So, my big retrospective on Watership Down is finally complete. You may ask, “Preston, what’s next as far as writing on the blog goes?” And my answer to that would be…
Yeah, I think I deserve to have a break from this blog after completing such a big project.
Don’t get me wrong; this doesn’t mean I won’t be doing anything with the blog for the next several weeks. I still need to check up on it regularly to see if any of the plugins need updating. Plus, there are a few more modifications I’d like to do on the technical side. For example, I need to figure out why the address bar still says this site is “not secure,” even though I know I have SSL certification. I also need to decide which of my articles on here I want to enshrine as “cornerstone content.” Maybe there are some other things I’ve forgotten about, but for now, let’s discuss what I’ll be doing in the interim.
I won’t be taking a break from writing altogether during this period. I’ve been neglecting my DeviantArt profile for a while now because of how this retrospective has consumed my spare time for the last two months. Indeed, I haven’t posted any of my writing there for the last five months, despite constantly promising my watchers that I would have the first part of my Divine Conspiracy pilot out by the end of the month. I wish to remedy that sometime between now and September, and The Divine Conspiracy is what I will be primarily working on during that period.
So, yeah. The remainder of July and the whole of August is how long this break will last. I will still be writing throughout that break (barring a week-long family camping trip the last week of July), just not on Preston Posits. I may still find some room to slip a smaller, less work-intensive article here or there. I’ve particularly been interested in doing a “P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist” post on a Joy Division song I heard not too long ago, so you may expect something like that in August.
As for when the longer articles return in September, you might expect that essay I proposed at the end of May, where I compare different anarchist philosophies to see which ones I like best. I was originally going to do it as a ranked list similar to my “Problem of Evil” article, but I decided against formatting it that way because I don’t want to contribute to leftist infighting. Also, aside from anarcho-primitivism to a certain extent, I don’t really have any moral objections to any anarchist philosophy, because they basically all want the same thing I do; death to all unjust hierarchical systems, be they centralized governments, multinational corporations, and unjust law enforcement apparatuses.
I also want to make a top ten list like my one about climate change myths, this time debunking 9/11 Truther conspiracies, as the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack comes upon us, so probably expect that one first. Of course, October is not that far off either, so maybe you can expect me to make a continuation of my paranormal triangles list, as well as other spooooooky subjects.
But yeah, the long and short of it is, don’t expect to see me much on this blog before the end of August. But maybe stick around my DeviantArt page to finally get a taste of what The Divine Conspiracy has to offer. Here’s a link to follow for those who are interested: https://www.deviantart.com/pjdominy.
That’s all for now, beautiful watchers. Until next time, take care.
Our final entry in this retrospective takes us to 2018 when the third screen adaption of this classic tale of bunny heroics was unveiled to us by Netflix on December 23rd (it was released a day earlier on the BBC network in the U.K.). The BBC had announced a new adaptation in July of 2014, with Tom Bidwell of My Mad Fat Diary, Eastenders, and Casualty fame being hired to write four hour-long episodes.
Further announcements came in April of 2016 when Netflix announced that they had purchased the global distribution rights for the series. Also announced were the other production companies involved, including 42 and Biscuit Films, the production company of the series director, Noam Murro. The announcement also included several of the voice actors set to participate: James McAvoy as Hazel, Nicholas Hoult as Fiver, John Boyega as Bigwig, Gemma Arterton as Clover, Freddie Fox as Captain Holly, Anne-Marie Duff as Hyzenthlay, Miles Jupp as Blackberry, Olivia Coleman as Strawberry, and Ben Kingsley as General Woundwort. I can remember reading that Christopher Lee had been attached at some point, but he died in June 2015, aged 93.
Two other deaths would hang much more gloomily over the project shortly after. First, Richard Adams passed away at the ripe old age of 96 on Christmas Eve, 2016. The next month, on January 25th, John Hurt, the original voice of Hazel, died just three days after his 77th birthday after a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Naturally, this led to many utterances of “My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today” among the Watership Down fandom.
Maybe this created expectations for the new miniseries that the producers and animators couldn’t reach. When the series finally came out in December of 2018, it received some rather mixed reviews. It did manage to receive a score of 77 and 76 on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, respectively, with the summary on the former reading, “Though its animation leaves something to be desired, Watership Down is a faithful adaptation that will resonate with viewers of any age.” Reception among the fandom seems to be much more divided, with some liking it and others hating it.
As for me, this adaptation really isn’t anything to write home about. It’s definitely not terrible, and the creators clearly did have a vision that they were committed to. But not only is the animation woefully outdated and stilted, but some of the directorial choices and changes that the writers made left me scratching my head. Allow me to explain.
Perhaps the best place to start would be the thing that most viewers will notice right away: the lackluster animation. Even most positive reviews tended to agree that the animation itself was the series’ weakest link, especially in comparison to the film. Whereas the film’s animation remains just as vibrant and colorful in 2021 as it was in 1978, many reviewers unfavorably compared the animation style here to the animated cutscenes from early 2000s video games. True, the animation isn’t anywhere near the godawful level of quality offered by the likes of Video Brinquedo. Even so, the rabbits’ movements feel jerky and robotic, like they’re not properly interacting with their environment.
Not helping the poor animation is the hyper-realistic style that the artists used for the character designs. For one thing, it’s often hard to tell which rabbit is which. Looking at the picture I used as a header for this article, I can tell that the three rabbits in the middle are Fiver, Bigwig, and Hazel. I can’t remember which of the other three rabbits are which, though.
Another problem with hyper-realism is that the rabbits aren’t allowed to emote like they could in the two previous adaptations. This often creates a disconnect between the often lively performances from the voice actors and the muted facial expressions on the rabbits, especially in far-away shots. Indeed, Bigwig barely seems to react in the third episode when the Efrafans catch him in an escape attempt with Hyzenthlay and her does.
Perhaps now would be a good jumping-off point to discuss my problems with how several characters were portrayed in the series. I didn’t particularly enjoy what the series did with Hazel, for instance. Hazel, in this version, is much less confident in his role as a leader, which annoyed me to no end. He constantly second-guesses himself and just awkwardly stands around while others make decisions for him. It gets especially egregious when, during the Efrafa operation, he seems far more worried about Clover than Bigwig or the other does imprisoned in Efrafa (we’ll talk more about her in a bit).
Bigwig also gets the shaft in this version, as he becomes much angrier and confrontational, constantly arguing with every decision Hazel makes. He even threatens to kill Fiver for making a nuisance of himself at Cowslip’s warren in this version. I get the sense that Bidwell did this because he thought it would make his character development in Efrafa more noticeable, but it just made me want to make hasenpfeffer out of him. Also, Hazel’s plan to get Bigwig into Efrafa hinging on making their best fighter into a storyteller was stupid, especially since they didn’t even give Bigwig time to memorize a few stories beforehand.
Another character who gets the full asshole makeover is Kehaar, who becomes much more selfish and rude, flatly refusing Hazel’s offer to help them find more does and even abandoning them shortly afterward, only returning when he finds out that his wing isn’t fully healed yet. True, he does eventually pull through for the Watershippers in the end, but his behavior up to that point doesn’t make his arc in warming up to the rabbits feel natural or earned. Not helping this is that Peter Capaldi decided to use his natural Scottish accent to voice Kehaar instead of affecting an Eastern European/Scandinavian accent like in the other adaptations. I can understand not even wanting to try to top Zero Mostel or Rik Mayall, but it still feels like one of Kehaar’s major defining traits has been gutted as a result.
I feel like Bidwell tried to sell the unnaturalness of Cowslip’s warren a bit too hard in this version. For example, Cowslip himself is introduced dancing on his hind legs, which I feel is way too unrealistic for a story that grounds itself so firmly in realism. The fact that several rabbits in the warren are seen worshipping a crystal formation also doesn’t sit right with me, as it pretty much throws all the slow-burning subtlety of the sequence right out the window.
Bidwell’s interpretation of Efrafa also feels very wrong to me, not the least because he put the enemy warren in the ruins of a human-made factory. Doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole purpose of Efrafa? In the novel, the warren was specifically designed by Woundwort and his council to be hidden from human eyes. True, this factory is clearly not in use by humans anymore, but what’s to stop them from knocking down those smokestacks one of these days and basically nuking the warren even worse than Sandleford?
Some of the ways in which Woundwort’s character is handled also rubbed me the wrong way. Episode Four starts with a retelling of Woundwort’s backstory that just feels all wrong since it deviates from the story told in the novel, and not for the better. For example, Woundwort’s warren is not killed by a farmer in this adaptation, but rather a pack of foxes that he was too tharn to warn them about (since when did red foxes hunt in packs?). We don’t even get to see Woundwort’s time as a hutch rabbit, even though that’s a major reason why he is so attracted to Clover when she appears at Efrafa. Even with Ben Kingsley giving a performance every bit as menacing as Harry Andrews and John Hurt’s portrayals, his character still feels a bit flat in this iteration, especially since the writers didn’t really do anything with his backstory to try to flesh his character out.
Speaking of Clover, though, here’s where I get into my issues with how the does are portrayed, especially her and Strawberry. Yes, this time, Strawberry takes his turn to be the token gender flip, being something of a hyper-active Genki girl who leaves Cowslip’s warren because she wants to live in a place where she doesn’t keep losing her friends to the shining wires. Unfortunately, once she gets to Watership Down, she ends up being consigned to almost singlehandedly digging the new warren because, in this version, does are inherently better at digging than bucks. Not only is this biologically untrue (the only reason does dig more than bucks in real life is because they need the burrows for their litters), this also goes against the novel, where Hazel even pointedly says that the problem is that “Bucks won’t dig. Not can’t, won’t.” Even if we ignore the digging issue, though, the fact that Bidwell chose a sheltered and naive rabbit with little to no survival skills as the token female is… a bit poorly thought out if you ask me.
Clover, on the other hand, is a whole different can of worms. It is understandable on a meta-level why she was made Hazel’s love interest instead of Hyzenthlay. James McAvoy and Anne Marie-Duff, their respective voice actors, had gotten divorced shortly before the series went into production, so Bidwell probably figured he shouldn’t pair them together. The problem is that the series tries way too hard to sell the two as a couple, practically turning Clover into a Mary Sue in the process.
