Watership Down

Monday, November 30, 2009

Watership Down
Richard Adams, 1972

I first read Watership Down in tenth grade, I think.  We had to read one extra book per term that had some scholarly merit, and everyone seemed surprised that I was jumping at the chance to lug around the giant hard cover edition of this book.  At the time, it was one of the longer books I'd read (hadn't started in on Tad Williams at the time).

It has some of the most wonderful world-building I've ever read.  As a society of non-humans, it is clear and complete.  The adventures of Hazel and the others seem plausible, their behavior not too out of line for real rabbits.  Both the greatness, and the weaknesses, come from how rooted in reality the story feels.

The trouble I had on this read-through was with occasional bits of the narrative voice.  Adams presents his book as if it were translated from the rabbit language, and so, especially at the beginning, there are needless asides explaining this and that from a human perspective.  It depends on my mood how distracting or charming I find this, but I always cringe when he compares their instincts to “primitive people”.  Dated, check.
Rabbits, of course, have no idea of precise time or punctuality.  In this respect they are much the same as primitive people, who often take several days over assembling for some purpose and then several more to get started.  Before such people can act together, a kind of telepathic feeling has to flow through them and ripen to the point that they all know that they are ready to begin.  Anyone who has seen the martins and swallows in September, assembling on the telephone wires,....has seen at work the current that flows...to fuse them together and impel them into action without conscious thought or will...
Many of the asides do serve to ground the work firmly in rabbit behavior, as observed in Lockely's The Private Life of the Rabbit, which Adams used as his primary research and inspiration.

I understand some of the feminist criticism of the work, many of the does are shallow characters, and the whole second half of the book concerns solving the problem of a lack of females.  Also it's short-sighted at best to impose human assumptions regarding relative strength and societal gender roles on other species.  Again, some aspects are dated.  This didn't bother me while reading, though.  In defense of the book, the bucks complain when asked to dig (primarily a female activity for rabbits), and several does we see more of are courageous and clever.

Furthermore, it never bothered me that the bucks' primary concern when it comes to does is the future of the warren.  They're rabbits.  They enjoy the company of and bond emotionally with the does, but the final truth is that without children, their community will soon die out.  I actually respect it for being so biologically honest, not giving me some sentimental human reasoning for why they need to bring does to the warren.

It's a grand adventure story at heart, a riff on Exodus and The Odyssey.  The rabbit society is so fully realized, with traditions, proverbs, myths, all bound up with the truth that it's a dangerous and frightening world for rabbits, even among their own kind.  It's one of those books that I think everyone should read, a great story, a group of varied heroes, fearsome villains, and the simple goal of a new home.

First night out for eleven rabbits:
Pipkin sat trembling under a fern, his ears drooping on either side of his head.  He held one paw forward in an awkward, unnatural way and kept licking it miserably.  Fiver was little better off.  He sill looked cheerful, but very weary.  Hazel realized that until they were rested they would all be safer where they were than stumbling along in the open...But if they lay brooding, unable to feed or go underground, all their troubles would come crowding into their hearts...He had an idea. 
“Yes, all right, we'll rest here,” he said.  “Let's go in among this fern.  Come on, Dandelion, tell us a story.  I know you're handy that way.  Pipkin here can't wait to hear it.” 
Dandelion looked at Pipkin and realized what it was Hazel was asking him to do.  Choking back his own fear...he began.
5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Animal Society Rundown:

Overall: Species-specific society
Rabbits keep to themselves, although they befriend specific members of other species.

Size: Real Size

Law and Order:  Each community polices its area differently
Each warren has its own governing rabbit(s), and organization.  The Sandleford Warren, which the characters set out from at the beginning, is presented as average.  It has a strong hierarchy based on size, family connections and physical strength, but the rabbits do look out for each other.  The other warrens they run across in the course of the tale are different in various ways, due to their situation and/or leadership.  The eventual home warren of the group is established to be more egalitarian than any of them, someplace where different talents are all valued, while pulling useful techniques and ideas from the various warrens they've seen.

