Among my favourite novels are two animal tales: Wind in the Willows (1908) and Watership Down (1972). Both involve animals whose lives unfold in the English countryside; animals with powers of speech and reason and even wit. Both are charming books, but only in one does the charm arise from watching animals be animals. In Watership Down, the rabbits are rabbits. In Wind in the Willows the animals are arguably humans.
Rat and Mole, Badger and Toad certainly have animal qualities like heightened sense of smell and the homing instinct, but they are essentially Edwardian gentlefolk living fairly gracious riparian lives. They all wear clothes and walk upright (Toad seems to have hair); they inhabit a carefully stratified social world, and affect the diction of characters from Wodehouse and Waugh. They buy their food from shops; they eat (at tables or in wicker chairs) sumptuous breakfasts washed down with ale and coffee; delicious al fresco luncheons; and suppers accompanied by cheeses and wines. There’s one scene that’s always troubled me: Rat and Mole sit at ease by the fire in Rat’s bijou sitting room; they are apparently alone in the house when ‘dinner is served.’ By whom? This is not the only passage that suggests servants are one of the several luxuries these mild-mannered beasts enjoy. In a wonderful 2009 article Rosemary Hill regards the book as a sigh of nostalgia for the lost world of Edwardian suburbia, when boating and picnicking filled the long days of the leisured classes. The story, too, turns on behaviour more proper to adult humans than rats and toads: dangerous addictions and excesses, fraud, theft, imprisonment, escape, and in the end, violent overthrow of interlopers. Charmed though I always am by this book (Kenneth Grahame’s prose is radiant) it’s certainly not because it offers any real insight into animal life.
The rabbits of Watership, on the other hand, are wild animals whose lives are governed by weather, terrain, predation, and instinct. They speak, but they speak a language called Lapine. They have social structures, but these resemble the structures that abide in real warrens, according to Richard Adams’ careful research. The human world, and even other animals, are utterly strange to them. They are a band of brothers who come to value each other deeply, but they never transcend their animal desire to fight each other in mating season, or their animal pragmatism about defacating and breeding. (One can’t imagine the genteel Rat even excusing himself to use the lavatory, and certainly not courting a lady-rat; he and his friends are indubitably bachelors.) Inhabiting the rabbits’ world, far from evoking nostalgia, makes you feel how alien and menacing humans and ‘man things’ are to wild creatures.
Yet, without disowning this animality, Watership Down is an intensely political novel as well. It’s about freedom; about the treacherous compromise between safety and liberty. In their travels, Hazel and Fiver and their companions come across two other warrens: one is the Brave New World of rabbitry, where the rabbits are sleek sophisticates who engage in a conspiracy of glazed silence about their mortal danger. The other is 1984. A highly militarised warren run by a lapine tyrant, Efrafa is full of pitiful creatures, brutally oppressed in the name of safety. Hazel’s band comes to embody the perils and the promise of true freedom.
The Willows are a world away from such political concerns. The animals’ highest goods and deepest joys come from eating, drinking, communing, and resting. Their freedom is simply the fresh air in which they pursue their simple pleasures. Looked at one way, that makes them just the parasitic aristos for whom they stand in. Looked at another, it makes them creatures in the best, blessed sense.