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"Passive Baby-Factories"? The Role of Does in Watership Down

A noble type of good,
Heroic womanhood
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Santa Filomena)

Nicholas Tucker, in his otherwise complimentary Afterword to the Puffin Modern Classics edition of Watership Down[1] states that the bucks' sensitive attitude towards each other is not reflected in their attitude towards the does, quoting the phrase "some mating, and a scuffle or two" from Watership Down itself as evidence that the does are shown as "little more than passive baby-factories". This is, on the face of it, a valid objection - almost all the principal characters in the novel are bucks - but I think it's a rebuttable one.

Tucker is hardly the only person to make this complaint. For example, Bob Dixon says[2] that "Hazel's leadership is sanctioned and the seal of approval put on ... the treatment of does as breeding objects ... to say that rabbits are like this is beside the point, in terms of the story". To say it is beside the point is itself missing the point - Watership Down only works because it does follow closely the group dynamics of real rabbits. (Okay, so they're not terribly nocturnal, but then neither are the rabbits in my neck of the woods.) Would Mr Dixon also object to the portrayal of an all-male Roman Legion? Perhaps he would.

Having said that, there is some disagreement about what real rabbits actually do, and some authorities (such as RM Lockley himself) have since stated that mated pairs would be more likely to undertake such a journey than an all-male band[3]. But in any case, Dixon shows signs of not knowing his source that well, for example saying that it is "Lord Frith" who comes for Hazel at the end of the book. Whoever it is who appears (there's some argument on this point), it isn't Frith.

A much more sensible expression of concern comes from Jane Resh Thomas in a well-known American children's fiction journal[4], who worries that Mr Adams "grafted exalted human spirits to the rabbit bodies of his male characters and has made the females mere rabbits. The [bucks] are superhuman and the [does] sub-human". John Rowe Townsend, referring to this comment[5], points out that it "does not seek to condemn the whole book", and says that "it would be a pity if it were met with yawns or instant resentment".

Yawns seem unlikely, but resentment is another matter - as with any book which has become a cult, fans of Watership Down [raises a paw] react strongly to any suggestion that their beloved masterpiece is less than perfect in any way. For myself, I feel much more uncomfortable with Mr Adams' occasional references to "simple African villagers" and the like than ever I do about the sexism or otherwise of the novel, but I think that the role of the does is rather undervalued by many critics.

Of course, I must make it clear here that it is the book to which I refer: the TV series is in effect a different story - not least because a major character (Blackberry) is portrayed as a doe - but the 1978 animated film, though largely respectful of its source, does let itself down in one way: by having a doe, Violet, included in the initial leaving party from Sandleford. This is a bad move: her presence means that she has to be killed off (by the crow in the beanfield) in order for there to be an absence of does later on. This also means that we lose the passage in the book where Hazel proudly tells Holly that all the initial party are still alive, an early example of Hazel's leadership skills. It's noticeable that Violet does not appear in the cast-list - perhaps the producers were slightly ashamed of this particular piece of meddling.

The earliest doe to appear in person in Watership Down is Strawberry's doe, Nildro-hain[6], but her only importance to the story is that her death at the hands of the Shining Wires prompts Strawberry to join Hazel's band. The does in the hutch are another matter. Clover, "a strong, active rabbit" is "clearly excited" by the thought of freedom[7], and is the first doe to mate with a Watership rabbit, Holly in all probability - we're told that "Holly had taken to Clover"[8]. This also means that hers are the first kittens to be born - a vital sign of the Watership warren's long-term viability. In fact, one of the last scenes in the book is that of Bigwig teaching a proto-Owsla made up of Clover's sons, one of whom is called Scabious after a rabbit Holly had seen killed by men - a nice symbol of renewal.

For all Clover's strength, though, she doesn't do anything particularly out of the ordinary. The same cannot be said of a couple of the Efrafan does, Thethuthinnang and - especially - Hyzenthlay. We first encounter her in Holly's description of the initial expedition to Efrafa[9], but she really comes into her own once Bigwig realises that he had found "a strong, sensible friend, who would think on her own account", and who is quite clear about who is to be trusted (Thethuthinnang) and who is not (Nelthilta). Hyzenthlay is also the one who organises the does' escape party from Efrafa - a vital task requiring a great amount of intelligence and common sense, and not at all one for a second-rate camp follower[10]. For some reason Hyzenthlay is consistently underrated by many people, and she deserves better.

As a side-note, it is interesting to note that the comments by Nicholas Tucker which inspired this essay have been deleted from later printings of the Puffin Modern Classics edition, leaving a much shorter Afterword. I do not know what the reason for this omission is, and no mention of it is made inside the newer books, but the change is very interesting to see. Perhaps Mr Tucker has also seen the importance of Hyzenthlay!

In conclusion then, it is perfectly reasonable to accept the view of John Rowe Townsend that dismissing the criticism of sexism out of hand is unfair. However, Bob Dixon's charge that what real rabbits do is irrelevant misses the point of Watership Down entirely - what real rabbits do is central to the whole book. The does are not, it is true, the great wandering adventurers that the bucks are, but they are - Hyzenthlay in particular - a great deal more than "passive baby-factories".

[1] Nicholas Tucker, Afterword, within Richard Adams, Watership Down, Puffin Modern Classics, London 1993.
[2] Bob Dixon, Catching Them Young 2: Political Ideas in Children's Fiction, Pluto Press 1977.
[3] Chris Boyce, Watership Down - What's it all about?, 2004.
[4] Jane Resh Thomas, Old Worlds and New: Anti-Feminism in Watership Down, within The Horn Book, August 1974.
[5] John Rowe Townsend, Are Children's Books Racist and Sexist?, within Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, Oxford University Press (Canada), Toronto 1980.
[6] Watership Down, ch. 13.
[7] ibid., ch. 24.
[8] ibid., ch. 28.
[9] ibid., ch. 27.
[10] ibid., ch. 35.