writing in 2016 he is 96 years old. Watership Down was his first book. The genesis of this book, like so many of the others I have read this year, was in tales told to his daughters, who then begged him to write them down. But this beloved book did not have an easy time of it. Four publishers and three writing agencies turned down the book before Rex Collins took a chance on it and published it in 1972, and the rest is history. The book went on to win two of the most prestigious British book awards: the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

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Richard Adams reading from Watership Down at a 2008 exhibition of paintings by Aldo Galli, which illustrated a special anniversary edition of the book. Photo by Andrew Reeves-Hall

The book follows the adventures of a group of rabbits who leave their warren on the promptings of a prophetic rabbit named Fiver who has forebodings of disaster to come if they stay put. Hazel, the sensible rabbit who becomes the group’s steadfast and courageous leader, gathers the small number of rabbits who are willing to listen to Fiver’s warnings and together they leave the warren, heading for the hospitable terrain of Watership Down, some 4 miles away. Not a long journey for a man, but for a group of rabbits out in the open, without holes to bolt into at the first sign of danger, it is a long and harrowing trek, dodging men and their snares and guns, predators and even other rabbits. But through their journey the group becomes a tight knit group of companions, and arrive at Watership Down relatively unscathed. But danger lurks there, too, as they soon discover.

In a bid to obtain some does for their warren (the ones who leave with Hazel are all bucks), they encounter the strange warren of Efrafra, ruled over by the foreboding and dictatorial General Woundwort. Suffice to say that Hazel quickly realize their task will not be easy, and that they must draw on all their strength and courage, and a little rabbit trickery besides, to achieve their goal.

On the back of my copy of the book there is a quote from The Times in London, which states, “Mr. Adams wanted to write ‘a proper grown-up novel for children’, and this is what he has achieved.” This is a marvellous summary of this book. It is a children’s book, but it is so much more.

Right away, in the opening paragraph of the book, Adams grounds his rabbits in a realistic setting.

The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. Not he other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow. A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half-choked with king-cups, water-cress and blue brook-lime. The cart-track crossed by a brick culvert and climbed the opposite slope to a five-barred gate in the throne hedge. The gate led into the lane. 

The May sunset was red in clouds, and there was still half an hour to twilight. The dry slope was dotted with rabbits – some nibbling at the thing grass near their holes, others pushing farther down to look for dandelions or perhaps a cowslip that the rest had missed. 

There are many passages and details like this in the book – so many flower and trees and trees are named that at times I felt like I needed to stop and Google-search them all. But this realistic portrayal of a particular, small piece of British countryside, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England, where Adams himself grew up and obviously knew intimately, adds immediate realism to the more fantastical parts of the book – Adams’ imaginative take on rabbit society, language, and myths.

Adams researched the life and habitats of rabbits, and in particular pays credit in the introduction to Watership Down to a book by R. M. Lockley called The Private Life of the Rabbit as a book that gave him particular inspiration. Indeed there are times in the book where Adams quotes from Lockley’s book directly. Therefore the rabbit behaviour in Watership Down is very accurate and gives the readers a whole bunch of fascinating information about rabbits that they likely didn’t know.

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The book that Adams relied on for his research, by Welsh ornithologist and naturalist Ronald Lockley. Adams and Lockley were friends, and subsequently introduced Lockley as a character in Adams’ later novel, The Plague Dogs. 

But it is not just factual information about rabbits that Adams presents to the readers in his book, he invents a whole language (called Lapine), social structure, and mythology for rabbits as well. And this is what makes the book really come alive. In particular, the legends and tales of the rabbits’ legendary hero and founder, El-ahrairah, which are interspersed in the book, serve to make this rabbit society one with great depth and complexity.

There is no doubt that this book can be frightening and disturbing to children at times. The animated film based on the book, released in 1978, has been responsible for many a nightmare and complaints by parents, who thought they were taking their children to see a Disney-esque movie about bunnies. The rabbits in this book are in great danger, and some of them die. For myself, it was the depiction of Bigwig in the snare that really haunted me.

But the menacing figure of General Woundwort and his rule of the cowed rabbits of the Efrafra warren is the largest shadow that looms large over the idyllic life that Hazel builds for his rabbits at Watership Down, and the plot to best Woundwort and steal some does away from Efrafra is the highly entertaining and suspenseful climax to the book. I was just as caught up in this during my read of the book as an adult as I was when I was younger.

Interestingly enough, the BBC and Netflix are teaming up to produce a new animated mini-series adaptation of the book, to air in 2017, with actor James McAvoy as the voice of Hazel. Their hope is to do a faithful adaptation of the book but to tone down the scary parts which made the earlier animated film so disturbing to children. I am very much looking forward to seeing this, and will write a review on it once it airs.

