Strawberry's Warren is Carthage
April 8, 2005 9:46 AM   Subscribe

The heroes flee their doomed city. The first new place they arrive in is not the proper one, and they must leave. When they finally arrive at their destined land, they must steal women to set up their colony, and then fight the local military power with the help of new allies. Am I talking about the Aeneid? Or Watership Down? With correspondences much greater than, say, those between The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings, I’m not the only one who thinks there’s a connection. (Want real proof? Ask yourself why rabbits keep having to cross water, and compare where that happens in the story to the ship journeys of Aeneas.)
posted by kyrademon (27 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Goo! Nevermind. I read the first two and commented before I read the Wizard of Oz one. (I thought you were going to make the same point as the post yesterday) That's why I said it was better beause you also did the Aeneid and Watership Down. So nevermind my earlier comment.

This is very interesting.
posted by dios at 10:02 AM on April 8, 2005

The difference is that yesterday's link was a joke. This one is good.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:46 AM on April 8, 2005

Well, I'm tempted to say something snarky, but I suppose not everyone wasted their youth reading Bullfinch and Hamilton and cherry-picking his mother's old Harvard Classics.

I've never had much doubt that Adams looked specifically to Aeneid for inspiration; but there are elements of Oddysey, too. (Think of the isle of Circe with regard to Strawberry's warren.) And there are elements (such as the militarism of Woundwart, and the aquisition of a "supernatural" helper in the person of Kehaar) that don't really fit very well with relation to any specific story, but do fit well with the general forms of the hero-story.

But it does the book an injustice to compare it too closely to anything, really. The skeleton of the story wasn't new when Virgil appropriated it, nor was it new for the author of the Oddysey; it's a hero-story.

To me, though, the much more interesting thing to notice is the way Watership Down (and later, in a different way, Shardik) fit into the English literary tradition of "Leadership tales." Think about the novels of John Christopher (he wrote so much more than the "White Mountains" books) -- his Death of Grass [a.k.a. No Blade of Grass in the US] is a really good example -- and English SF stories like Day of the Triffids: They end up being about this very very British idea of what it means to be a "leader". Think, too, about their great heroes: Arthur, Alfred the Great, Nelson, Cook, Scott, Churchill, Montgomery.... None of them great "warriors" in their own right; but all lauded and lionized for their leadership skills.

Hazel personifies that concept of the leader. He's not the strongest, or even the smartest, or even the cleverest, or even the most insightful. His most important qualities seem to boil down to having a healthy ego (i.e., ability to stand criticism), being clever enough to know who to trust, and finally -- and perhaps most important -- being willing to take a decision and then take responsibility for it.

In a nutshell: Strength of character.

For me, the very essence of Watership Down comes in the scene where Bigwig defends the last run into the Watership warren against General Woundwart. Woundwart offers him the world, in essence; Bigwig refuses: "My Chief Rabbit has ordered me to stand." The only way that Woundwart can conceptualize that is to imagine Bigwig's Chief Rabbit as some great awe-inspiring beast, larger and more frightening than even Woundwart himself. That passage is a simple narrative explanation of why Hazel is the superior leader: He's followed out of free choice, not out of fear.

The Aeneid isn't really about any of these things. It's about much more Roman virtues, like obedience to authority and destiny, strength in blood, etc.
posted by lodurr at 11:11 AM on April 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

... Oh, and, I thought everyone knew by now that The Wizard of Oz was an allegory for the Grange movement. The Wizard is William Jenning Bryant; Oz is Washington; Dorothy and her friends represent various "common person" factions; and Kansas is, well, Kansas.
posted by lodurr at 11:16 AM on April 8, 2005

It really isn't
posted by Simon! at 11:26 AM on April 8, 2005

the road to gold is in the yellow.
posted by clavdivs at 11:37 AM on April 8, 2005

