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Posts Tagged ‘Watership Down’

call-of-the-wild-and-white-fang-by-jack-londonThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) were two of the most powerful books I ever read as a child. I had strong memories of the suffering of the sled-dogs and the cruelty and callousness of the men in the former, of the ruthlessness and viciousness of the dogs in the latter. And I had strong memories of the savage cold and snow of Canada in both.

Re-reading them as an adult, I’ve discovered that Jack London is like J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary talent didn’t match his literary ambition. Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. You could say that London’s and Tolkien’s books are better than they read. Their ideas are interesting, their themes massive, but their prose lets them down. Otherwise they might have been among the greatest writers, rather than just among the greatest story-tellers.

The Call of the Wild and White Fang are certainly good stories. They’re complementary, the first telling the story of a tame dog that has to learn to be savage, the other the story of a savage dog that has to learn to be tame. In the first, Buck is a powerful, thick-pelted family pet living “in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara valley”. He doesn’t know that his power and his pelt have suddenly become very valuable:

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost. (The Call of the Wild)

And so Buck is dog-napped, treated cruelly for the first time in his life, and transported to the far north, where he learns “The Law of Club and Fang” as he works pulling a sled. White Fang, the hero of the second book, knows the Law of the Fang from the beginning, because he’s born in the wild, part dog, but mostly wolf:

The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. (ch. V, “The Law Of Meat”)

Later, when he’s captured by Indians, he learns the Law of the Club. He also learns about cruelty, sadism and hate. Finally, he learns about love, when he acquires a good master and is tamed by kindness.

But he always knew about another kind of love: the kind explored in the short story “Love of Life” (1906), which is also included here. It’s about an injured gold-miner abandoned in the Canadian wilderness who drives himself through “frightful days of snow and rain” to the coast in search of rescue. He nearly starves, he’s nearly killed by a wolf, and his feet become “shapeless lumps of raw meat”, but he’s sustained by “Love of Life”.

The dog Bâtard, in the story of the same name (1904), is sustained by hate and his desire for revenge over his cruel master. Dogs aren’t really dogs in Jack London’s stories: they’re furry humans on four legs, vehicles for London’s Nietzschean ideas about combat, cunning and will. Richard Adams is much more successful at putting himself into the lives of animals, or keeping himself out, but I’m pretty sure that London’s stories were an inspiration for Watership Down (1972).

I’m even surer that they were an inspiration for Conan the Barbarian. I was reminded of Conan a lot as I read and Robert E. Howard was fascinated by the same things: violence, fighting, cruelty, the struggle for survival, and the relation between civilization and savagery. White Fang might have howled in agreement at this, from the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (1935):

The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

Howard was a better writer than London, but I’m not sure that he was as complex and interesting a thinker. He certainly didn’t live as interesting a life. Part of the power of London’s writing comes from the knowledge that he had experienced what he wrote about: life-and-death struggles between man and the elements, between man and man, between man and beast. He was influenced by Nietzsche and may have influenced fascism in his turn. He certainly had racial and social ideas that horrify many people today.

Those ideas aren’t prominent in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which helps explain why these are now by far his most famous books. That they are animal stories helps even more: they appeal to children and children don’t notice the clumsiness of his prose. But he was a prolific writer, despite dying in 1916 at only the age of forty, and I want to try more of his work.

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The Plague Dogs by Richard AdamsThe Plague Dogs, Richard Adams (Penguin 1977)

Reading a book in childhood is like visiting an island. You land, you explore, you sail away. That’s when the island starts to sink. Sometimes it sinks quickly, vanishing beneath the sea, swallowed into the subconscious. I’ve completely forgotten a lot of books I read in my childhood. But sometimes a literary island sinks slowly and incompletely, leaving reefs and outcrops. A powerful story can stay with you for life.

The Plague Dogs was like that for me. It’s a long time since I last read it, but parts of it had stayed with me, never sinking into the subconscious. Things that never sank included the sounds and smells of experimental pigeons in a darkened laboratory and old Tyson’s “R.N.K. theory” about the origins of their homing instinct: “Reckon nobody knaws” (pg. 28). Other parts weren’t far underwater and I remembered them as I read, like the monkey kept isolated in a tank until it becomes catatonic. But some of it had sunk beyond recall, like the fox who meets Rowf and Snitter, the dogs of the title who have escaped from a research laboratory in the Lake District. Why did I remember the pigeons and forget the fox, when the pigeons are gone in a couple of pages and the fox – “the tod” – is there chapter after chapter, behaving and talking in a highly memorable way?

“Noo give ower,” said the creature in the dark. “Gan canny. Lez wez aall be marrers, ne need fer barneys. Stick wi’ me and we’ll aall be champion. Else ye’ll be deed seun, like Ah towld yez.” (Fit III, pg. 95)

Tod smells memorable too, particularly to a dog: Snitter and Rowf think that he has a “wild” and “exciting” smell, “a sharp, killing smell, a furtive smell, trotting, preying, slinking through the darkness” (pg. 92). Like Adams’ much more famous Watership Down (1972), this book is good at invoking the sensory world of animals and making you experience the world through their eyes, nose and ears. But Watership Down is much more famous partly because it’s a much better book. It also has an uplifting theme, not a upsetting one. It’s about animals finding new lives, not animals being tortured in the name of science.