Own language:  Yes
Adams calls the rabbits' language Lapine, and presents the dialogue as partially translated.  Some words are left untranslated, some switch back and forth, and some are given with translation notes.  For example, in the first chapter, Fiver's name is only 'Fiver' in English, as explained in a footnote:
Rabbits can count up to four.  Any number above four is hrair - “a lot” or “a thousand”....There were probably more than five rabbits in the litter when Fiver was born, but his name, Hrairoo, means “Little Thousand”-i.e., the little one of a lot or... “the runt.”
There is a dictionary in the back.  The rabbits can also speak to and be more or less understood by some other species, using a sort of common pidgin.

Own religion:
Yes, Yes, this book is why I put this category in, Yes.
The rabbits acknowledge the sun as a creator-god, and have an elaborate series of stories (reminiscent of Just So Stories or Brer Rabbit) of when the world was young.  They have a mythic hero who features in most of these stories as the first prince of all rabbitkind.  This hero is implied to be immortal, and somewhat present as a protector of rabbits.  Early on it's mentioned that some believe he controls the weather, “because the wind, the damp and the dew are friends and instruments to rabbits against their enemies.”  There is a dark mythic figure associated with the moon who is death to rabbits, but also said to be death to any predators who take rabbits before their appointed time. 

Some rabbits have a limited gift of clairvoyance, but this is not Redwall, where you have explicit instructions from obviously real ghosts.  A lot of what is great about the book is the creation of their culture, their stories and beliefs, which don't necessarily impact on the plot at hand. 

Other Notes:
One warren that the main characters run across has more “civilized” rabbits, they sing, make art, make up rituals for themselves.  It is revealed that they are like this because they do not have to live like normal rabbits, and these odd behaviors are a symptom of a deeper problem with their situation.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Very Low
Really the big leap Adams asks of the reader is that of language, and the corollary, logical thought.  I know, that's a very big leap, but they don't have belongings, or clothes, or human concerns for the most part.  The rabbits in Watership Down have adventures that seem perfectly possible for wild rabbits.  And if they had language and a simple oral history, how would we know?

Mouse Guard

Monday, November 23, 2009

(Spoilers for events of the first issue.)

If you were ever a fan of Redwall, you owe it to yourself to check out Mouse Guard.  Petersen's comic tale of mice with swords doesn't always have inspired text, (the poetry in particular is weak), but so what?  The illustrations are what you're here for.  You have to pay attention to keep up, because with only 6 issues of 20-24pgs to tell a story arc, there is very little wasted space.

Now, these are swordsmice.  Trained, disciplined, ruthless in the defense of their fellows.  The Guardsmice are an organization charged to uphold peace and the common good, but during the time we follow them the tiny swords are often bloodied.   The first arc describes a betrayal of the organization, the second, the aftermath.  There is a lot of mouse vs. mouse internal strife, but the really striking images are the tiny mice going up against foes many times their size. 

When I first picked these up, it was because cute mice with swords are awesome.  I cannot tell you enough how beautiful the illustrations are.  See for yourself.  Then in the first issue, the patrol finds a clutch of snake eggs, and shows no mercy.  After that, I was hooked.  (Incidentally, you can see that sequence on the website: Click on Issue One: Belly of the Beast)

The simplicity of the text does allow for a certain gravitas.  This is about as far from Cinderella's comic relief crew as anthropomorphic mice can go.

The biggest down side to collecting Mouse Guard is that due to distribution/time required/unknown issues, they don't come out very regularly. 

What I find most fascinating on a story level is that only a couple species, mice and weasels, seem to have weapons.  These are also the only two species we've seen build buildings, to have civilization.  I like the idea that at some point in the past, a mouse discovered the forging of blades, and this technology is what allows the mice, smallest of prey animals, to carve out a civilization at all.

5 Stars - Awesome Books

Anthropomorphic Society Rundown:
(I know there is a role playing game with more world info, but I'm just going off the comic.)

