Episode 18 - Watership Down with RJ Barker

Dan Jones

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So! After a few technical hitches and delays our bumper new episode is finally up. @The Big Peat and I are joined by the award-winning fantasy author RJ Barker, whose novel The Bone Ships won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2020. Together we rabbit on about Richard Adams's 1978 classic piece of children's fantasy literature, Watership Down.

Watership Down
follows a group of rabbits who, led by the reluctant but resourceful leader Hazel, leave the safety of their warren after Hazel's younger brother Fiver, has a Cassandra-like premonition of a catastrophe befalling their home. So, joined by the doughty enforcer Bigwig, who loves nothing more than a scrap, the storyteller Dandelion, the quick-witted Blackberry, and a ragtag bunch of others, they embark on an odyssey to find a new home. A few square miles of west Oxfordshire countryside becomes the canvas for an epic tale of adventure in which the rabbits encounter danger, despair, tragedy, unexpected friendships, tyranny, war, and peace.

With RJ we talk about the strange worldbuilding of the book, including rabbit language and mythology, the English countryside setting, and the various forms of social order presented by the different warrens found in the book. Elsewhere we talk about RJ's forthcoming book Gods of The Wyrdwood, his heavy metal roots, and his route into publishing. Along the way we discuss chimps, muppets, Goth make up, and how the film Excalibur saved RJ's life in Leeds.

@The Judge gives us a follow-up to her talk on trial by combat with another, broader talk about early criminal trials, including trials by ordeal, and how this may be used in our writing and worldbuilding, and we hear the winning 75-word entry from April by @emrosenagel.

Lastly, our roving reporters from Mars FM give us an interview with a chap who claims to have visited Venus and seen the most incredible creatures, who bear an uncanny similarity to something else encountered in this episode. Enjoy!

Next month
In July we'll be joined by Anne Perry, Director of Publishing at Quercus Books, a subsidiary of Hodder & Stoughton. Anne will be talking with us about Naomi Novik's beautiful and multi-award-winning 2015 novel Uprooted.

Index
[00:00 - 54:04] - RJ Barker Interview pt 1
[54:05 - 57:03] - skit 1
[57:04 - 1:17:04] - The Judge's Corner
[1:17:05 - 1:17:55] - Challenge winner
[1:17:57 - 1:21:53] - skit 2
[1:21:54 - 2:16:15] RJ Interview part 2
[2:16:16 - 2:17:54] credits and close
 

HareBrain

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Looking forward to this one, having read it myself recently.

Here's a rabbit joke that might well pre-date Adams's book.

A rabbit goes into a cafe and has a ham toastie. Then he has a cheese toastie. Then a baked-bean toastie. Next day he comes back in as a ghost. The cafe owner says "What happened to you?" and the rabbit says "I died of mixin' ma toasties".
 

Extollager

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That's a pretty devastating pun. Reminds me of my youthful days with a fan-friend. The air was visibly darkened by the puns that flew back and forth between us.

But more seriously, here is a poem by Ruth Pitter that seems relevant to Watership Down.

They have murdered my village,
My tree is cut down.
Over the tillage
Advances the town.
My father's gone cadging,
My mother is dead;
I try to imagine
What she would have said.

"A cut tree can grow faster.
Towns come and go.
Both saver and waster
Get buried in snow.
Go on, naked Pity,
All bleeding and sore,
Till you come to the City
Where change is no more."
 

Extollager

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Myxomatosis


Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I'm glad I can't explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

Philip Larkin


I think Pitter's poem and Larkin's as well help me to get at something about the imaginative power of Watership Down. Adams doesn't just lead us to identify with the rabbits, giving them names and personalities and so on, but he knows we will also identify ourselves with the rabbits' in their peril. Like the rabbits, we experience threats to our flourishing from forces we do not fully understand or have the power to resist. We may flee them by escaping into online activity, we may even relocate. But we do not feel that our wellbeing is in the hands of "agencies" whom we should wholly trust. They may be insulated by their wealth and physical distance and so on from the consequences of decisions they make that do affect the quality of our lives, and they might not be very much accountable to us. Is something like this part of the secret of the power of Adams's novel? I don't mean to set off a political discussion that would violate community norms, but rather I mean to suggest that Adams evokes a feeling shared by many people in various parts of the world.