I really enjoyed re-visiting this book again, and highly recommend it to upper elementary aged children and up.

 

 

 

 

 

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Wandering Through the Web, Again

Awhile back I posted about some of the places I have enjoyed while trekking through cyberspace. Today I thought it might be interesting to you to have a look at some of the specifically Dark Ages or historical websites I like to visit when I am looking for information on the people and places that make up Northumbria in the 7th century.

  1. Bamburgh Research Project – for approximately twenty years there has been an archeological dig going on at Bamburgh. The team have explored various places on the site, and post about their important discoveries on this blog. Piece by piece they are giving historians a better picture of what this site actually contained throughout the years. Every summer they have spots for students and community members to take part in the dig as well. Oh, how I would love to do that! One of these days I would like to do a more complete post on this important project, so stay tuned…

2. Regia Anglorum – this is the website of an early medieval re-enactment and living history society, specializing in the 9th-13th centuries in Britain. So yes, they make their own costumes and get together to re-inact important battles, etc. Which sounds like quite a lot of fun, doesn’t it? Although their specialty is a time period a couple hundred years after the 7th century, this website has a wealth of information about the early middle ages in general.This is one of the sites I used the most at the beginning of researching my book, when trying to get a handle on understanding practical things that a writer needs to know, such as clothing, culture, social structure, food, customs, and all the other details that bring a book to life. Wonderful resource! And, they also have a permanent site in Kent where they are constructing a fortified manor house (a long hall) in the style of the late Anglo-Saxon period. Another place to add to my ever-growing list of places to visit.

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The gang from Regia Anglorum in front of Wychurst, their Anglo-Saxon hall. Photo from Regia Anglorum.

3. Heavenfield – I mentioned this site before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This site is run by historian and scientist Michelle Ziegler, and it is full of great information about the early middle ages. Particularly if you are interested in plagues and disease, this is the place for you, as she often links posts from her other blog, Contagions.  But disease isn’t her only interest. This page on the site has some really good articles about some of the Early Medieval Kings, all backed by solid research.  Ms. Ziegler can be found in other places around the web as well. I found  this article from The Heroic Age magazine really crucial in helping me to understand the interconnecting relationships of the various kings of the region, and in particular, the section entitled “Politics of Exile” gave me a way into understanding Oswy’s story that I hadn’t had before.

4. Other Dark Ages authors – often authors who write about a particular era will have interesting facts and information about that era on their website or blog. I try to do that here, too! I have found some great information on other author’s blogs, including that of A.J. Sefton,  Carla Nayland, and Octavia Randolph.

There are numerous other web resources out there for research into the Dark Ages. Wikipedia has a lot of information, of course. But one must always be careful when you are using the web for research. Check the sources of the article you are looking at, and always look at more than one source for the information you are seeking. That will help you to avoid misinformation and inaccuracies that would be easy to find if you don’t research properly.

 

Review: Edwin: High King of Britain, by Edoardo Albert

Edoardo Albert is an historian and author, and this book (published in 2014) is the first one of a fiction series titled The Northumbrian Thrones. Other books in the series include Oswald: Return of the King, and Oswiu:King of Kings. Albert has also written other non-fiction history books, notably Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, co-written by one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project (the archeological dig that is ongoing at Bamburgh).

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The author, Edoardo Albert

In other words, this author is right up my alley, and I dug into this book with a great deal of relish. And he didn’t disappoint! Edwin: High King of Britain is a fascinating glimpse at this ancient king, written in an easily accessible and at times lyrical fashion, introducing us to a complex and interesting man and the times in which he lived.

Edwin’s reign fell a few decades before the events in my own trilogy. He was born in 616 AD and died in battle in 633 AD. He is an important king in Northumbria for many reasons, not the least of which being that he is the first Christian king of Northumbria. I will touch on this later.

The book begins with Edwin in exile. He was the son of Ælle, King of Deira (the southern part of Northumbria), and when Ælle dies, Æthelfrith, Edwin’s brother-in-law and King of Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria) takes over as King of Deira as well, being the first to unite the two kingdoms into Northumbria as a whole. Naturally Edwin is a threat to his claim on Deira’s throne, and so Edwin has been fleeing for his life, finding refuge at various places and finally ending up at the court of Rædwald, king of the East Angles, south of Deira. But as the book opens word comes to Edwin that Æthelfrith, known by the nickname the Twister, has convinced Rædwald to kill Edwin in exchange for treasure and almost as importantly, an alliance with the powerful Æthelfrith.