Overall: Species Specific Civilization
The mice have little dealings with most other animals, because most other animals are out to eat them.  At least one other species (weasels) has a civilization as well, but they are separate from, and at war with, the mice.

Size: Normal Size
This is a case of being very clear just how badass a mouse has to be to take on creatures many times its size.  In the first issue, Lieam kills a snake, by jumping into it's mouth (avoiding a fang), and stabbing up into its brain.  Wow.
Later seen are some animals who are allied with mice, a beetle (the relative size of a dog to a human), bees (relative size of large falcons), and hares, who give them rides in return for protection and food.  The hares are big compared to their riders; bigger than elephants are to humans.  No confusion here about relative size, it's a constant reminder of the danger most other animals represent.

Law and Order: Order maintained by loose alliance of cities, Guards
The Guardsmice patrol the routes between the cities, and the cities themselves seem to have their own councils/internal police.  In Winter, Gwendolyn (leader of the Guards) is putting together a summit of the various leaders to evaluate their mutual defense.

Own language: Unclear, some animals understand each other.
The mice don't seem to have much interest in speaking to other animals, but can understand, and be understood by, bats and hares at least, and can learn to speak other animals' language.

Own religion: Probably, not fully explored
Seem to believe in an afterlife where brave souls go, but it's not gone into in detail.

Other Notes:
I like that the mouse cities (like the rats' dwellings in NIMH) are pointedly underground, hidden, carved out of trees, or into cliffs.  The mice do have doors, tables, cups, and clothing up to a point.  The Guards wear colored cloaks, sometimes armor pieces, high status mice have more clothing/jewelry.  A certain level of science is clearly available as well, they have herbal medicine, spectacles, lanterns, specialists like map-makers and researchers, and, of course, well-forged blades.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Middling/Growing
They are fairly anthropomorphic, they are organized, and have a relatively good amount of technology, analogous to the late middle ages.  They seem to be only lately removed from their wild roots.

New Week, saving the best for last; rabbits...


Monday, November 16, 2009

Brian Jacques, 1986

I loved the Redwall books when I read them, mostly in middle school and early high school as I recall.  This one doesn't hold up quite as well as I may have hoped.  There are definitely things to enjoy here; the story clips along at a good pace, the characters are amusing and often adorable.

The thing I expected to criticize, the stereotyping of species, didn't bother me as much as I anticipated.  In this world, rats, stoats, ferrets, etc. are bad, untrustworthy creatures.  Mice, badgers, squirrels, rabbits, etc. are good, kind, etc.  It's a little odd, especially given how anthropomorphic they are.  They are fully sentient, society based creatures, and it's not just predator animals vs. prey animals, although that seems to underlie much of it.  (I know that Jacques changes it up a bit in some of the later books, but I'm only looking at the first today.)  Add to that that many of the species are typed by broad regional English accents, and it could stray easily into odd animal-based classism/racism.  In this case, I feel you just have to go with it (or not) just as you would standard fantasy-world species stereotyping.  Like how goblins are bastards, and dwarves are drunken Scotsmen, here hares are adventurous sporting British gentlemen, and foxes are treacherous.

Oh goodness, the wikipedia List of Redwall Species is even divided into Good and Evil Species.  In case you thought it was just me.

What did bother me on this read through was how boring the book was, much of the time.  The good characters are wise, they make good decisions, and even when they make bad decisions, they come to good ends.  The ghost of Martin the Warrior watches over the hero and torments the villain.  Matthias  naturally becomes a great tactician and swordsmouse.  There never really was a chance for the bad guys, not really.