In this version, for example, it is Clover who rescues Hazel from the drainpipe instead of Fiver, which I feel robs the story of the one moment that really solidifies his and Hazel’s brotherly bond. Not helping this is that Clover chooses this moment to utter the famous line, “Man will not rest until he’s spoiled the Earth,” which feels really out of place coming from her since she’s lived in a very well-kept hutch her whole life. True, Lucy’s father seems much more callous in this version, as he indiscriminately shoots at Hazel and his own daughter’spet rabbits during the breakout. Still, there’s no indication that Lucy herself treats them any worse.
Clover’s expanded role in Efrafa also comes at the expense of Hyzenthlay’s character. Hyzenthlay here is much more beaten down and defeatist and far less trusting of Bigwig. Indeed, at one point, Clover is forced to try to bargain with Woundwort to save her from execution, offering to become his queen if he agrees to spare Hyzenthaly’s life (he rather rudely declines). She consequently seems to take Hyzenthlay’s place as a leader in the group, much to the detriment of the latter’s character.
There are a few elements that I did like from this adaptation. For instance, Fiver’s visions are suitably eerie, with objects and even live rabbits floating motionless in mid-air. The way Fiver’s “the roof is made of bones” comment is visualized in Cowslip’s warren was especially creepy. I also thought this series’ depiction of Bigwig’s close encounter with the snare was appropriately intense, even though the only blood we see in the scene comes from Fiver of all rabbits, from cutting his lip trying to chew through the peg.
The fight scenes were the only time where I felt that the rabbits actually moved like real rabbits, their quick movements showing what real damage a rabbit’s claws can do to an opponent. Again, though, the series seems strangely reluctant to show any blood except during Bigwig and Woundwort’s climactic battle, which is weird since it doesn’t seem to be aiming for that young of an audience. Still, the confrontation with Woundwort under the railway arch was a definite highlight, especially when Kehaar comes flying in with a genuinely awesome slow-motion shot.
I think that this series’ reinterpretation of the Black Rabbit of Inle is fascinating. Instead of the fearsome harbinger of death we saw in the book and previous adaptations, he is presented here as a doe with soft-black hair and a soothing voice provided by Rosamund Pike. It really helps to illustrate how death isn’t really all that scary when you get right down to it, especially given how the Black Rabbit has been portrayed in all Watership Down adaptations. That said, though, I really don’t like how the final scene where she takes Hazel was handled. I don’t really feel like Hazel earned his spot in the Black Rabbit’s Owsla since the writer undermined his leadership skills with the way he wrote the character. Also, it seems like his death occurs only months after Woundwort’s defeat, which feels cheap to me. Still, his and Fiver’s final conversation is suitably emotional, especially since it’s clear that Fiver knows what’s coming and has no power to stop it.
Even if the script didn’t really give them good material to work with, the voice cast was solid. McAvoy and Boyega were especially undersold, as I felt their performances could have been even better if their characters were closer to how they were portrayed in the book. Nicholas Hoult was great as Fiver, perfectly capturing the vulnerability of the character. Lee Ingleby and Freddie Fox’s performances as Campion and Holly, respectively, were also highlights. Here’s an interesting piece of trivia about Cowslip’s voice actor, Rory Kinnear: he’s the son of Roy Kinnear, the voice of Pipkin in the film adaptation (who, along with Silver, is Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Adaptation).
Finally, I feel I should give a shout-out to “Fire on Fire,” the theme song composed by Sam Smith for this version. It is a pretty good song, tapping into the themes of love, friendship, and hope present in the story. Even so, I can’t help but agree with Mike Batt’s criticism that it doesn’t really have much to do with the actual content of the series itself, and it definitely isn’t nearly as memorable as “Bright Eyes.” The score by Argentian composer Federico Jusid also didn’t really leave much of an impact on me, as it didn’t really have the folksy charm of the film and ’99 series scores and felt like generic film music.
So yeah, overall, this adaptation was just a disappointment in my eyes. Even the few elements I did like (the voice acting, the background animation, the fight scenes, etc.) were often overcome by the series’ faults dragging them down. The characters often felt like downgrades from their book counterparts. The pacing often felt much faster than the film (despite having a runtime three times as long). The deviations from the novel’s story almost always felt like changes for the worse (seriously, why was the boat escape cut? I sincerely doubt the Watership rabbits could simply outrun Efrafa’s Owsla). And the lack of colors just makes the whole series look lifeless and drab. I give the series a 4/10. I think the series’ creators really were trying to make something good but were too caught up in giving their adaptation its own identity and missed much of what made the original story so good in the first place.
So now we come to the end of this retrospective. It took a lot longer to finish than I initially anticipated. When I first announced it in May, I definitely didn’t think it would take me until July to finish it. Am I going to put myself through something like this again next May when I turn 27? Maybe. We’ll wait and see.
For now, though, I want to close off this retrospective by answering one last question. Say I actually did manage to achieve a professional writing career and decided that I wanted to have a go at my own adaptation of Watership Down. What would I want to see in my own adaptation?
Obviously, the best place to look would be what I liked and didn’t like about all three screen adaptations. The film was definitely the closest to the original story and did an outstanding job at hitting all the plot beats and staying true to the characters and the dark tone. At the same time, though, the ninety-minute runtime often made it feel like it was merely scratching the surface of the plot and themes and is barely able to let any characters other than Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Woundwort, and maybe Cowslip and Hyzenthlay to have much of an impact.
The 1999 series makes up for this by having three seasons of 13 episodes each, allowing more room for the plot and characters to stretch their legs. Unfortunately, the writers on that show somewhat shot themselves in the foot by stretching the Efrafa conflict out over two seasons and including filler episodes that forced themselves between very plot-relevant episodes, often leading to adult viewers developing arc fatigue. While season three somewhat remedies this by having the Woundwort take over a meaner and scarier warren after Efrafa is destroyed, the writers reshot themselves by suddenly introducing supernatural elements that allowed them to resolve the conflict with a bloodless deus ex machina. Plus, since the series creators were aiming for a younger audience, much of the violence that gave the original story its identity was stripped away, along with much of the sense of danger that followed the protagonists everywhere they went.
There isn’t really much from the Netflix series that I feel inclined to emulate, aside from the voice cast. I would be interested in having James McAvoy, Nick Hoult, John Boyega, and Ben Kingsley back to have another go at voicing Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and Woundwort again this time with the characters acting far closer to their book counterparts.
With all that in mind, I think my perfect adaptation of Watership Down would be a three-season TV series like the 1999 series. The first season would cover the original novel’s story, ending with Woundwort’s defeat at the beech hanger. Season Two would explore what would happen if Woundwort actually survived his fight with the dog, defied the Black Rabbit’s call to follow him to the spirit world, and secretly worked behind the scenes to rebuild his empire; his refusal to follow the Black Rabbit causes the Watership Down rabbits to deal with strange supernatural events as the spirit world is thrown out of balance. Season Three would feature Woundwort retaking Efrafa only to lose it again and be forced to return to his original home in Darkhaven. I would like to redo Campion’s arc from the ’99 series, hopefully better this time, especially better developing his romance with Blackberry in the second season (yes, she’s a doe again in my version. Sorry to all the purists out there, I just liked Doe! Blackberry best).
I especially would prefer not to do that thing that both television adaptations did where the Sandleford rabbits reach Watership Down at the end of the first episode, as I feel it cheapens the arduous journey that the rabbits have to go through to reach their destination. Also, would it kill the creators of these adaptations to have Watership Down actually look like the real Watership Down?
Not really sure if there’s much else to say on this subject or if I’m just tired of working on this project after two months, but I think this is where I finally close the book on the subject of Watership Down. Be sure to stay tuned for updates in a few days, where I’ll explain where this blog is headed next after this project comes to an end. Remember to be cunning and full of tricks, and I’ll see you next time. Thank you, buh-bye!
We’ve talked about the subject of Watership Down’s supposed political and/or religious allegories in previous entries in this retrospective. Richard Adams, as noted before, insisted that it was simply a story that he made up for his children that they finally persuaded him to write down one day. Still, it seems that people keep reading their own political opinions into the novel. I tend to believe that what is going on with Watership Down is the same thing that J.R.R. Tolkien suspected was happening to The Lord of the Rings whenever people started reading political allegories into his work as well:
I think that many confuse “applicability” with “allegory,” but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Forward to The Lord of the Rings
Indeed, while Tolkien readily admitted that his experiences as a soldier in World War I certainly influenced his worldbuilding, he denied that he was consciously making commentary on the political affairs of the real world in his work.
As for Adams, we’ve discussed how characters like Hazel, Bigwig, and Kehaar were inspired by characters he met during his service in World War II. Therefore it’s definitely not much of a stretch to assume that Hitler or Stalin may have influenced General Woundwort and Efrafan society in general. As for the journey undertaken by Hazel and his band of hlessil, I think author Rachel Kadish, in an essay talking about how she compares the novel to the founding of Israel after the Holocaust, puts it best:
Turns out plenty of other people have seen their histories in that book. Turns out some people see it as an allegory for struggles against the Cold War, fascism, extremism. Or a protest against materialism, against the corporate state. Watership Down can be Ireland after the famine, Rwanda after the massacres. A quick online search for “Watership Down allegory” definitively proves that the book is an adaptation of Homer and Virgil, or of the life of Jesus, or of Native American religion.
Rachel Kadish, “Whose Parable Is It Anyway?”, Moment Magazine, September/October 2011
And this is where Fall of Efrafa comes in.
This band’s history begins in the southern coastal city of Brighton, East Sussex, in 2005 with two friends, Alex Bradshaw and Steve McCusker. McCusker was a touring musician, playing guitar with several local punk bands. Bradshaw was a graphic artist struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, from which he would derive his future stage name, Alex CF. Steve happened to be reading Watership Down, and the two began discussing the political allegories they saw in the story. As their discussions continued, they hit upon the idea of starting a band based on the concept of examining the mythology of the book through their own radical left-wing viewpoints, with a heavy emphasis on promoting atheism and animal rights. And thus, Fall of Efrafa was born, with the lineup being completed by Neil Kingsbury on second guitar, George Miles on drums, and Michael Douglas on bass guitar.
With the quintet in place, the band entered the studio in May and June of 2006 and, with producer Peter Miles at the helm, released the first of three albums in their Warren of the Snares trilogy in October of that year via the German indie label Alerta Antifascista.