This would be akin to the way William Hope Hodgson gets to us in his horror story "The Voice in the Night." Ostensibly this is a story about a horrible fungus-like growth that none of us believes in, any more than we believe that rabbits tell stories of a rabbit hero, plan tactics, have prescient visions, etc. But the thing is that Hodgson actually taps in to fears many people are familiar with (fear of looking "wrong," fear of cancer), and so we do identify with the characters and situation more than we might realize; it's not just that Hodgson tells the story well so that we feel vicarious anxiety for the characters, but their experiences (at some level) may trouble us personally.
 
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Dan Jones

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Adams doesn't just lead us to identify with the rabbits, giving them names and personalities and so on, but he knows we will also identify ourselves with the rabbits' in their peril. Like the rabbits, we experience threats to our flourishing from forces we do not fully understand or have the power to resist.
I like the idea of WD being something of an existential novel. To the rabbits, the human activities and machines (cars, diggers, trains) are as unknowable and terrifying as we would find something like Cthulhu.

And yet despite the world being full of horror and threat, Hazel finds a way of facing down the chaos and forging the correct path ahead.

Nice poems, by the way. I've not read that Larkin before.
 

Extollager

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Here's one more poem, then, that seems to me akin to Adams's novel. This is called "Under Sentence" & it's by C. S. Lewis.

There is a wildness still in England that will not feed
In cages. It shrinks away from touch of the trainer's hand,
Easy to kill, not easy to keep. It will not breed
In a zoo for the public pleasure. It will not be planned.

Do not blame us too much if we, being woodland folk,
Cannot swell the rejoicing at this new world you make;
We, hedge-hogged as Johnson, we unused to the yoke
As Landor, surly as Cobbett (that badger), birdlike as Blake.

A new scent troubles the air -- friendly to you perhaps --
But we with animal wisdom understand that smell.
To all our kind its message is guns, ferrets, traps,
And a Ministry gassing the little holes in which we dwell.


I kinda wish this had been set to music and included on the Jethro Tull Heavy Horses record.

Heavy-Horses-pic-horses.jpg
 
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Extollager

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I'd better stop posting and let someone else comment, but I've just reread Watership Down within the past few weeks, and it's really good. It's an example of what I call the topographic romance -- and that, I think, is yet another element in its imaginative appeal. It makes a huge difference that the setting is a real place. Unless I've forgotten, I haven't so far encountered any women who have expressed the particular imaginative habit involved, but I think it is common among men: there's an area you see, maybe that you walk and know well, and you wonder how you would go about keeping yourself hidden if you had pursuers you must avoid. It's the Geoffrey Household Rogue Male type of scenario. (Does anyone seeing this care to comment on having this kind of fantasy?) It's not that you are paranoid, it's not that you expect you ever really would have to "go to ground"; but what would you do? I couldn't tell you how old I was when this type of daydreaming, if that's what it is, first began with me, but I suppose I have done this from time to time most of my life. Anyway, I think Adams is tapping into something like this, quite deeply really.

I would guess that the habit is disappearing very fast from youngster today, who spend their time online.


1544558174678.jpg
 

HareBrain

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Either way, I think we can agree that the 1978 film is superior to the BBC's CGI adaptation from a few years back.
They made the rabbits look like hares, for one thing.

I quite enjoyed this comparison when I watched it a couple of months ago, despite the presenter's somewhat leisurely presentation style:

 

The Judge

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Slowly getting through the podcast, and I'm about half-way now.

Interesting talk on Watership Down, guys, though I think I missed some points as your guest spoke so softly and so quickly at times. I've never read the book, but I'm now toying with the idea of getting it to see if it's as good as you all seem to think! But did I really hear Dan comparing Hazel to the character in Zulu played by Stanley Baldwin?! :LOL: (It was Baker, guys.)


As for my bit, I'll be listing my sources in a day or two when I get my act together and check my research notes, but meanwhile, there seems to have been a blip in the recording, with my last sentence being cut off -- not sure how that happened. For what it's worth, the final paragraph should have read:

Every society produces laws and a system of justice, so it’s an integral part of all worldbuilding. Think how yours may have evolved, and what seemingly barbaric rituals still exist within it.
 

The Big Peat

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I've never read the book, but I'm now toying with the idea of getting it to see if it's as good as you all seem to think! But did I really hear Dan comparing Hazel to the character in Zulu played by Stanley Baldwin?! :LOL: (It was Baker, guys.)

If it helps, I was lukewarm on it. Admiring it, but lukewarm.

I'm also fairly sure Dan got the part of countryside wrong too. Sterling episode. We'll gloss over me not noticing one and not remembering the other well enough to say anything.
 

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