Everyone who isn't explicitly evil helps Matthias out of a sense that it's the right thing to do.  Even the neutral (read barbarian warrior-race) sparrows quickly befriend the mice once their mad king is taken out of the picture.  Good characters do die, but generally not before making their contribution toward a happy ending.  The good characters never stubbornly hold to a position when a friend makes a valid counter-point, they spend very little time solving the riddles that make up much of the plot, and the book is peppered with description like the following:
The meeting continued....Methuselah also attended to act as mediator and counselor, approving some ideas while discouraging others, calming the hothead and encouraging the timid.  Much good sense was talked and the tone of the meeting was that of creatures who were determined to win at all costs.
And in the next chapter, regarding the villians:
Cluny lay back and smirked.  Everything was going according to plan.  He had lost Redtooth, but what the devil?  Redtooth had been an ambitious rat.  Cluny only admired ambition in one rodent – himself.
The book is still fun, adventurous, sweet.  The sense that good can win, just because it's good, (through the grace of spirit warrior mice) can be very comforting.  There may be a straight through-line in my book habits from the rousing warcry of rabbits in the Redwall books in middle school through various fantasy battle scenes right to the military sci-fi I tend to favor today.  Just don't go looking for extreme nuance in the cute, fuzzy, badass characters. 

3 Stars - A Good Book

Animal Society Rundown:

Overall:  Alternative World Society
The animals in Redwall make very few concessions to being animals.  For the most part, they act as  stand-ins for humans.  There appear to be no humans in the world.  Most animals are sentient, except possibly insects?  One corollary to that is most “good” animals are mostly vegetarians.

Size: Unclear
The mice are smaller than most animals, but don't seem as much smaller as they should be.  On Earth a mouse: average size 3-4 inches nose to end of tail.  Badger average size: 29 inches nose to tail.  How these two animals climb the same staircase or sit at the same table is beyond my math.  I've always assumed that you have to average out the scale a bit.  Mice are smaller in proportion, badgers larger, but more like a range between a human who's 3' and one who's 6', not one 3' and one 30'.  Similar to Wind in the Willows.

Law and Order: Rule of Good and Might
No stated ruler higher than local rulers/warlords, feudal-type society.  Redwall animals are given passage many places as healers and generally nice folk. Local authority at Redwall rests with the Abbott or those who he sees fit to appoint.  They hold power through both fortification and being all-around good guys.  Follows the trope that good guys fight better because bad guys are constantly backstabbing each other.

Own language:
Accents vary
Sparrows, for one, are described as having their own language, but it's just fast, broken English.  Other species, notably hares, moles, are assigned their own dialects.  Considering the source, it's safe to say that all characters speak accented British English.

Own religion: …?
For a book set in an abbey, there wasn't much of anything in the way of religion. Martin is a patron ghost, there is a bit of a mystical sense there, they say a fairly secular grace over their food, and no deities to be seen.  Words like devil and hell are used, also there's a place called the Church of St. Ninians, which is apparently explained away in a later book.
Quoth the author, from redwall.org:
There is no religion in my stories and no hidden meanings. What you see is what you get. The Abbey is just a place of peace and comradeship, where creatures choose to live together.

Other Notes:
Exceptions to the general scale/relationship between animals seem to be confined to Matthias' travels through the forest, in which he is almost eaten by a cat, an owl and a snake.  Only the snake is actually an 'evil' character, the cat is an accident and the owl makes friends, but all three are clearly bigger than the mouse by quite a bit.  Animals who live in the woods seem to be less civilized in general, although it's not a hard rule.

Level of Anthropomorphism:
Very High
Almost all characters wear clothes, walk on their hind legs, cook food, use weapons, live in buildings, etc.  This is a case of a fully non-human world, where most species are civilized.  Very little would change in this book if the characters were all human (or more humanoid), except that the simplicity of the story might be harder to swallow.  And it's a great mental image, the heroic swordsmouse.

Next week, swordsmice go darker and way more badass.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Robert C. O'Brien, 1971

A few months back I re-watched the animated movie adapted from this book, and it lead to a strong desire to reread the book.  The movie, Secret of NIMH, is fine for what it is, but the book is far more subtle.
And there's no magic.
And the plot is much less melodramatic.