The Warren of the Snares Pt. 1: Owsla
Before we discuss the actual music on the three records, I should probably give you an idea of what kind of music to expect from this band. One might expect music based around a bucolic setting like Watership Down to be more similar to the laid-back folk-rock tunes that Mike Batt wrote for the movie and TV show. Fall of Efrafa could not be further from that if it tried. The music here exists at the intersection between the grimy crust punk of bands like Amebix and Discharge, the slow and atmospheric post-metal of Pelican and Cult of Luna, and the sludgy and plodding doom metal of Crowbar and Neurosis. This may seem strange to the uninitiated, but it makes sense given what kind of story the band creates off of the source material.
The story told in the Warren of the Snares trilogy is a deeply dark and cynical allegory that examines the tyranny of organized religion, the rise and fall of empires, and humanity’s seeming inability and/or unwillingness to learn from its mistakes. Efrafa, as represented here, seems to represent humanity, taught from birth to see themselves as superior to their animal brethren because God supposedly gave them a soul. Meanwhile, the titular Owsla are kept as the elite warriors of the rabbit hierarchy, with much emphasis placed on how they are often portrayed in the book as pushy and abusive to their underlings, far more concerned with showing off their power rather than dealing with the threat of the Efrafa.
Interestingly enough, Owsla is actually the story’s finale, documenting nature’s last stand against the Efrafa. We see the animal populace begin to question their leadership in the opening tracks, “Pity the Weak” and “A Soul to Bear,” noticing that humanity is inching closer and closer to wiping them out entirely. They are the fastest and most intense tracks in the band’s discography, being the most punk-influenced, although the cello playing on the tracks helps keep subtle hints of post-rock present. After the short instrumental “Lament,” the band launches into the much slower but still punchy “Last But Not Least” and “The Fall of Efrafa,” running a total of ten and fifteen minutes, respectively (although ambient rain sound effects take up the last five minutes of the latter).
These two tracks follow the Owsla populace as they take a final stand against the Efrafa, charging into a hopeless battle to halt the advance of humanity’s mechanized capitalist empire that is inevitably doomed to failure. The animals are left as nothing but bloodstains on the ground and ragged clumps of fur hanging from the hedgerows. The warren is empty.
The Warren of the Snares Pt. 2: Elil
Whereas Owsla dealt with themes of extinction and apocalypse and explored the punk side of the band’s sound, Elil, released in September of 2007, explores the band’s post-metal influence and consists of three tracks that all run over twenty minutes in length. As one familiar with the Lapine language might expect, this album deals with the theme of predators, especially in the form of institutions and religious beliefs that tell us to keep our eyes on some faraway paradise while said institutions pollute and rape all our earthly paradises.
True to the style of post-metal, the three songs (“Beyond the Veil,” “Dominion Theology,” and “For El-ahrairah to Cry”) are slow-burning arrangements that rely heavily on crescendo and atmosphere to evoke despair and hopelessness instead of the brutal crust punk pummeling of the previous album. There are several faster and more punk-oriented passages in all three songs, but they are still slower and darker than anything that Owsla had to offer.
The elil of the title are El-ahrairah, Frith, and the Black Rabbit of Inle, portrayed here as capricious and uncaring masters unwilling to help their subjects in their hour of need, instead demanding the animals take part in outdated and archaic rituals that have no bearing on their present situation. Thus, the populace rebels against the three-headed godlike elil and slays them down as punishment for their dereliction of duty.
These atheist morals are further accentuated by the latter two tracks, which feature recordings of speeches by the notorious atheist philosopher Richard Dawkins. “Dominion Theology” features the speech that begins with “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.” “For El-ahrairah to Cry” features Dawkins trying to make the case that numerous coincidences lining up at once to bring us into existence is far more meaningful than us being willed into existence by some outside intelligence.
The cello player left between Owsla and Elil, as he was frustrated that the band couldn’t figure out how to balance their sound in a live setting so he wouldn’t be drowned out. Alex stated in an interview that this helped the band become better musicians, as they couldn’t rely on the cello player to carry their sound anymore. And it definitely shows, as the band is in fine form here.
The Warren of the Snares Pt. 3: Inle
The third and final album in the Warren of the Snares trilogy was released in October of 2009. Perhaps fittingly, considering the theme of death on this album, the music here explores Fall of Efrafa’s doom metal side, with occasional flashes of the shoegaze-influenced black metal of bands like Alcest and Agalloch. The music is slow and gloomy while still containing classic punk energy, with songs ranging from ten to seventeen minutes. This album is the beginning of the saga, taking place right before the society of the Owsla self-destructs. The leader of the theocratic dictatorship, represented by General Woundwort, is murdered in a populist uprising, leaving the populace free to face humanity’s threat. Of course, as Owsla demonstrates, their battle against humanity is ultimately doomed to failure.
The music here is probably the most varied out of any Fall of Efrafa album. We start with “Simulacrum,” a lightly instrumented piece that features a morbid poem about the Black Rabbit of Inle that Silverweed could easily have easily composed. We then transition into the heaving “Fu Inle,” told from the point of view of the Black Rabbit himself as he takes a rabbit (Hazel?) to join his Owsla.
After that comes what is probably my favorite Fall of Efrafa song, “Republic of Heaven.” The powder keg lying under the proletariat of the Owsla society finally detonates as they decide to end the torment that Woundwort keeps inflicting on them. The driving arpeggiated guitar riff is what really makes this song for me (some editions of this album include another track after this one called “The Burial,” originally released as a single about six weeks after Inle).
“Woundwort” tells the story of how the leader of this theocracy finally falls and features Alex’s vocals at their most strained and desperate, especially in the chorus (“Where we lay! We will build! Though we may falter! We will build!”). After a short instrumental interlude called “The Sky Suspended” (named after the chapter in the book where Woundwort is defeated), the trilogy concludes with the seventeen-minute epic “The Warren of Snares,” with the newly-liberated populace reflecting on the battle ahead, both with the remnants of the theocracy trying to salvage their empire and with the much greater threat of the Efrafa, which they know they are not likely to survive.
In addition to being told in reverse order, the story is also cyclical, especially demonstrated by the cello playing at the end of the album echoing the cello in the intro to Owsla. This really helps drive home the trilogy’s themes of how humanity keeps building oppressive empires (Rome, Britain, the United States) and never learning from their past mistakes.
Where Are They Now?
In an interview with the Aristocrazia webzine in May of 2020, Alex revealed that he had ideas for a fourth album, tentatively titled Zorn (Lapine for “destroyed”), telling how the system dies and is then reborn in a sort of Satanic ouroboros situation. By this time, the rest of the band had had enough, however, and, after their final concert in Brighton on December 5, 2009, formally disbanded.
As far as I’m aware, Michael and George haven’t done much of note in the music industry since. Neil Kingsbury and Steve McCusker formed a stoner/sludge band called Blackstorm that lasted from 2007 to 2014, and Kingsbury has performed guest work with several other stoner bands, perhaps most notably Orange Goblin since 2013 as a live guitarist. He also recorded a demo for a project called Charybdis in 2015, in which he played all instruments.
Alex CF has been the busiest out of all of them, having founded several other concept bands in the decade-plus since Fall of Efrafa. He started immediately after with Light Bearer (musically similar to Fall of Efrafa except with more influence from prog rock and ambient music), inspired by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series of books. Other bands he was involved in include Momentum and Carnist. Encyclopedia Metallum currently lists him as fronting four bands: Pnakotus, Anopheli, Morrow, and Archivist. I’ll admit that I haven’t listened to material from any of these bands (except Light Bearer, but that was a while ago). However, I do find the concepts behind Morrow and Archivist fascinating. The former follows a tribe of humans trying to make their way in a post-apocalyptic world. The latter follows the sole survivor of an ecological disaster on Earth as she ponders what led to humanity’s extinction alongside the artificial intelligence named Construct that controls the spaceship she is traveling on.
In addition to these musical projects, Alex has not only continued his graphic arts career (perhaps most notably with the fictional museum based on fictional cryptozoologist Thomas Merrylin), but he also took the unused concepts from Zorn and repurposed them into his own work of xenobiological mythology, featured in the books The Orata and Seek the Throat from Which We Sing, with another titled Wretched is the Husk on the way.
This band likely influenced my development in my later teenage years almost as much as the novel that inspired them. While I was a pretty firm metalhead at the time, I tended to avoid more extreme subgenres like black metal, death metal, and anything to do with hardcore punk. It all just grated on my ears, and I didn’t have much of a desire to see the messages hidden under all that sonic grime and muck.
Fall of Efrafa definitely changed that for me. Knowing that my favorite novel inspired them helped me to know what I was getting myself into when I first looked up the band on YouTube. And it turned out to be an enriching experience. I remember being annoyed at the Richard Dawkins speeches sampled in the Elil tracks, as I was much more devoutly Christian back then. Nowadays, having grown more aware of the abusive nature of organized religion (as well as hierarchical power structures in general), I find myself much more sympathetic to the general ideas behind them… even if I still think that Richard Dawkins is a pretentious jerk.
As for the band being a gateway to more extreme and experimental forms of music, I ended up checking out a lot of the bands that Fall of Efrafa cited as influences on their sound, like Neurosis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Agalloch. Agalloch especially has become one of my favorite music artists in any genre.
Thanks to Fall of Efrafa, I was also able to stop worrying and form healthy respect for black metal artists like Immortal, Enslaved, and Deathspell Omega; death metal groups like Bolt Thrower, Death, and Arch Enemy; and hardcore punk outfits like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and Discharge. Although I still tend to prefer power metal over any of these subgenres.
Speaking of which…
Epilogue: Rabbit’s Hill Pt. 1 & 2 by Trick or Treat
Before I end this article, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another rock n’ roll concept album experience inspired by Watership Down. This two-part series comes to us from the city of Modena in northern Italy’s Po Valley, courtesy of power metallers Trick or Treat. Parts One and Two were released in November of 2012 by Valery Records and July of 2016 by Frontiers Records, respectively. Rather than the political allegory approach that Fall of Efrafa took with the source material, Trick or Treat’s adaptation is a simple, straightforward retelling of the book. Part One follows the story from Fiver’s vision of doom at Sandleford to Hazel’s near-death experience at Nuthanger Farm. Part Two tells the rest of the story from that point, centering on the conflict with Efrafa and ending with Hazel surrendering himself to the Black Rabbit of Inle.