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I love the cover art of the book. This stylized boar is done in the fashion of images typical of Anglo-Saxon art of the times. 

Albert pulls us into Edwin’s world right away. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is trying to drop readers into the setting and give enough of the backstory so that they can begin to have a sense of the world without being overwhelmed by dry facts and information. I like the way Albert handled this, it didn’t feel forced in an info-dump kind of way, and it got me immediately immersed into Edwin, his world, and the dilemmas he faced.

And there are plenty of dilemmas. Edwin is concerned not only for his own life, but also the lives of his sons, who as his heirs are in danger from Æthelfrith’s sword as well. He seeks a way to gain back the Deiran throne, and to remove the threat Æthelfrith poses. And once he succeeds and gains the title of High King of Northumbria himself, there is the challenge of keeping his throne safe from the threats of those who would claim it.

Edwin’s first wife, the mother of his sons, has long since died, and in appropriate kingly fashion he seeks an alliance with the powerful kingdom of Kent by marrying Æthelburh, sister of the King. And this introduces another challenge to Edwin – the introduction of Christianity into his kingdom, for Kent is a Christian kingdom, and his new bride a follower of Christ.

Accompanying Æthelburh on her journey north to her new home is Paulinus, a priest of the Roman Church and James, a deacon. They are determined to begin a missionary work among the pagan Northumbrians, starting with the King, for they know that if the King embraces Christ his people will likely follow.

This journey of Edwin from pagan to Christian is the heart of Albert’s book, I feel. Edwin understands the import of his decision, and he wavers for some time as he wrestles not only with his understanding of the new faith but the implications of casting aside the old gods. The story of Edwin’s conversion is chronicled in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and Albert dramatizes Bede’s account well. I enjoyed the way Edwin’s pagan priest, Coffi, was portrayed here. His disillusionment at the silence of his gods which led to his embrace of Christ fleshed out Bede’s story in a satisfactory way.

It is easy to look back at stories such as Bede’s in a cynical way. How much of what he said was truth, and how much was propaganda? When the King converts and his men convert with him, how much of that was real faith and how much political opportunism? By making Edwin, his wife and counsellors come alive in this story, Albert gives us a plausible and realistic picture of this most important moment of British history – when the Northumbrian kingdom began it’s first steps as a Christian one. I get tired of books that portray the introduction of Christianity as something negative, bringing  repression and disaster to a previously wonderful pagan world. Of course with change comes both the positive and negative, and I’m not interested in whitewashing history either. But surely the people that set aside their pagan faith did so for many reasons, and we can’t discount that for many, an important reason was their appreciation of that new faith itself and its message of love, grace, and forgiveness.

Albert is a good writer, and there is some lovely prose in this book, especially in some of the scenes where the experience of faith is brought alive, like this  account of Edwin’s baptism:

There, beneath the water, he had felt as if he were suddenly able to breathe again; as if a tight metal band that had been slowly constricting his chest as he grew older, tightening so slowly that he never even realized it was there, had been released. He had been a slave and he had never even known it. 

Besides this journey of Edwin from pagan to Christian, the other thing I really enjoyed in this book was the portrayal of Penda, introduced here as a warlord to King Cearl of Mercia. The early life of Penda is somewhat murky in historical accounts, and so I enjoyed this presentation of Penda’s life which gives a satisfying background to this most important King of 7th century Britain, a wily and powerful man  who is a worthy adversary to the Northumbrian kings.

If you are at all interested in a a well-written, entertaining and exciting history of an important king of Britain, Edwin: High King of Britain, will definitely satisfy.

 

 

Bechdel Blues

I’ve been thinking about the Bechdel Test lately, due to my ongoing revision of Book Two of The Traveller’s Path trilogy. Perhaps some of you are unfamiliar with this, I know I was until a few years ago. Basically, it’s a method used to judge gender inequality in entertainment. It was first appeared in 1985 as part of a conversation in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel, who credited her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, so it is also sometimes known as the Bechtel-Wallace Test.

It’s pretty simple. You just examine a book, movie, or other entertainment and see if the following criteria apply:

  1. Does it have at least two women in it?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk about something other than a man?

There are other small revisions and additions to this, such as the conversation must be more than sixty seconds, or that the two women must have names. But those three criteria are the heart of it. And it is actually very interesting when you start to apply this to movies and books. At bechdeltest.com, you will find a database of approximately 6500 movies. According to their stats, 57.8% pass all three tests, 10.1% pass two tests, 21.8% pass one test and 10.3% pass no tests at all.