The things I found most striking re-reading this book was how even-handed it was.  The scientists who turn the rats into super-rats are perhaps unthinking, but well-meaning, and they care for their lab animals.  The farmers only want to drive out the rats because they steal.  The owl makes Mrs. Frisby understandably nervous, but is generally courteous to her.  The only openly cruel character is Dragon the cat.

Mrs. Frisby is a widowed mouse caring alone for her kids.  She is naturally timid, as a mouse is, but when needed becomes brave and strong, running risks that go against her instincts, for the sake of her family.  (The rats only help her because of their prior relationship with her husband, but they do have their own worries.)
“You forget,” Mrs. Frisby said, “I'm Timothy's mother.  If you, and Arthur, and others in your group can take risks to save him, surely I can, too.”
Ah, the story of the rats of NIMH.  The Frisby family is the main plot, but  the history of the rats is half the book.  I love their journey from wild, to lab rats, to escapees, to slowly exploring their new potential.  Altered by science, they are intelligent and long-lived, and they decide they can do better than living on the fringe of human society.  At the end they are on their way, hopefully to build a city of intelligent rats, somewhere where humans almost never go.  It's not mentioned explicitly, but implied that Nicodemus is smart enough to realize that eventually the rats could be found out, and if that happens, they need to be both independent from human society (not thieves), and able to prove by example that they deserve to continue to exist.  Willingly giving up living off human food, building their own structures, and hoping to be left in peace long enough to develop a true civilization of rats are an admirable and ambitious set of goals. 
“There could be room enough for a thousand of us”
“There aren't a thousand of us.”
“There might be, someday”
“But why?  Why move?....We've got all the food we want.  We've got electricity, and lights, and running water....”
“Because everything we have is stolen.”
“That's silly.  Is it stealing when farmers take milk from cows, or eggs from chickens?  They're just smarter than the cows and chickens, that's all.  Well, people are our cows.  If we're smart enough, why shouldn't we get food from them?”
“It's not the same.  Farmers feed the cows and take care of them.... Besides, if we keep it up, we're sure to be found out.” -Nicodemus and Jenner
The end of the book was rather sudden, and not all questions are answered, but not in a bad way.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Animal Society Rundown:

Overall: Separate 'nature'-based animal society
The 'normal' animals have a loose association where they may help each other out, but keep mostly to themselves.  The Rats, on the other hand, are consciously building a fair, communal society.

Size: Real, with extenuating circumstances
Mrs. F, the birds, shrews, etc are all normal size animals, the Rats are larger than normal rats.

Law and Order: unclear/democratic
The Rats govern themselves in a vaguely democratic way, they vote on major issues, the group that disagrees with the larger body exiles themselves.  The other animals don't seem to have an overall system beyond an understanding of the seasons, the food chain, etc.  Each keeps to its own.  Most animals see no problem with stealing from humans, taking left over food where it appears.

Own language: Yes, cannot speak to humans.
Animals can speak across species boundaries.  The cat is the only animal who does not speak to the others.  The animals on the farm can understand human speech.  The Rats (and Mr. Ages, Mr. Frisby, and the Frisby kids) learn to read human language, but are only rodents, they cannot speak it.

Own religion: None Stated
Aside from a moral quoted more than once: “We all help one another against the cat.”

Other Notes: Rats fond of stuff, but not clothing.
The Rats build themselves quite a base, complete with lighting, an elevator, furniture, rat-sized books (I have no idea how they did that), ventilation, they have designed and built rat-sized plows...Their supplies are stolen and items built with a high level of sophistication.  The Frisby family is described to have blankets and a simple table made of a bit of discarded wood, but their home is makeshift and furnished with found natural items.  Nicodemus is described as having an eyepatch, but none of the other animals are said to wear any clothing.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Aspiring
The rats are consciously attempting to build their own society, pulling what they like from human technology and history (and attempting to learn from what they dislike).  The climactic trip to Thorn Valley is the first big step toward their final goal of being self-sufficient, to stop stealing from humans.  The other animals are basically just living their lives.