Is it any good, though? As someone who is already a power metal convert, I think it’s pretty damn good. The genre is rather prone to being very cheesy, though, and these records are no exception. Indeed, the cheese factor here is pretty high, not the least because of lead singer Alessandro Conti’s performance and songwriting. The guy’s Italian accent is very thick, and it’s clear from reading the lyrics that his grasp of English isn’t all that good, at least at this point in the band’s career. It gets especially hilarious when American vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens, singing as Woundwort on the Part 2 track “They Must Die,” sings the line “They have defeat me, now they must pay” exactly the way Conti wrote it. I don’t know about you guys, but that makes me sic.
If you can look past all that, though, the music here is pretty solid. The instrumentalists are excellent (what else would you expect from a metal band?), the solos on the title track from the first album being a special highlight. Aside from Owens (best known for his stints in Judas Priest, Iced Earth, and Yngwie Malmsteen’s band), the albums have several other notable guest stars from the power metal world, including the late, great Andre Matos (Angra, Viper, Shaman), Davide “Damnagoras” Moras of Elvenking, Sara Squadrani of Ancient Bards, and Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica.
I might especially recommend this band to the nerdier side of the metal fandom, as the band seems to have an affinity for anime and cartoons. Not only did they release a metal cover of the Disney anthem “Let It Go” as a single in December of 2014, but they also released an album called Re-Animated in 2018, consisting entirely of covers of anime and cartoon theme songs. In addition, their most recent album, The Legend of the XII Saints, was inspired by the anime Saint Seiya, which I have not seen but heard good things about (I think it’s on Netflix).
And that’s all I have to say about the world of rock operas and concept albums inspired by Watership Down. Join me next time when I complete this retrospective with a look at the 2018 Netflix miniseries. Until next time, beautiful watchers!
The 1999 TV series, which ran from September 28, 1999, to December 4, 2001, on YTV in Canada and CITV in the UK, occupies an interesting and controversial place within the Watership Down fandom. It was created as a co-production between Martin Rosen’s Nepenthe Productions company, another British company called Alltime Entertainment, and a Canadian company called Decode Entertainment (now known as DHX Media Toronto). Mary Crawford and Alan Templeton would head the writing team.
The explicit aim of the show’s creators was to create a version of the Watership Down story that was more family-friendly, avoiding the baggage that the film carried with it. As such, the creators toned down much of the violence and changed several of the characters. Perhaps the most infamous of these changes was turning Blackberry into a doe, as well as turning Pipkin into a child instead of a timid runt rabbit. Some characters were removed entirely (most notably Silver), while others were replaced with original characters. Hyzenthlay, for instance, was replaced by a character named Primrose, presumably because they thought kids would have too hard a time pronouncing her original name. For similar reasons, El-ahrairah was shortened to El-ahrah (which, amusingly enough, changes his name to “enemy prince” in Lapine).
One might expect the series to be kiddie nonsense with all of those changes, right? And yet, several Watership Down fans argue that this series is even better than the film adaptation. I remember agreeing with them back when I first watched all 39 episodes on YouTube the first time. Rewatching it for this retrospective, on the other hand… it’s definitely not terrible, and the writers were still clearly trying to stay true to the mature storytelling of the novel as best they could, even with the younger audience in mind. However, it was also clear that the series still has some significant problems holding it back. Perhaps the best way to explain how would be to examine all three seasons individually to show how the series evolved.
The first episode, “The Promised Land,” launches somewhat abruptly in the middle of the action with the rabbits already on their journey, with Sandleford Warren nowhere in sight. Indeed, Sandleford Warren is practically a ghost during the entire series, mentioned several times before and after its destruction but never seen in person. This is somewhat understandable given that Sandleford’s fate would probably be the hardest sequence to make family-friendly given the wholesale mass slaughter. Still, it does make the series start off rather awkwardly.
We are then introduced to our rag-tag band of hlessil for this adaptation, consisting of seven rabbits: Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Blackberry, Pipkin, Dandelion, and Hawkbit (making his adaptation debut).
One may notice the changes that several of the characters have gone through right away. The central trio of Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig are still relatively unchanged (although Fiver seems less melancholic and more at peace with himself). As noted above, though, Pipkin was aged down to become more of a kid-appeal character while Blackberry was gender-flipped, presumably to add more diversity to the cast. Dandelion has become much more of a comical figure (possibly having been combined with Bluebell, also absent for this adaptation), while Hawkbit has an entirely new personality. While described as “a rather slow and stupid rabbit” in the book, here he is a grouchy pessimist who rarely lets a situation pass without a sarcastic remark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he seems to be a fan favorite among people who actually like the series.
Another thing one might notice is that the animation is a lot more vibrant and colorful than the film adaptation. It’s also definitely TV quality, meaning that it’s often limited and sometimes goes off-model. Still, it does get the job done, at least.
There’s also the voice cast for this adaptation, which dispenses with the wary and urgent tone taken by the actors in the film adaptation and uses a more standard delivery. Some voice actors are better than others at capturing the spirit of their characters. Ian Shaw and Andrew Falvey were well cast as Hazel and Fiver, respectively, and Lee Ross’s nasally sharp voice lends itself exceptionally well to Hawkbit’s biting sarcasm. Steve Mangan’s performance as Bigwig seems a little off at first, given how he seems to follow a more exaggerated drill instructor-type performance, but his interpretation still grows on you. Phil Jupitus as Dandelion, on the other hand, tends to get on a lot of fans’ nerves thanks to how high-pitched and screechy his voice is. While I don’t dislike his performance as much as others, I still never really got used to it since it seemed way too cartoonish and exaggerated even for this show.
Another criticism I have of this episode is that it ends with the rabbits reaching Watership Down by the end, which I feel cheapens the drama around the actual journey, especially since Cowslip’s warren is completely bypassed. Granted, it does show up two episodes later, but I still think placing it after the arrival on the Down was a mistake.
I do kind of like the idea of Kehaar meeting the rabbits before they arrive at the Down, and it certainly works with the more friendly and less acerbic personality that the gull gets in this adaptation. A part of me wonders if keeping his more brash and aggressive side would have made much better use of Rik Mayall’s comedic talents, but his voice work for the character still gets a few laughs. His early arrival also helps establish the new talent that Pipkin was given in this adaptation, making friends with practically any animal species that isn’t elil.
Kehaar is also joined by a new character named Hannah, a spunky field mouse voiced by Jane Horrocks. There’s not a lot to say about her. She gets in fights with Bigwig. She befriends other animals alongside Pipkin. She takes advantage of her small size to help the rabbits spy on Efrafa later on. I’ll have a bit more say when we get to what the writers did with her in season three, but that’s a ways off.
As for Doe! Blackberry, I tend to believe that she gets a lot more hate than she deserves. Many fans argue that making her a doe undermines the whole reason why the rabbits had to infiltrate Efrafa in the first place. Since the warren now has a doe, they’re all set, right? Not really. Do you really expect one doe to be able to populate an entire warren? Plus, just one doe would mean that the bucks would constantly be at each other’s throats trying to win the right to mate with her. Indeed, in the book, even after Hazel nearly kills himself getting the two hutch does from Nuthanger Farm back to the Down, he’s still worried about the bucks getting in fights and decides to raid Efrafa anyway.
That being said, though, it quickly becomes apparent that once Blackberry finishes designing the new warren and discovers the boat that helps the Watershippers outrun Woundwort, the writers had no idea what to do with her. She never joins the other rabbits on their various misadventures and pretty much fades into the background until Woundwort’s attack on the warren at the end of Season Two. But, again, more on that later.
Speaking of Woundwort, though, let’s talk about how Efrafa is portrayed in the series. Hazel’s voice actor from the film, John Hurt, returns to voice Woundwort.
Many of the characters introduced in Efrafa are vibrant and interesting, especially this series’ version of Vervain, Woundwort’s chief enforcer. Here he is portrayed as a cowardly sleazebag with a strong vendetta against Captain Campion, Woundwort’s chief Owsla officer. Woundwort himself is appropriately savage and intimidating, even with more kid-friendly restraints placed on him.
However, his motivations become somewhat muddled when it comes to the reasons he wants Watership Down destroyed. In the book, it was because he was angry at Bigwig for betraying his trust and “kidnapping” some of his subjects. Here, Hazel and Fiver introduce themselves to Woundwort before Bigwig and, aware of Efrafa’s vicious and bloodthirsty reputation, ask Woundwort which he prefers: War or peace? Life or death? He tells Hazel and Fiver to reveal the location of their warren or be executed, and the two are only saved when Fiver has a vision of Woundwort’s past that enrages but also intrigues the General. We don’t get any sense that Woundwort is doing this because he thinks he’s protecting rabbits from men and elil. Here he seems to be doing it simply because he’s a power-hungry bully.
In any case, the central conflict for the next two seasons is the rabbits trying to keep Woundwort from finding Watership Down. They accomplish this way too easily, considering that the distances between the warrens have obviously been shrunk down from what they were in the book. The rabbits even find a cave system under the Down at one point that they use as a secret passage to and from Efrafa, meaning that the rival warren is literally just down the hill from them!
Another change related to Efrafa that definitely wasn’t for the better was what the writers did with Hyzenthlay, or Primrose, as the writers renamed her. Hyzenthlay is a clever and cunning rabbit who proves her leadership capabilities by helping Bigwig orchestrate the breakout from Efrafa, has visions similar to Fiver’s, and is later promoted to co-chief rabbit alongside Hazel. On the other hand, Primrose often comes across as selfish and manipulative, especially when she drags Hazel on an adventure to her old warren, Redstone, in episode nine, even after Fiver has a vision that the warren is empty. They find it to be true, except for the aging former Owsla Captain Broom. While it is nice to hear Richard Briers (Fiver’s voice actor from the film) again, I’ll admit that the character doesn’t really do much, even when he’s given more screentime in season three.
Also, one more thing about Efrafa that really bugs me in the show: Whenever the series comes back to Efrafa, there are these animalistic noises that sound nothing like its rabbit inhabitants echoing through the runs. Where are these sounds coming from? Is there a portal to the Amazon rainforest hidden somewhere? Did Woundwort make a deal with Bunny Satan, and the sounds are the devil’s minions watching over him to make sure he keeps up his end of the bargain? Seriously, what the hell are they?! I know it’s the sound designers trying way too hard to show us how eeeeeevil Efrafa is, but I feel like there were far more subtle ways to accomplish it.
