Critical Overview

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People have probably been telling stories about animals since time began. Some of the earliest known animal stories are the fables of Aesop, a slave who lived in Greece around 500 B.C. He told stories about animals, which had morals illustrating lessons and aspects of human life. Since then, many authors have told and written stories in which animals could speak and talk, and in which they have their own societies. Some early, and still well known, animal stories include Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories and Jungle Book, Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, and George Orwell's Animal Farm. However, these stories were not realistic in the sense that they did not take into account the actual biology and behavior of the animals: the characters were basically humans in animal form.

The first realistically told animal story was Bambi, by Felix Salten, a Hungarian journalist. Unlike the more famous Disney film, the book is not sentimental, but is, as Cathi Dunn MacRae wrote in Presenting Young Adult Fantasy Fiction, "a sensitive study of a deer's natural life. Joy and fear are basic expressions for Bambi and his forest companions; death is part of life. Salten's respect for animals' experience was revolutionary."

Like Salten, Adams bases his rabbit society on many real characteristics of the biology and behavior of rabbits, particularly as they are described by naturalist R. M. Lockley in his classic The Private Life of the Rabbit, whom Adams often quotes in the epigraphs of chapters in the book.

In A Reader's Guide to Fantasy, Baird Searles, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin wrote that Watership Down "caused a sensation" when it came out, mainly because, unlike previous works such as Bambi, the book tells the rabbits' story in an epic context, and includes excerpts from the rabbit mythology. They also write, "There is also a healthy dose of satiric allegory, which fortunately does not dominate the novel."

Adams's success led to many others following in his footsteps and writing what have since become known as "animal fantasies." According to MacRae, this type of writing has several characteristics, including: (1) language and the ability to communicate with other species; (2) a culture that is not based on human values; (3) a visionary leader who senses dangers and leads the group toward change; (4) an underlying sense that animals are superior to brutal humans; and (5) a struggle for survival against a force, often of human origin, that threatens their way of life. As MacRae noted, Watership Down has been so successful, and incorporated these traits so completely, that "few animal fantasies escape comparison."

Critics have differed, however, on how effective the use of these typical conventions really is. In Fantasy Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide, Marshall B. Tymn, Kenneth J. Zahorski, and Robert H. Boyer wrote that the main reason for the success of the book is that people are charmed by stories of animals that can talk. "This charm," they wrote, "as well as the spell of a well-told tale, is what has made [the book] so popular."

Peter Hunt wrote in the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, "Its intricate depiction of a rabbit community and the characterization of its (mainly male) protagonists have enough contact with realism to make the book seem entirely credible."

However, in Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature , Kathryn Hume wrote that in her opinion, the book starts out attempting to enter rabbit minds, "but quickly lets the lapine [rabbit]...

(This entire section contains 856 words.)

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vocabulary ... substitute for real strangeness, while the plot degenerates into the adventures of animals with human brains ... The novelty and strangeness which entering a rabbit's mind should entail quickly disappears. The fantasy of this adventure is only skin deep; the minds and characters of these furry humans are but little touched by newness or originality."

In National Review, D. Keith Mano wrote in response to another critic's comment that the book did not fit any known formula, "Nonsense: it fits five or six. This bunny squad could be a John Wayne platoon of GIs. The foresighted, tactful rabbit leader. The fast rabbit. The clever rabbit. The blustery, hard-fighting noncom rabbit ... Watership Down is pleasant enough, but it has about the same intellectual firepower as Dumbo ... This is an okay book; well enough written. But it is grossly overrated."

Despite the criticisms of Mano and others, readers loved the book, sending it to the best-seller lists and leading it to be regarded as a classic of modern fantasy. In the New York Review of Books, Alison Lurie wrote that the reason the book was so successful and so loved was that unlike many contemporary novels, which feature sad, cynical, or nasty characters, Watership Down celebrates characters "who have honor and courage and dignity, who will risk their lives for others, [and] whose love for their families and friends and community is enduring and effective."

The book's popularity has endured, and since its publication, there has been a surge in the publication of animal fantasies; readers can now read books starring sentient horses, foxes, cats, and many other animals, thanks to Adams's groundbreaking work.

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