And for me the island of Watership Down never sank beneath the waves, because I’ve never stopped re-reading it. It’s a strange, haunting and beautiful book, with more seasons and fewer humans in it than The Plague Dogs. It has more landscapes too. The Plague Dogs takes place from Friday 15th October to Saturday 27th November in the bleak landscape of the Lake District: hills, stones, tarns and occasional trees, as described by Adams and drawn by Alfred Wainwright. The drawings are usually better than the text, because they aren’t experimental or extravagant. Adams has one big experiment in Watership Down and it works: the invention of Lapine, the rabbit-language. Like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and R’lyeh, Adams’ Thayli and Hlao-roo are anti-anthropocentric, loosening the mind’s hold on the familiar, making us think from a new perspective.

He doesn’t invent a new language for this book, but Snitter the fox-terrier is like Fiver the under-sized rabbit in Watership Down. They’re both visionaries, but Snitter’s visions are wilder and less believable, because he’s had brain-surgery at the laboratory from which he and Rowf have escaped. The laboratory, a “former fell farm on the east side of Coniston Water”, is called “Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental”, or “A.R.S.E”, for short. That kind of crude satire doesn’t go well with high-flown passages like this one, describing the food fed in individual packages to the dogs being experimented on at the laboratory:

It were, as Sir Thomas Browne says, an excellent quaere to consider, privatim et seriatim, what drugs, what charms, what conjuration and what mighty magic these packages contained. They were indeed miracles of rare device. One included, infused with the liver and offal, stimulants able to banish sleep, or to cause the consumer to perform, on the morrow, prodigies of endurance – to fight, to fast, to tear himself, to drink up eisel [vinegar], eat a crocodile. Others contained paralytics which suspended colour perception, hearing, taste, smell; analgesics destroying the ability to feel pain, so that the subject stood wagging his tail while a hot iron was drawn along his ribs; hallucinogens able to fill the eye of the beholder with more devils than vast hell can contain, to transform the strong to weaklings, the resolute to cowards, to plunge the intelligent and alert head over ears into idiocy. (“Fit I”, pg. 17)

Passages like that remind me of what Housman says about Swinburne’s attitude to literature: “he dragged this subject into the midst of all other subjects, and covered earth and sky and man with the dust of the library”. Adams knows a lot about literature, but doesn’t always know how to wear his knowledge lightly. He tries to imitate Dickens too: he crowds the book with characters, many of them supposed to be grotesque, like Digby Driver, an amoral crusading journalist, and Bernard Bugwash, the M.P. for Lakeland Central. But few of them come to life: he doesn’t have Dickens’ vivificative powers.

One human who does come partly to life – Geoffrey Westcott, a bank-clerk from Windermere – ends up being eaten by Rowf and Snitter. That’s something else I’d forgotten. Perhaps it wasn’t memorable because Rowf and Snitter don’t truly come to life themselves. Not for me, at least, but then I didn’t like dogs much when I was young and like them even less now. That’s part of why it’s taken me so long to re-read this book. It’s powerful in patches, despite the occasional silliness and longueurs, and although in some ways it made me think less of Adams as an author, in another way it made me think more. Watership Down was the first book I read by him and I got the impression there that he didn’t think much of dogs. This is from a story about how El-ahrairah, the rabbits’ legendary prince of thieves, tricks a dog called Rowsby Woof:

“I am the Fairy Wogdog, messenger of the great dog-spirit of the East, Queen Dripslobber. Far, far in the East her palace lies. Ah, Rowsby Woof, if only you could see her mighty state, the wonders of her kingdom! The carrion that lies far and wide upon the sands! The manure, Rowsby Woof! The open sewers! Oh, how you would jump for joy and run nosing about!” […]

“Oh, Fairy Wogdog!” cried Rowsby Woof. “What joy it will be to grovel and abase myself before the Queen! How humbly I shall roll upon the ground! How utterly I shall make myself her slave! What menial cringing will be mine! I will show myself a true dog!” (ch. 41, “The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog”)

Rowsby Woof is “the most objectionable, malicious, disgusting brute that ever licked a man’s hand”, and he’s rightly deceived by El-ahrairah’s lies about Queen Dripslobber and her two “noble attendants, the fairies Postwiddle and Sniffbottom”. But Adams isn’t expressing his own disdain for dogs: he’s expressing the disdain of rabbits in the story. I realized that when I read The Plague Dogs. It doesn’t satirize dogs, it sympathizes with them. Unfortunately, I’m still with the rabbits. I don’t like dogs and I don’t think this book is half as good as Watership Down. But its flaws make it interesting and it captures something of the Lake District and something of England in a vanished era, the 1970s. And if you like dogs, you’ll probably like it more than me, because there is a happy ending.

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