If there is one thing that the writers of the series improved on compared to the film, though, it would be Cowslip’s warren. This version of the story has Captain Holly leading Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver back to the warren to retrieve his friend Pimpernel. Once there, the group slowly starts getting seduced by the “easy life” offered by the rabbits’ seemingly symbiotic relationship with the local farmer… until Bigwig nearly dies in a snare, and the rabbits quickly put two and two together.
With the show dedicating a whole 20+ minute episode to the Warren of the Snares, as opposed to the five minutes the film gave us, we get to see the true existential horror of Cowslip’s warren, which still carries its potency even if they aren’t allowed to show blood during Bigwig’s strangulation. Indeed, the only time blood shows up at all in the series is when Hazel gets shot during the hutch rabbit breakout in episode six, whereas all the rabbit fights only leave red scratches that don’t bleed.
Also helping the creepy atmosphere is how Cowslip, voiced by Stephen Fry in this version, is portrayed. Toward the end of the episode, after the Watership rabbits confront Cowslip, Cowslip reveals how insane living under the shadow of the shining wires has turned him. “They won’t get me! They might get others, but never me!” he cries after Hazel tells him he doesn’t need to surrender to the wires and backs slowly into a burrow, laughing like a hyena. The Watershippers book it out of there, along with Strawberry, tired of living under the shadow of the wires.
In all, the series so far is a relatively faithful adaptation of the book, even if the writers somewhat butchered the original tone to appeal to a more general audience. The characters are enjoyable, the voice cast is good, and the story is fairly consistent, even if the main villain’s motivations are somewhat muddled. I’ll give season one a 7/10.
In the first episode, season Two starts well enough with Pipkin becoming a prisoner in Efrafa, with Woundwort using him as a bargaining chip to get Hazel and company to surrender. However, things become complicated when Woundwort starts bonding with Pipkin over their shared backstory of losing their parents to a weasel, even coming to view Pipkin as something of a son to him.
One would think something like this would develop into a significant plot thread given how much of a disruption it would be to the two warrens’ dynamic. But this is not to be, since their relationship is practically forgotten about after Pipkin stops Bigwig from killing Woundwort at the end of the episode. Indeed, the only time it comes up again is in the series finale twenty-five episodes later, when Pipkin explains to Hazel and Primrose’s kittens why he thinks Woundwort is so driven to sow chaos and destruction wherever he goes.
Indeed, Season Two is often considered the worst season by most fans of the series, mostly because over half of the episodes can be regarded as filler episodes. Indeed, out of the thirteen episodes broadcast this season, eight (!) have little to nothing to do with the central conflict with Efrafa.
Some of these filler episodes are better than others. “The Orchard,” for instance, has Fiver befriending a lonely badger named Bark living in an apple orchard near Nuthanger Farm and even has a cute running gag where she keeps offering Fiver apples even long after he’s grown sick of them. The two-part Christmas special is also an enjoyable adventure, even if the idea of the rabbits having a solstice holiday (hell, the thought of them having holidays at all) seems rather far-fetched. The writers could have easily had them go on this adventure without a Christmastime-type feast hanging over their heads.
More often than not, though, the plots for these filler episodes seem rather inane and contrived. There’s an episode where the rabbits travel with Kehaar to the “peeg vater” on what looks like the Cliffs of Dover, which should be impossible since the Cliffs are over 100 miles away from the Hampshire Downs. In another episode, a pair of con-artist rabbits arrive at Watership Down claiming to be messengers of Prince Rainbow, who manage to convince Pipkin he can fly, leading to predictable shenanigans. Another one manages to include the “leading a dog onto Watership Down” plot point from the novel. Instead of leading it onto Woundwort, however, it’s to chase away an escaped flock of sheep that are ruining the ecosystem on the Down.
All of this filler tends to make the actual plot feel far more dragged out than it should. One major flaw of the episode with Bark the badger is that it is plopped between two episodes where Captain Campion is being held prisoner in Efrafa under suspicion that he is spying for the Watershippers (he has been since the Season One finale, but the Efrafans don’t know that yet). That problem is resolved in the next episode where the Watership rabbits stage an elaborate plan inspired by “The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah” to make Vervain look insane so that Woundwort will let Campion off the hook. After that conflict is resolved, the series goes through five more filler episodes before the Efrafans finally find the cave system under the Down and attack in the second season finale.
However, there are several positives to this season that save from being a total loss. There’s an interesting subplot where two rabbits from Cowslip’s warren named Hickory and Marigold seek the Watership rabbits’ help in establishing a warren of their own. They settle in at the former Redstone warren but are almost taken by Efrafa when Cowslip and Woundwort briefly join forces. Captain Broom manages to scare the Efrafans away by convincing them that the “great sickness” that decimated his warren years ago is still active. This eventually leads to Campion’s arrest when Woundwort, enraged that Cowslip apparently lied to him, leads the Efrafans to attack the Warren of the Shining Wires, only for Campion to warn him of said wires. It’s a fairly well-executed subplot, even if hearing Hickory and Marigold speaking with American accents is somewhat jarring (Hickory is even voiced by Keifer Sutherland of all people).
The season finale is definitely the best episode of this season. Woundwort finally leads his army up the caves to attack the Watershippers, only to give up the attack after Campion seemingly sacrifices himself to save Woundwort from a falling boulder. It’s got the drama and stakes that any Watership Down adaptation worth its salt should have, even if, again, blood is absent for the benefit of the younger audience.
Overall, this season has some good ideas that expand nicely on the source material. But on the other, it has several filler episodes filled with inane and contrived ideas that definitely stretch the bounds of credulity. And I’m giving this season a 6/10 (it’s closer to a 5 than a 7).
Season Three has somewhat divided fans of the TV series due to the completely different direction that both the art style and writing took. A lot of fans tend to agree that the third season is undoubtedly the best thanks not only to the story being far more consistent and straightforward than the previous two seasons (with little to no filler to be seen) but also because the series took a much darker and more dramatic turn that brought it much closer to the original tone of the book (though still no blood, because kid show). On the other hand, others tend to dislike the characters’ redesigns, the fact that none of the celebrity voice actors returned (aside from Richard Briers), as well as some admittedly far-fetched story elements revolving around magic. While I mostly fall into the former camp, I still have plenty of problems with this season that keep me from ranking it any higher than “good.”
Perhaps we should start with the most obvious change one observes when watching the first episode of the season: the art style change.
The character designs became more angular, and the animation became much cleaner, although some animation slip-ups still occur from time to time, like this one from S3E11.
Another thing one might notice right away is the change in voice actors. As mentioned before, Richard Briers is still there voicing Captain Broom, although his voice sounds oddly deeper than in the previous seasons. But, sadly, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, Jane Horrocks, and many others are gone, likely victims of budget cuts. Not that any of their replacements are bad (Woundwort’s new voice actor manages to make his own menacing spin on the character, even if his line delivery feels off at points), but their respective talents are definitely a big loss.
Let’s talk about the story. Efrafa finally falls in the first episode after Hazel gathers an army consisting of rabbits and several other animals that the Watershippers have befriended since coming to the Down, including Bark, the badger. Woundwort is presumed dead but comes back, eventually bringing his former toady Vervain back under his command. He briefly manages to take over Redstone Warren but is forced to leave when a human road crew plows it over to make room for a new highway (Hickory, Marigold, and co. manage to make it out just fine). Woundwort makes a bargain with Cowslip to attain the services of his seer, Silverweed, and he takes his followers to his former home, a warren called Darkhaven, where a group of warlike rabbits lives in a junkyard awaiting the arrival of the “Dark One.”
Much to his surprise, though, he finds his former captain of Owsla, Campion, waiting for him there. Campion has been secretly nursing himself back to health in the wilderness surrounding Watership Down, with only Pipkin knowing he’s there. Woundwort welcomes him back, much to Vervain’s chagrin. But little does he know that the Black Rabbit himself has tasked Campion with stopping Woundwort’s threat to the world of the living. He manages to liberate Silverweed from Darkhaven’s clutches and deliver him to the Watershippers, although he and Blackberry manage to escape suspicion for their role in this.
Oh yeah, speaking of Blackberry: By this time, the Watershippers have learned Pipkin’s secret, and Blackberry, who very suddenly fell in love with Campion during Woundwort’s invasion at the end of season two, is determined to bring him back to Watership Down. She ends up becoming a prisoner of war in Darkhaven instead, with a warrior doe named Spartina, chosen by Woundwort to spy on the Watershippers, using her as a chess piece to keep Campion in line. She threatens to have her companion Granite kill Blackberry if she doesn’t return by the next full moon.
But this plan is complicated by two factors. First, Blackberry ends up saving Granite’s life when he’s badly wounded by a falling rock, even though this is against Darkhaven law, and she nearly gets herself executed over it. He resolves to help her and Campion escape, but Woundwort catches them in the act and threatens to execute Blackberry himself if Campion doesn’t lead him to Watership Down. Second, Spartina ends up enraptured by Watership Down and even falls in love with Bigwig. Unfortunately, she is also marked for execution after Vervain catches her trying to break Campion and Blackberry out. And so Woundwort finally comes to Watership Down to wipe Hazel’s warren from existence forever.
But before we discuss how the series resolves this storyline, let’s examine where it succeeds and fails.
One element that I liked was that Pipkin finally showed signs of aging. The fact that he remained a kitten for two seasons that spanned across a year really doesn’t make sense when you consider that European rabbits usually reach sexual maturity at only three months. True, he’s technically still a kitten here, but he’s definitely more adolescent here than in previous seasons.
There’s also been a clear development in Vervain’s character here, as he’s grown slightly more of a backbone. For example, when Woundwort tries to attack a poacher that is menacing Redstone Warren and gets himself and Vervain captured, Vervain lets loose on Woundwort, berating him for likely getting them killed with his mindless pursuit of his “destiny.” Sadly, Woundwort’s delusions of grandeur are only reinforced when a police officer arrests the poacher and releases them. Vervain also shows visible disgust at the joy Woundwort and Cowslip take at watching Redstone fall to man’s bulldozers, not lifting a finger to help fellow rabbits in distress.