While your points that the two stories are not exactly identical in theme or detail are well taken, lodurr, I think it's entirely fair to make a direct comparison - when analyzed on a plot-point for plot-point basis, the two epics have astonishing correspondences, to the point where I am fairly sure Adams himself was deliberately putting in clues to the connection. Strawberry's warren indeed resembles Circe's Isle as much as it does Carthage, but the placement in the story-arc is that of the latter, not the former. And, as I mentioned in the post, Adams has his rabbits cross waterways an astonishing number of times, considering that, well, they're rabbits, and the timing matches precisely with Aeneas' ship journeys ... and it doesn't match with those of Odysseus. Add in the rape of the Sabine bunnies, so to speak, and numerous other things, and it becomes pretty clear to me that Adams was deliberately putting in every major plot event from the Aeneid, in order. That tells me he wanted people to make that particular connection, much more strongly than he wanted people to connect it to the Odyssey, say. So why not make the comparison?
posted by kyrademon at 11:39 AM on April 8, 2005

One counterargument kyrademon:

I'm not so sure that Adams was nodding to Aeneid with the water crossings. He loves foreshadowing (see Girl in the Swing) and I think the crossings are simply a way to set up for the escape via raft. The escape was probably the most contrived device in the novel (doesn't he even refer to the chapter as "Deus Ex Machina?") Adams eases this contrivance by foreshadowing it so it rings a little truer. That's one of the great things about Watership Down... despite being fantasy, Adam's world and characters seem very genuine.
posted by MotorNeuron at 12:04 PM on April 8, 2005

Also, water-crossings are symbolic of passage to or through an other-realm.

kyradaemon, it's possible for all of these things to be true: He could have been consciously touching the Aeneid, and conscously making his own story at the same time. There are lots of great works that do that. You know what they say: "Good writers imitate, great writers steal."
posted by lodurr at 12:10 PM on April 8, 2005

Everyone knows that The Wizard of Oz is an allegory for The Dark Side of the Moon.
And that Watership Down is actually Rush's 2112.

(Aeneas was a prick. Odysseus could kick his ass any day, and Virgil was a ponce!)
posted by klangklangston at 12:12 PM on April 8, 2005

Simon!, I read through your link. The thing is, like a lot of academic rebuttals, it doesn't really establish anything. The common account of the "Oz as Washington" meme has Baum as a "Silverite"; all your link does is argue that he wasn't. It doesn't follow from that, that it's not a parable about populism. Requiring that he be a Bryan man is similar to expecting Harret Beecher Stowe to have been a slave...
posted by lodurr at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2005

klansgtonklangston, why do you hate Rome?
posted by lodurr at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2005

Well, I was never claiming the Watership Down and the Aeneid are precisely the same thing - that would be silly. I'm simply saying the links to the Aeneid seem pretty frequent, clear, and deliberate, much more so than to other similar pics, to the point that it looks like Adams was doing something very intentional with that specific story, which is worth looking over to find out what it was.

MotorNeuron, I'd argue that the journeys by water serve both purposes - they're foreshadowing of the raft escape, and they correspond to the Aeneid. The timing of them is a little too precise for me to believe it could have been an accident. But that's not the only pillar I'm resting my case on - for example, Hazel's weird "journey to the underworld" occurs at the same point in the story that Aeneas' does. When they meet enemies, where they find allies, and the timing of other events I've already brought up are all fairly close cognates.

Incidentally, I never much liked Aeneas either. Hazel rocks, though.
posted by kyrademon at 1:29 PM on April 8, 2005

Yeah, as they say, Silflay Hraka, U Embleer Rah!

Or somethin'.
posted by geekhorde at 1:41 PM on April 8, 2005

You know, I've even heard that Virgil may have been stealing things from Homer. Appalling. Both of them depended, of course, on the Kickboxer films and second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (The Secret of the Ooze) for their larger plot/thematic points.

It's all there: a giant, rat, a mysterious fighting tournament and of course, the Super Shredder.

Don't even get me started on how Shakespeare ripped off Metallica's Black album...
posted by schambers at 1:46 PM on April 8, 2005

Try reading The Hero with 1,000 Faces by Joseph Campbell for even more degrees of connectedness!