Caveats abound on this, of course, both in a positive sense and in a negative. For example, the test doesn’t account for any settings in which women would not be present, such as The  Name of The Rose, by Umberto Eco, set in a medieval monastery. However, it also doesn’t account for the movies and books that pass criteria one and two, but their conversation is only about marriage and or babies. It also doesn’t account for movies such as Fifty Shades of Grey, which technically passes the test but I defy you to tell me that book/movie does anything to promote women in a positive and affirming way.

It’s a good tool to use in a general sense, anyway, as long as you don’t get yourself tied up in knots about it. It helps to tweak our perceptions of the media we consume and to make us think a little more critically as to how women are portrayed in popular culture.

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This graph is based on the films entered into the bechdeltest.com database. Interesting that horror movies tend to do better on the test, which perhaps is because of all those “teen scream” type movies where teenage girls are being slashed to death. As I pointed out, just because a movie passes the Bechdel Test, it doesn’t mean the movie is necessarily a good film nor that it portrays women in positive and realistic ways. This graph, and others, can be found on Reddit.

There’s lots more one could say about this, of course, but I wanted to talk about it from the perspective of a woman who is actively creating content, namely, me.

I will confess that Wilding, my first book in the trilogy, fails the test as it stands right now.  Not completely. It passes #1, but not #2 and #3. The reasons why can basically be attributed to setting and length. Setting, because my book takes place in 7th century Northumbria, and my main character is a young man who through mysterious means travels through time to the seventh century, is befriended by an exiled Welsh warrior, and ends up finding shelter in a monastery.  Now, of course I had the choice to make my character a woman or a man. However, given the restrictions on women in that culture and the overarching story I wanted to tell, it really wasn’t practical for me to do that.

I’ve written on the blog before about how I wrote the book, and mentioned that it was meant to be one stand-alone book but I ended up with enough content for three. I knew there was going to be a female character in the book, and I had intended at the beginning to give her some scenes from her own point of view, just as I had done for other characters. However, she doesn’t appear right away in the book, and by the time she was introduced I already had given my protagonist, his companion, and the antagonist for the book plus the over-arching antagonist of the series their own point of view scenes.

One of the pieces of advice I read for new writers was to keep things as simple as possible, and not to juggle too many characters’ story lines at once. I knew my story was ballooning, and I knew I had to start cutting back somewhere. So I made the difficult decision to not give my female character, whose name is Nona, any point of view scenes in Wilding.  And believe me, it was a difficult decision.

Now I have begun the revision of Book Two. I knew that one of the things I was going to have to address in this book was Nona’s absence. Back when I thought this was one book, this middle section was where my protagonist went on a bit of a journey away from the main setting, came back briefly, and then was forced away again. (Sorry, this sounds boring, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. You’ll just have to trust me the story is more exciting than what this explanation reflects). And because of the restrictions of 7th century society, there just wasn’t a good reason for Nona to go with my protagonist. I am trying to make the novel historically accurate, so I can’t push boundaries too far.

I’m not through this dilemma yet. I’ve started to develop more backstory for Nona, so I know her better and could possibly find something to help me find a way to allow her to perhaps go on the journey after all. I’ve also started to brainstorm ways to tweak the story slightly, to change things a little bit in Wilding so as to give her more momentum heading into Book Two.

It’s working, and I’m excited to see how her character and story arc is developing a bit. I don’t want her just to be there to be the “token” female, that is simply annoying. She has to be a real person with her own life, and my challenge is to make it all fit without having to change and rewrite too much.

But I also have to face the fact that I might have to do some rewrites of Wilding to make this work, which will lead to some significant changes in Book Two. That’s okay. My main goal is to make this a great story with characters a reader can care about and root for. But I’m waiting to do rewrites that are too drastic right now, just because to be honest, a person could rewrite and rewrite forever.

Some eyes on the manuscript other than the few that have read it so far would help. Especially professional eyes, such as an editor or agent or publisher, to give me some expert opinion. I’ve done a little bit of collaboration with two different editors on the first three chapters of Wilding, and I really enjoy that process. So I’m thinking it might be time to hire a professional editor to read the book and give me some direction as to whether or not it works, and to give me specific feedback on specifics of the book, like how I could tackle this challenge.

I am saving up money to do that, in case my agent search pans out. Agents will often be that professional set of eyes a writer needs, and once you get to the point where you have a publisher, there are likely other changes that an author will have to make. In other words,  if I can find an agent, I might not need to hire an editor.

In the meantime, I will plug away the best I can. While I’m not trying to slavishly “pass” the Bechdel test, I’m also grateful for the way it helps me to at least examine whether or not my books include women characters in a meaningful way. In the end, it will make for a better book, and that is what counts.