Darkhaven is a fascinating plot point, especially due to the hints we get to their past as escapees from “man’s hutches.” A part of me wonders if the Darkhaven rabbits’ backstory is like that of the rats in Don Bluth’s The Secret of Nimh, where they gained their large size, musculature, and aggressive temper from experiments that human scientists did on them. They work well as new enemies for the Watership rabbits, allowing the writers not to overextend the Efrafa subplot any more than they already had.
There are a few issues I have with several characters in this season. One example is Spartina, the Darkhaven rabbit with the most characterization. After Blackberry is taken as a hostage, Spartina gets her enrolled in a sort of class with the Speaker of the Past (a quasi-shamanistic character who teaches about the history of Darkhaven), so she doesn’t have to participate in the warren’s frequent fighting matches. When Blackberry asks Spartina why she’s helping her, the Darkhaven doe replies, “Because no one helped me when I came here.” You would think the writers would use this as a jumping-off point to discuss her backstory eventually, but nope! We never learn anything more about her past, even after she switches sides and joins Hazel and co. Speaking of which, her conversion is so sudden it almost induces whiplash. She spends most of episode 36 firmly supportive of Woundwort, gets enraptured by Watership Down’s beauty at the end, and then is entirely on the good guys’ side by the next episode. It’s enough to make you wonder if you missed an episode.
The romance between Campion and Blackberry also tends to be a sticking point for series fans, mainly because it came right the hell out of nowhere in the season two finale. Blackberry and Campion suddenly experience love at first sight when Campion warns Hazel that Vervain has found the cave system. When Campion seemingly dies under a large boulder, she mourns his death as if she’s known him for years, as does Campion whenever he’s around Pipkin. Sure, some of their moments together in the third season are kind of cute, but the way the writers set the whole situation up in the first place kind of makes it feel hollow, as if they were trying way too hard to find something for Blackberry to do since she did so little in the previous two seasons.
But both of those elements pale in comparison to the controversial way the writers decided to end the series, and to talk about that, we need to talk about season three’s magic subplot. One thing I didn’t mention in that plot summary up above is that Hannah the mouse, feeling useless because she has no way to help Hazel and the others, learns about hedge wizards from Yona, the local hedgehog, and ends up receiving magical powers from an ancient turtle that lives on an island in the middle of a lake. However, she ends up having it taken away from her by Silverweed at the end, so she doesn’t have to suffer the horrible fate he has foreseen for those who use the magic…
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, this is supposed to be about a bunch of normal-ass rabbits trying to make a living in the English countryside, right?” Well, yes, but remember, this is a kid’s show, and the only other way to resolve the final battle with Woundwort and his army would be a bloody brawl like in the book, and we can’t have that, no sir! So what better way than to have one of the rabbits do a ritual chant to summon the Black Rabbit of Inle to suck Woundwort and his soldiers through a portal to the spirit world, where that can’t harm a living soul ever again.
Granted, this wasn’t the only supernatural element that appeared in the series. There was also a subplot where Woundwort was using Silverweed to spy on Watership Down by having him exploit a psychic trick where he can see through someone Fiver’s eyes. Fiver later turns this trick back on him to help Blackberry and Campion break him out of Darkhaven. This seems a bit far-fetched compared to the book, but psychic abilities exist in both works, so I was willing to forgive it. However, the subplot with Hannah’s magic was a bridge too far from the source material’s realistic approach. It just felt like the writers trying too hard to distance themselves from any elements of the book they thought might make kids uncomfortable.
The way the ending of the last episode immediately following the Black Rabbit’s departure plays out also leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The episode goes on for literally only a minute afterward, with the other rabbits learning that Silverweed was rapidly aged by the magic he took from Hannah. He tells the other rabbits that he’s happy because Watership Down is finally safe, they return to their burrows without saying anything, and the whole series ends right there! As the Angry Video Game Nerd would say, “What a shitload of fuck!”
Also, the fortifications the rabbits make around Watership Down before Woundwort’s arrival feel way too sophisticated.
When I first watched the series back in my high school years, I thought it was a masterpiece of TV animation. Having seen shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Gravity Falls, and Fullmetal Alchemist since then, however… yeah, this series doesn’t hold a candle to those shows at all. The story often feels like it’s working against the source material, the violence that was so essential to its lasting impact has been excised, and the animation isn’t anything to write home about.
The Watership Down purists will definitely look down upon the show for these reasons, but it still has plenty to offer for less demanding fans. The characters are still likable, the stakes still feel real, the writers were clearly trying to avoid talking down to their audience, and the voice cast was excellent.
Also, the soundtrack made for the series by Mike Batt, the original writer of “Bright Eyes,” is absolutely gorgeous. The orchestral suite sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in a Lord of the Rings adaptation, with soaring tracks like “The Beginning Overture,” “On Watership Down,” and “Fantasia on a Flying Theme,” tense and harrowing tracks like “Military Theme and Development” and “Chase Adventure,” and the Christmas cheer of “Winter on Watership Down.” Be forewarned, though; some of these tracks tend to be overplayed in the series itself, most notably “Chase Adventure.”
There are also several new songs that Batt composed for the series. Batt himself performs “The View from a Hill,” Paul Carrack of Mike and the Mechanics fame performs “Winter Song,” and Cerys Matthews of the Welsh alternative band Catatonia performs “Thank You, Stars.” “Bright Eyes” also makes an appearance, this time performed by the late Stephen Gately of the Irish boyband Boyzone. All of these tracks are great folksy pop pieces worthy of the Watership Down legacy. However, I didn’t really find Gately’s version of “Bright Eyes” as emotionally impactful as Art Garfunkel’s version.
It’s not perfect, but if you’re willing to give the TV show a chance, you might find it was all worthwhile in the end. The show gets a 7/10; quite a bit of wasted potential, but it had a lot of heart and soul put into it.
The film adaptation was the brainchild of two producers hailing from California and Quebec, respectively, Martin Rosen and Jake Eberts. Rosen had previous experience in film producing an obscure Canadian feature called A Great Big Thing in 1968, as well as the more well-known Women in Love the following year, directed by Ken Russell (best known for The Devils, Altered States, and the 1975 adaptation of The Who’s Tommy). Eberts, a merchant banker at the time, was completely new to the film industry and was only there to help Rosen purchase the film rights from Richard Adams, which went for 50,000 pounds.
If TV Tropes is to be believed, Rosen and Eberts considered adapting the novel into a ballet and an opera before settling on producing an animated feature film. They chose legendary animator John Hubley as director, who quickly left the project after disagreements with Rosen. Any hopes of getting him back were dashed when he died while undergoing heart surgery in February of 1977, and Rosen decided…
Some of Hubley’s work did make it into the final film, most notably the introduction, which tells the rabbits’ creation myth, narrated by Michael Hordern, in a pseudo-aboriginal art style.
Rosen’s direction went for a more detailed and life-like portrait of the story in the film proper, meticulously studying the maps Adams provided of the countryside in the original book to recreate them faithfully in the watercolor backgrounds, especially around Efrafa. Some artistic license was taken in regards to Watership Down’s actual appearance (basing its look more on nearby Beacon Hill, which Rosen apparently found more photogenic) as well as for streamlining the story, especially in regards to Captain Holly’s journey to the Down (more on that later). The naturalistic tone of the art style also reflected in the rabbits’ appearance, making them look as much like real-life rabbits as possible, albeit giving them human-like paw gestures and facial expressions to make them more relatable to the audience.
The film was produced in a studio founded in London by Rosen over a period of three years for a budget of $2.4 million. The film would be released to theaters on October 19, 1978, distributed by Rosen’s own production company, Nepenthe Productions, as well as the Cinema International Corporation. It would be rated U (equivalent to G in the U.S.) by the British Board of Film Classification, which would quickly prove controversial since Rosen did not hold back on the more violent scenes, especially the flashback to Sandleford’s destruction, the scene of an Efrafan rabbit named Blackavar getting his ears shredded for trying to leave Efrafa, Blackavar later getting his throat torn out by General Woundwort, Bigwig’s very bloody showdown with the General shortly after, and the Efrafan rabbits getting mauled to death by the Nuthanger farm dog shortly after that, leading to this lovely image of Woundwort charging at the dog.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Motion Picture Association of America chose to rate the film PG, although it almost certainly would have earned a PG-13 had they come up with that rating yet. The film’s violent nature has also earned it a memetic status on the Internet from clueless viewers expecting a cute Disneyesque tale of talking rabbits, often provoking responses of “I just wanted a movie about bunnies!”
Notwithstanding all the quibbles about child-unfriendly content, the film was both a critical and financial success. According to Eberts, some investors received a return of as much as 5,000 % on their investments. The film scores an 82% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 64% rating on Metacritic.
Is It Any Good, Though?
It most certainly is!
Perhaps the best aspect of this film is how well-chosen the voice cast is. They managed to perfectly capture a perpetually wary tone well befitting a cast of small herbivorous prey animals while at the same time playing to each of their characters’ strengths. Possibly the biggest name to appear in the film is John Hurt, his distinctively smooth and reedy baritone voice lending itself well to Hazel’s understated charisma as the band’s leader. Richard Briers lends a suitably high-strung performance as the waif prophet Fiver, and Michael Graham Cox’s gruff voice plays nicely into Bigwig’s no-nonsense tough-guy persona.
Other standout performances include Roy Kinnear (who plays well into Pipkin’s shy and timid nature), Denholm Elliot (as the shifty and secretive Cowslip), Harry Andrews (who probably captures General Woundwort’s savage bloodlust a little too well), and especially Zero Mostel, who’s hammy and bombastic performance of Kehaar lends the story some much needed comic relief. It also would sadly be his last film performance, as he died about a year before the film came out.
The animation style is perfect for the type of story it wants to tell. It’s a bit rough around the edges (not surprising, since a lot of beginners were working on it), but that’s only appropriate since this film isn’t telling a slick, escapist tale like a Disney Animated Canon film. The specter of the Black Rabbit of Inle is never far from the rabbit’s minds, and Rosen’s retelling never loses sight of the inherent bittersweet melancholy of the rabbit’s existence.