(excerpt from one of the reviews: "There are really two fundamental ideas in this work, 1) the same mythological motifs occur throughout the world; 2) the hero's journey follows the same basic, carefully delineated sequence in all the different myths. This sequence, as you can see in the index, breaks down to departure, initiation, and return.'")

posted by Lynsey at 2:07 PM on April 8, 2005

kyra, you need an e-mail in your profile. :)
posted by dios at 2:26 PM on April 8, 2005

Hero... is good, but to get really into it, read the Primitive Mythology and Creative Mythology volumes of Campbell's Masks of God. Hero makes it all seem like a parlor game, to me; the others start to get you acquainted with why these similarities exist.
posted by lodurr at 2:51 PM on April 8, 2005

Look, I'm a huge fan of Masks of God and all that, and well aware that mythical story arcs tend to follow remarkably similar lines in roughly similar order. But that simply isn't what's going on here. This is not a similarity like Luke Skywalker and Bellerophon. This is a similarity like West Side Story/Romeo and Juliet, or Rent/La Boheme. Although there are important differences, the EXACT SAME plot events follow the EXACT SAME order within the EXACT SAME structure. Compare it to other hero stories, and while of course there is a rough correspondence, you get nowhere near this degree of correlation. It's intentional, and to dismiss it as Campbellian "belly of the whale" similarity is to miss what Adams was doing and lose any chance of figuring out why.
posted by kyrademon at 6:43 PM on April 8, 2005

Skipping a lot of minor plot points, many of which also correspond directly, here's some of the similarities I'm talking about -

Aeneid: A prophecy warns that the city is soon to be destroyed, but is ignored by the leaders. A small group believes the warning and flees.
Watership Down: A prophecy warns that the warren is soon to be destroyed, but is ignored by the leaders. A small group believes the warning and flees.
Aeneid: After crossing the sea, the the travellers arrive at a new city. Some wish to stay, but the leader is told by the gods it would be wrong to do so, and they leave.
Watership Down: After crossing a river, the travellers arrive at a new warren. Some wish to stay, but the leader senses something is horribly wrong, and they leave.
Aeneid: A part of the group, weary of travelling, demands that things change. But the leader elects to continue to move on.
Watership Down: A part of the group, weary of travelling, demands that things change. But the leader elects to continue to move on.
Aeneid: The leader must pay a visit to the underworld before continuing.
Watership Down: The leader, wounded, pays a mystical visit to the underworld.

We are now about halfway through both books. I could easily go on; the second half of both books concerns the battles the groups must fight to establish their new colony, and their enemies and allies. Certainly there are many differences, even so far as I've already gotten, but doesn't this seem to you a little too close to be mere Campbellian mythopoetic similarity? Sure, plenty of stories have the visit to the underworld - but the doomed city? The first new city at which they cannot stay? The revolt of the travellers? None of those are an established part of the hero story, nor are the wars to establish a colony.
posted by kyrademon at 7:15 PM on April 8, 2005

lodurr, I really liked the first post, on English leadership novels.

Also, did anyone see the Watership Down movie -- it left a big impression on me as a child.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:39 PM on April 8, 2005

Well, kyra, if you want to argue that there's a close and intentional parallelism, then...what does it mean? (Does it mean anything?)

E.g., it could mean that Adams is actively contrasting Roman versus English virtues. (Which would be kind of interesting.) One obvious big difference in kind, to me, is that Aeneid doesn't have much development for peripheral characters; in WD, several of them are critical (e.g., Bigiwig and Fiver), and clearly in ways that go deeper than just having more narrative space or higher audience expectations.

It's not that I don't think there are parallels, or even that Adams isn't aware of them. I just think that unless you take it further, they're not very interesting.

For example, you may be aware that the Coen Brothers's Miller's Crossing is largely an adaptation of Hammet's The Glass Key (with other elements borrowed from Red Harvest). But it's not the similarities that are interesting -- it's the differences. For example, Hammet focuses on "high-born" characters (a Senator and his spawn), whereas the Coens' parallel characters are relatively low-born (a prostitute and her con-man brother). The genteel moniker "Ned Beaumont" becomes "Tom Regan." The noble Ned gets the girl; the noble Tom doesn't.

