I was going to write about some of my non-book influences for this guest blog. There are a lot of them – the video game Dragon Age, which pretty much singlehandedly reinvigorated my love of high fantasy; the TV show Farscape, partly responsible I suspect for my obsession with snippy banter and weird creatures; and Labyrinth, of course – what fantasy fan of my age wasn’t influenced by Labyrinth? And then I remembered a conversation I had way back when The Copper Promise was a tiny wee novella. Someone asked me if I’d named Lord Frith after the god of rabbits in Watership Down. I laughed, because if anyone would object to being named after the god of rabbits it’s probably my grumpy Lord Frith, and then I stopped laughing, because I realised I had done exactly that. Not entirely consciously, but then Watership Down has been with me for a very long time, and I have over the years noted it cropping up in tiny ways in lots of things I did. For me, Watership Down was a film before it was the book – I love the book very much, but if you really wanted to mess with my head as a very small child, you needed to come in the form of a cartoon.
It’s hard to quantify the impact that this particular film, and then later, the book, had on me. Like a lot of people who were toddling in the early 80s, my mum and dad thought that a film about bunny rabbits – even better, a cartoon about bunny rabbits! – would be absolutely perfect for their small daughter who was dead keen on fluffy things in general. I have no idea now if they watched it with me the first time or not. You would assume that if they had, the telly might have been switched off pretty sharpish when Fiver had his first vision of fields running with blood – or maybe not. I don’t actually remember having any restrictions placed on my viewing or reading habits as a child, and that may or may not explain a lot… Anyway, the film delighted and terrified me, from start to finish. We had it on a video tape, recorded off the telly, and taped just before it was a very old Disney cartoon about the three little pigs. Even that took on a sinister significance, because when I watched that, I knew that Watership Down was coming.
Even the first five minutes of Watership Down are scary. And more than that really; the opening sequence is eerie, and affecting, and strange. Presented in a feverish animation style that contrasts strongly with the realism of the rest of the film, it tells the story of El-Ahrairah, prince of rabbits, and how he received the gifts that helped the rabbit race to survive. I was enthralled by this little story at the beginning of the film, and transfixed with morbid curiosity as the various enemies of the rabbit – the fox, the cat, the badger – popped out from behind bushes and slaughtered them. Thinking back, this would likely have been my first real brush with an alternative mythology, almost certainly before I was really aware of why we sang hymns before assembly in my C of E infant school. No wonder it made such an impact, and no wonder I have spent much of my adult life making up new gods and mythologies for fantasy worlds.
And that’s without even getting into the meat of the film, which concerns Fiver, a young, rather twitchy rabbit who has a vision that the warren where he lives will be destroyed. He and Hazel, a sensible and thoughtful rabbit, set off with some others to find a new place to be, and encounter various dangers and challenges along the way, including a warren of rabbits who let a few of their number be sacrificed so they can receive regular food from the human who is slaughtering them, and the fearsome General Woundwort, of course. There are other, smaller frightening moments, thrown in to demonstrate exactly how dangerous a rabbit’s life is. One is carried off by a bird, never to be seen again. A badger threatens them from a bush, and then leaves (as a kid I was haunted by the line “It had blood on its lips”. Badgers are supposed to be nice!). They are chased by cats, menaced by cars, and I will always feel a bit of a chill at the words “there’s a dog loose in the woods.”
The scene that has stuck with me more than any other is Captain Holly’s recollection of his experiences at the doomed warren. The deeply traumatized Captain of the Owsla relates this to the other rabbits in a truly nightmarish sequence including suffocating rabbits, their eyes rolling in pain and misery (really Mum? Are we still watching this?) their bodies squeezed hopelessly into blocked off tunnels. I haven’t seen Watership Down for a few years now, but that piece of animation still fills me with dread and horror, in a way that is only ever born of early childhood experience.
It’s also, I should point out, a beautiful and rather funny film. There is nothing funnier to a six year old than a seagull that shouts “PISS OFF!” believe me. The animation, the character design, and especially the paintings of landscapes, combine to create what is essentially a sad love letter to the English countryside. And also, you know, extreme rabbit-centric violence.
I read the book by Richard Adams when I was a good few years older, and was surprised to find it wasn’t nearly as dark or as scary as the film. It’s an excellent epic fantasy quest, with gorgeously layered mythology – you completely believe in this world of rabbits, in their societies, in their spiritual lives, and not quite as many of them die horribly.
For me, Watership Down had an impact so deep I’m only now starting to realise that it happened at all. I’ve always thought that Lord of the Rings was my first fantasy love, but Watership Down was there before it, and its tendrils went deeper. If I need to build mythologies full of strange gods and histories with trickster heroes, it’s thanks to El-Ahrairah. I named one of my main characters Lord Frith without quite understanding why, after all.
Jen Williams is the author of The Copper Promise and The Iron Ghost, both published in the UK by Headline – the former is out now, the latter will be published this week. Williams has also written a short story set before The Copper Promise, Sorrow’s Isle, which I just picked up and will review hopefully this week. Here’s the synopsis for The Iron Ghost:
Beware the dawning of a new mage…
Wydrin of Crosshaven, Sir Sebastian and Lord Aaron Frith are experienced in the perils of stirring up the old gods. They are also familiar with defeating them, and the heroes of Baneswatch are now enjoying the perks of suddenly being very much in demand for their services.
When a job comes up in the distant city of Skaldshollow, it looks like easy coin – retrieve a stolen item, admire the views, get paid. But in a place twisted and haunted by ancient magic, with the most infamous mage of them all, Joah Demonsworn, making a reappearance, our heroes soon find themselves threatened by enemies on all sides, old and new. And in the frozen mountains, the stones are walking…