The music in this film is excellent. Mostly composed by Angela Morley (the original composer, Malcolm Williamson, also left early in production due to falling behind schedule), the score manages to give the rabbits’ journey an appropriately epic feel similar to Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Standout pieces include “Kehaar’s Theme,” which features one of the best saxophone solos I’ve ever heard, “Fiver’s Vision,” a creepy and foreboding piece that perfectly captures the horror Fiver feels as his visions show him the dark future of his home warren, and any piece in the soundtrack that includes Morley’s Watership Down theme, which appears most prominently in tracks like “Crossing the River,” “Climbing the Down,” and “Final Struggle and Triumph.”
Another piece of music worth mentioning is “Bright Eyes,” written by Mike Batt and performed by Art Garfunkel. The song appears in the film during a hallucinogenic sequence after Hazel is shot during the Nuthanger Farm raid, when Fiver, convinced his brother is still alive, sets out to look for him. The lyrics reflect his disbelief at how quickly someone like Hazel, so full of life and spirit one minute, can become cold and lifeless in the next. The audience also gets to see the world from Fiver’s perspective as the boundaries between the living world and the dreamlike realm of the dead become blurred.
It is a wonderful song and would practically become the franchise’s theme song for the next several decades… much to Richard Adams’ chagrin, as he reportedly hated the song.
As for the story of the film, I do think it’s difficult to argue with Arizona Daily Star critic Phil Villarreal’s assertion that “Martin Rosen did a superb job cutting through Adams’ book… to get to the beating heart.” However, in condensing the almost 500-page novel to film script running slightly over 90 minutes, Rosen made some noticeable sacrifices. For example, Captain Holly’s plight, facing the destruction of Sandleford Warren and getting captured by Efrafa, is condensed into a single harrowing ordeal. This makes no sense if you follow the original maps Adams provided in the novel (shown below), as they clearly demonstrate that Sandleford and Efrafa are located miles from either side of Watership Down.
This is more of a nitpick, though, since it doesn’t really have much of an effect on the story (plus, John Bennett’s performance is so good that it kind of makes you forget all that). I’ll admit that I was also disappointed that Rosen didn’t delve into Woundwort’s rather tragic backstory, which makes him rather more of a generic evil dictator, even if Harry Andrews’ performance does somewhat make up for it.
A cut that does have a significant impact, though, is how rushed over Cowslip’s warren is in the film. I could not make out just what the deal was with Cowslip and his rabbits just watching the film. Maybe it’s just that my autism makes me disturbingly blind to subtext, but I never realized that the farmer was farming the rabbits at the Warren of the Snares at the warren until I read the book, where Fiver’s epic speech spelling out what’s going on was a lot more than simply, “That’s warren is nothing but a death hole. Yes, let’s help ourselves to a roof of bones!” It kind of robs that scene of its impact if you have no idea what’s going on in the first place. It answers the “how” of what’s wrong with Cowslip’s warren but not the “why.”
Another flaw with the climactic battle that I overlooked until TV Tropes pointed it out to me is that it doesn’t give us any resolution on Fiver or Bigwig. Fiver completely disappears from the film after a vision of his gives Hazel the idea to bring the Nuthanger Farm down upon Woundwort’s troops, and the last we see of Bigwig is him standing bloody and battered after his fight with Woundwort, with the film giving us no indication if he survived or not. Indeed, the only character who does get a resolution is Hazel, who is shown flying through the sky with the Black Rabbit on his dying day years later after the Black Rabbit invites him to join his Owsla.
Despite all this, though, the film is a very worthy adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel. It stands as one of those unique animated features of the period that you can’t really tell if it’s for kids or not (like Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Don Bluth’s early films) thanks to the frankness with which adult subjects are tackled. If you think you or your child is up to it, definitely give this film a watch. And I’m giving this one a 9/10.
Before I wrap this up, however, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Martin Rosen’s second adaptation of a Richard Adams novel, The Plague Dogs.
This film was released on October 21st, 1982 by MGM, and once again starred John Hurt as the put-upon fox terrier Snitter, who has been sent away to an animal testing lab in Cumbria (colloquially known as the Lake District) after his master dies saving him from an out-of-control truck, where experiments on his brain have caused him to experience hallucinations. One night he escapes the lab alongside Rowf (voiced by Christopher Benjamin), who has a crippling fear of water thanks to being repeatedly drowned and resuscitated by the lab’s resident “whitecoats.”
Once out in the countryside, however, they discover that life in the wild is far from easy. They manage to get by with the help of an unnamed Geordie-accented fox (voiced by James Bolam), but their repeated killing of livestock quickly attracts the ill will of local farmers and rumors that they may be carrying bubonic plague soon cause a military company to join the hunt (whose leader happens to be voiced by Patrick Stewart in one of his earliest film roles).
The film was equally if not more controversial than Watership Down when it first came out. Perhaps the biggest reason was how the violence this time ends up extending to humans. Two especially infamous scenes involve a hunter accidentally getting himself shot in the face when Snitter climbs over his gun…
…and another scene where, after the coming winter limits their food supply, Rowf and Snitter decide to eat a dead hunter after the fox scares him into falling off a cliff, and we get to see this lovely close-up of his half-eaten corpse afterward.
Another source of controversy was the overall depressing nature of the film. Unlike Watership Down, where the protagonists eventually earn their happy ending, The Plague Dogs ends with the dogs swimming out to sea to escape the military, hoping to eventually find an island where they can be free from the whitecoats. This is in stark contrast to the novel, where Snitter’s owner is revealed to be alive and adopts both him and Rowf (although admittedly, Adams only added this happy ending because his publisher wouldn’t touch it otherwise).
Since it doesn’t seem to give the protagonists any reason for having gone through all this suffering in the end, the entire film may seem pointless to some viewers. However, I think it still has worth because of the commentary on animal testing, especially since every test on animals depicted in both the film and the novel happened in real life. Yes, even the experiment where Rowf swims laps around the tank until he drowns and is resuscitated. I don’t know why, of course, but it did happen.
In summary, while some children definitely can watch Watership Down if they’re old enough and/or mature enough, it’s probably best to keep this one as far away from your kids as possible. This is an especially harrowing watch if you’re a dog lover, but it’s all worth it if it can give you a deeper appreciation of the hurt that animals have to go through because not enough humans care. And I’m giving this one an 8/10.
And that’s all I have to say about the Watership Down film adaptation. Join me next time when we look into all three seasons of the 1999 TV adaptation and see whether its attempt at a more family-friendly approach to the source material worked out. Until next time, beautiful watchers.
The original novel was inspired by a series of improvised stories that the original author, Richard Adams, told his two daughters, Juliet and Rosamund, during long car journeys. They centered on two rabbits named Hazel and Fiver, the latter of whom had psychic powers that allowed him to see the future. When Adams had finished his story, the girls insisted that he write it down. He hesitated but was finally convinced when he was reading a bedtime story from a mediocre book and became convinced that he could write a better story than that. By his account, he spent the next eighteen months writing the book, working in the evenings after supper. The completed book would bear the dedication, “To Juliet and Rosamund, remembering the road to Stratford-upon-Avon.”
Adams drew from several sources in building the characters, especially several characters that he met during his service in the Airbourne Company of the Royal Army Service Corps during World War II. Hazel was based on an officer he served under who “had the natural power of leadership.” Bigwig, future head of the Watership Down Owsla (aka rabbit law enforcement/military caste), was based on another officer who was “a tremendous fighter who was at his best when he had been told exactly what he had to do.” Kehaar, the rabbit’s seagull ally, was based on a Norwegian resistance fighter who Adams had become acquainted with. Fiver was inspired by the tragic Greek character of Cassandra (although he’s obviously more successful in getting others to listen to his prophecies, otherwise we wouldn’t have a book). Finally, he tied it all together by reading the book The Private Life of the Rabbit by Welsh naturalist Ronald Lockley so he could convincingly portray his rabbits in their wild setting.
The book was rejected by seven publishers, all of whom thought there was no audience for it. Adams puts their objections this way: “Older children wouldn’t like it because it’s about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it’s written in an adult style.”
However, when the manuscript landed on the desk of Rex Collings, a one-person publisher in London, the book finally went somewhere. He asked his associate, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of whom has extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” Fortunately, he wasn’t. The first edition of the book, published in November 1972, sold out very quickly and garnered numerous positive reviews. The Economist even went as far as to claim that “if there is no place for Watership Down in children’s bookshops, then children’s literature is dead.” The book would receive a big boost in popularity after Macmillain Inc. published the first US edition in 1974.
But enough of the making-of documentary. What is it about the book that captured the hearts of so many readers?
The basic story should likely be familiar to most, but for those who aren’t, here’s a quick rundown of the plot:
The story starts in the hedgerows of Sandleford, a hamlet in the English country of Berkshire. A warren of rabbits lives there, among them a pair of “outskirters” (basically unimportant average Joe rabbits) named Hazel and Fiver. Fiver, a diminutive runt with the gift/curse of clairvoyance, foresees a horrible disaster descending on the warren. Hazel, his brother, fails to convince their chief rabbit to evacuate, and so he and Fiver leave of their own accord. They are joined by Bigwig and Silver (both former Owsla), Blackberry (the “smart guy” planner of the group), Dandelion (gifted with speed and a great storyteller), Pipkin (a runt rabbit even smaller than Fiver, naturally inclined to timidity), Hawkbit (“a rather slow and stupid rabbit”), Buckthorn (strong and a good fighter, though still too young to join the Owsla), and Speedwell and Acorn.
They encounter several perils along the way to their new home, with the elil (predators) and hrududil (motorized vehicles) sometimes being the least of their problems. They also encounter a warren led by an eccentric rabbit named Cowslip, which seems like an idyllic paradise where a kindly farmer feeds the rabbits. After Bigwig is nearly strangled to death by a snare, however, the rabbits figure out that the man is harvesting them for their meat and skins, and the native rabbits are using them to increase their own odds of survival. They depart, but not before being joined by Strawberry as they leave, heartbroken over losing his doe, Nildro-hain, to another wire.
They finally make a home on a hill called Watership Down, located about three miles south of Sandleford. Speaking of Sandleford, two rabbits from the former warren, Owsla captain Holly and plucky jokester Bluebell, arrive at the down to inform the others what happened: Men came, filled in the burrows, poisoned the trapped rabbits with gas, shot most of the ones who escaped and then dug up the warren to make way for housing developments.