I've argued for years that in a real sense, the Coens are being truer to Hammet's millieu than he was, himself. At that point in his career, he's currying favor, and indulging his own fantasies about the good life, rather than writing real street stories as he arguably did in his "Continental Op" period.

So, what is it that Adams is up to, then? Why is it interesting that he riffs off Aeneid?
posted by lodurr at 10:41 AM on April 9, 2005

(BTW, I actually wrote an essay on exactly this topic -- the parallels between Aeneid and Watership Down -- when I was in High School more than 20 years ago, and I'm pretty much telling you what my teachers told me: "Great. Now where do you go with it?")
posted by lodurr at 10:43 AM on April 9, 2005

I've never read Watership Down and my familiarity with The Aeneid is sketchy, but why all the fuss? Judging from the thread and the links I'm pretty much convinced, but — so? It's interesting to note if you're a fan of either, but as for the ensuing discussion, there is an endless supply of literature that retells earlier works (especially the classics) even in a scene-for-scene or character-for-character fashion.
posted by rafter at 11:07 AM on April 9, 2005

That's a fair criticism, rafter and lodurr, and I'd be extremely happy if this thread (which is probably dying now, alas) provoked a conversation about why Adams did it (rather than whether or not he did, which is what the conversation has been so far, making it a bit frustrating for me.)

I think you're right that, in general, the differences between related works are what makes them interesting, rather than their similarities, once you've established that they're related. Earlier I brought up West Side Story/Romeo and Juliet and Rent/La Boheme. Both of the more recent versions keep a female lead alive who died in the original. In Rent, this was (I think) an effective choice, since the overall message of the piece was about hope in adversity, and it wanted to make a deliberate differentiation from the original, which had a different theme. In West Side Story ... it was just kind of a lame choice which didn't do anything.

I like the idea that he may have been contrasting the idea of Roman heroism with British heroism, and it accounts for some of the major differences - the more developed characters, and the greater emphasis on personal choice as opposed to fate.
posted by kyrademon at 12:53 PM on April 9, 2005

If it were me making the argument, I'd say it probably had more to do with the role of the individual. British students of his age learned a lot about Rome; Roman virtues and English virtues really are very different. Aside from their very character-focused concept of leadership (which isn't very Roman), they have an idea that while even little folks really do matter, everyone's still got to pull together. They're not big on subordinating themselves to the state or even the crown -- but subordinating onesself to "Britain" (or "the team" or "the college") is huge.

We're more ambivalent about it in America, I think. You're either an individualist or a team player; a leader or a follower; a winner or a loser. I suppose that mighe have something to do with our more fractured sense of community. We're raised to make our mark in a marketplace, not to be part of a People. (I wonder if it would be fair to make similar generalizations about Poles, or French, or Dutch people, as I've made about English people, while offering the strenuous disclaimer that all the bullshit I'm spouting, while not intentionally bullshit, is based on literature and film and what I know of the British view of history -- not from actual time there -- and hence might well be bullshit, after all.)

Aside: Personally, I've always thought West Side story was much more effective than Romeo & Juliet, and part of the reason was that Sondheim & Bernstein kept Maria alive. Luhrman's R+J seemed to me to amplify most of the bad things about that play; and his choice to so forcefully emphasize Mercutio's death speech made it even worse. After watching Harold Perrineau commit "grand theft cinema" in that scene, I formulated a theory that Shakespeare himself must have come to hate it before he was finished -- otherwise, he wouldn't have had one of his major characters explain in such exhaustive detail in the play what a lousy story it really was...
posted by lodurr at 2:07 PM on April 9, 2005

lodurr - "...what does it mean? (Does it mean anything?)"

About 25 years ago I saw Richard Adams give a talk at my local library. He said something along the lines of "People ask me what Watership Down means, and I tell them it's a story about rabbits. Then they say, 'Yes, but what does it really mean', and I say well, it's a story about English rabbits."
posted by tdismukes at 9:51 AM on April 11, 2005

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