Side Note:  Of course, rats are in truth quite smart, and I have a certain affection for them.  I also highly recommend the nonfiction book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.  My first pet rat was named Isabella, after a young rat Mrs. Frisby meets studying in the library.

The Rescuers

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Rescuers
Margery Sharp, 1959

I reread the first four books in this series, though I'll mainly talk about the first one (The Rescuers itself) here.

They are adorable.  Garth Williams' illustrations in my edition only make them even more adorable.

I love Margery Sharp's writing.  She has a way with gently ironic turns of phrase, or bits of description which completely capture the whimsy of her world of mice. 
pg 6- “There is nothing like breeding to give one confidence: [Madam Chairwoman] was descended in direct line from the senior of the Three Blind Mice.”
It's interesting to me that it was clearly not intended to be a series when the first one was written.   The Rescuers sums up each character's probable future at the end.  There is no explanation at the top of book two as to why they're all back together.  Also between books one and two the relationship between Bernard and Bianca changes from open flirtation with the strong possibility of something more to a standard friendship with undercurrents of unresolvable romantic interest.

Sharp is gently mocking both of aristocrats like Bianca and the humans around her, as well as middle and lower class characters, both among humans and mice. 
pg 27- “The singing and shouting almost deafened her ears, there wasn't a moment of repose. (Miss Bianca had frequently assisted, from the Boy's pocket, at diplomatic soirees.  There, always, a moment of repose; in fact, sometimes the moments ran into each other and made hours of repose.)”
I love Miss Bianca; while early on subject to fainting, she spends the first book quickly and consciously shedding prejudices and preconceptions to struggle alongside her new friends.  She's never very physically strong - always feminine and delicate - but uses her charm, cleverness, diplomacy and knowledge to great effect, even against cats. 
pg 99 - “always, at the last moment, by some exquisite trick or clever piece of flattery, she held Mamelouk's paw suspended – and then skimmed like a hummingbird to safety.
4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Anthropomorphic Society Rundown:

Overall: Separate/parallel animal society
The mouse society exists alongside humans, without their knowledge.  They do parody/pick up some human conventions.

Size: Real size
The mice are mouse-sized, and the other animals they encounter likewise are their actual size.

Law and Order:  Ignore Human Law
The mice have their own regulations governing their behavior, but openly flout human law.  In The Rescuers, there is exactly zero thought given to why the prisoner in question (a Norwegian poet) is in prison when they decide to get him out.  All jailers/guards are described as immoral, usually gluttonous and cruel.

Own language: Yes, but mutilingual
Mice have their own language and speak the local human language.  In the Rescuers, they recruit a Norwegian mouse to translate for the Norwegian prisoner.  They sometimes speak to other animals as well, primarily Bianca, who over the four books, negotiates/talks with a cat, two bloodhounds, a bunch of doves, a racehorse, and a colony of bats.  Being educated, she speaks, “with a much better accent than most... in a foreign tongue.” 
It seems to be uncommon to talk to humans, Bianca doesn't speak to the Boy who looks after her, but they do speak to those they rescue, and expect them to be surprised that mice can talk.

Own religion: None Stated
Although the Prisoner's Aid Society is a charitable organization.

Other Notes:
The amount of clothing/accessories they wear seems to change as needed by the plot.  They don't seem to wear clothing as a matter of course.  Most clothing described is accessories, for example boots for rain, a coat for cold, hats, jewelry, suitcases/bags, military-style honors.  (Side note, the Tybalt Star is awarded for gallantry in the face of cats.)

Level of Anthropomorphism: Middling
The mice have a fairly human-like society, including mouse-sized furniture and buildings, (the meeting hall for the Society is made of an empty wine cask).  They still eat like mice, food made of bits found here and there, and are aware of their danger around most humans and large animals.  Do have a human like sense of class, although the only aristocratic mouse described is Bianca, and she is exceptional because she is a pet mouse.

Next week: more mice, and rats as well!