After Holly recovers, he leads an expedition to another warren another three miles south called Efrafa, which was spotted by Kehaar, a wounded black-headed gull who was nursed back to health by the rabbits. They wish to see if their chief rabbit wishes to relieve its overcrowding problem by sending some of their does to Watership Down, for the rabbits neglected to bring any does with them when they left Sandleford. Meanwhile, while attempting to release some other does from a hutch on nearby Nuthanger Farm, Hazel is shot in the hind leg by the farmer. He miraculously survives, mostly because Fiver has a vision telling him where his brother is hiding, only to receive bad news about Efrafa.
Their chief rabbit, General Woundwort, is a despot who ensures that no rabbits succumb to elil through harsh regimentation, brutally punishing those who refuse to fall in line. However, the cunning Watershippers manage to outsmart the general when Bigwig meets up with Hyzenthaly, a doe leading a passive resistance movement in the warren, and orchestrates a massive escape, leading the fugitives onto a small boat, with Kehaar hampering the Efrafan’s pursuit.
But the Watershippers underestimate Woundwort’s vindictiveness, and he leads his own Owsla to the down and lays siege to the warren (Kehaar, having departed for his native “peeg vater,” is not available to assist). He is thwarted when Hazel, Dandelion, and Blackberry set the dog from Nuthanger Farm on them. Woundwort stands his ground and is presumably killed, although his body is never found, and at least one of his officers still believes him to be alive even months after the fact. Hazel, meanwhile, is saved from the farm cat by the farmer’s daughter, Lucy, and returns to the down unscathed.
The story ends years later, with the warren thriving. A much older Hazel is greeted by the rabbit’s legendary folk hero El-ahrairah, who invites him to join his Owsla, to which he happily obliges.
Why It’s Worth Your Time
Perhaps the book’s best feature is how Adams refuses to anthropomorphize the rabbits beyond raising their intelligence level a bit to make them more relatable to human readers. They are still believably portrayed as vulnerable prey animals, even if they are better able to hold their own in a fight. Consequently, they behave as if death is a moment-to-moment possibility, which it very much is, not just from foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, and birds of prey, but also men.
Indeed, rabbit-human relations are rather complex in the book. Whereas seemingly any animal can effectively communicate with the rabbits if enough effort is put into learning their language (even elil), humans are so far above them on an evolutionary scale that understanding them is all but impossible. Their presence hangs over the story in the same way that Cthulhu and his eldritch brethren hang over the protagonists of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Of course, as Hazel finds out in the final chapters, humans do have a leg up on Cthulhu in that they sometimes do notice their fellow animal’s suffering. Of course, this fact is more confusing than uplifting for Hazel since Lucy is still of the same species that so brutally tore apart his old warren.
Besides that, Adams also distinguishes his rabbit protagonists by giving them their own unique culture, which revolves around their religious beliefs. I mentioned El-ahrairah above, who basically serves as both an Adam figure (as the first rabbit) and a Jesus analog (given how the rabbits treat him as their mythic savior). However, given the rabbits’ love of tricks, his personality could be better described as “halfway between Beowulf and Bugs Bunny,” in TV Tropes’ words. In addition to him, there are several other mythological god-like figures, including Lord Frith (their creator deity), Prince Rainbow (Frith’s right-hand-man who has something of a love-hate relationship with El-ahrairah), Rabscuttle (chief of El-ahrairah’s Owsla and his closest friend), and the Black Rabbit of Inle (the rabbit grim reaper). General Woundwort is added to the pantheon after his disappearance as a sort of bogeyman figure who serves as the Black Rabbit’s right-hand… er, rabbit, I guess.
Adams even came up with a language for the rabbits to speak for whenever he needed a word for a concept unique to the lagomorph experience. For example, humans don’t really need a word for the practice of going above ground to feed. This concept is simplified into the Lapine word silflay, meaning “above-food.” Other Lapine words used in the book include hlessi (wanderer), flayrah (garden food like lettuce, carrots, etc.), and hrair (thousand… or any number above four, since rabbits can’t count any higher). Adams has explained in interviews that he wanted the language to have “a wuffy, fluffy sound” since he figured that’s what rabbit speech would sound like if they could talk. Certain words also have an onomatopoeic quality, especially hrududu (made to sound like a rabbit’s impression of a running engine). Granted, the Lapine language isn’t nearly as well developed as the various languages that were the foundation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium (which isn’t that surprising since Tolkien was a linguistics scholar and Adams wasn’t). Indeed, Adams freely admitted that he made up the words to the language as he went along. Still, as Keren Levy of The Guardian notes, the language is “somehow easy to accept as one we have always known.”
Much has been made of supposed political allegories present in the book. Adams swore up and down until the day he died that it was not his intention. As he states in the introduction to the edition I own: “I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car.” It isn’t hard to see why people started drawing those connections, though. The novel is rife with themes of exile, leadership, liberation, self-determination, heroism, and community-building, and it’s hard not to read certain themes of environmentalism into the discussions the rabbits have regarding humans. Take, for example, this impassioned plea from Strawberry to the Efrafans (who are often thought to have parallels with Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia):
“Animals don’t behave like men,” he said. “If they have to fight, they fight; if they have to kill, they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”
Chapter 27, “You Can’t Imagine It Unless You’ve Been There,” pg. 237, Scribner edition
There’s also this infamous quote from Captain Holly as he recounts Sandleford’s destruction to the Watershippers: “Men will never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed all the animals.”
Even if Adams didn’t intend a political message to the story, it’s clear that a lot of people struggling against oppression have seen themselves in the characters.
One last cool feature of the book I want to talk about before I move on is the fact that every location described in the pages actually exists in real life. Every location can be found within a single strip of land stretching about 7-8 miles long, between the hamlet of Sandleford in the province of Berkshire all the way to the stretch of the River Test where the towns of Overton and Laverstoke are located (Efrafa is on the other side of the railroad at the crossing of two bridle paths known to the rabbits as the Crixa), with the actual Watership Down located smack dab in the middle. Indeed, Richard Adams lived in the region his whole life, so it makes sense that he might want to immortalize it in his most popular work.
If there is one criticism I have to give of the book, it would definitely have to be the portrayal of the female characters. Aside from Hyzenthlay, most of the does are treated as little more than breeding stock to help the Watership Down warren survive, especially the hutch does that Hazel nearly gets himself killed over. Indeed, while Holly and Hazel are discussing the hutch does as the latter lies recovering in a ditch at the foot of the down, he asks, “Are they any good?” Adams tries to dismiss this in the narration by pointing out that rabbit gender relations are not comparable to humans. But the damage was still done, as far as some feminist critics were concerned. Adams apparently came to agree if the official sequel is any indication.
Tales from Watership Down
Tales from Watership Down, published by the Hutchinson printing firm in 1996, was written to be more of an anthology series than a single narrative. The nineteen stories contained therein are divided into three parts. The first part, consisting of seven stories, features more tales of El-ahrairah and two more modern stories. The second part, consisting of four stories, consists entirely of side quests taken by El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle on their way back from Inle, the land of the dead. The third part, consisting of the last eight stories, detail events in the Watership Down rabbit’s lives that take place in the months after Woundwort’s defeat.
Some have criticized the new El-ahrairah tales as pointless since they don’t have context with the story like the ones in the original novel. While I can’t argue against that criticism, I still find many new adventures entertaining in their own right. “The Scent of Smell” is probably my absolute favorite story in the book, thanks to probably being the most epic and adventurous tale in Lapine mythology. Others that have stuck in my mind include “The Tale of the Three Cows” (especially because of the downright Lovecraftian way in which the Third Cow is described), “The Hole in the Sky” (okay, seriously, how much cosmic horror was Adams reading when he wrote this?), and “Speedwell’s Story” (in which one of the more nondescript rabbits from the original novel reveals himself to have a… rather interesting imagination, to say the least).
The stories of how rabbit society on the downs restructures after the fall of Woundwort’s regime are also interesting to read, even if the stakes are a lot lower with the dictator dethroned. We get to see things like forming a new warren halfway between Watership Down and Efrafa called Vleflain. We get to see the story of Flyairth, a spirited doe who, despite nearly undermining the stability of Watership Down due to her pathological fear of the “white blindness” (known to humans as myxomatosis), inspires the Watershippers to promote Hyzenthlay to the position of co-chief rabbit alongside Hazel. We see an escaped hutch rabbit named Stonecrop who gets treated like dirt because of how strongly he smells of humans, only to prove himself by scaring an invading horde of weasels away from Vleflain with his scent. And, perhaps most importantly for feminist critics, we get to see Hyzenthlay-rah prove herself as she leads a wounded doe named Nyreem to Watership Down.
Ironically enough, given how critical the reviews on Goodreads seem to be of the El-ahrairah stories in this book, I actually somewhat prefer them over the Watership Down tales, as they had much more of an epic style closer to the first book. Still, despite all that, I think Tales is a worthy sequel and well worth reading at least once.
Of all the various disorders of the human brain, perhaps none has fascinated and terrified the public as much as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The reasons for this are varied. It may be because autistic people, especially those deemed “low-functioning,” often challenge our perceptions of human nature whenever a seemingly stupid and helpless individual reveals their astounding level of knowledge about whatever topic it is that they are hyper-focused on. It may be because of widespread myths and romanizations popularized through movies and TV shows, many of them harmful and infantilizing. Or it may be because society is finally starting to see past these stereotypes and learn the complex and wonderful reality behind the myths. In this blog post, I’d like to talk about my experiences on the autism spectrum and maybe help debunk a few myths along the way.
Notes on the Term “Asperger Syndrome”
When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a disorder that has since been reclassified within the greater autism spectrum. This move has been met with a mixed reception. Some argue that it is no different than what is commonly known as “high functioning autism.” Others argue that it can be distinguished by the fact that there are no impairments in language and intelligence in individuals with Asperger’s. Of course, autism acceptance advocates will point out that modern-day IQ tests are made by and for neurotypical people, obscuring the average ASD person’s intellect.
Another much darker reason why the Asperger label has fallen out of favor recently mainly has to do with the man the syndrome is named after, Dr. Hans Asperger. You see, Asperger, alongside American psychiatrist Leo Kanner, was the first to codify modern understanding of autism back in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Up until recently, Asperger’s work with his so-called “little professors” at the University of Vienna was considered superior to Kanner’s, mostly because he recognized a spectrum of behaviors in his patients and also, as Steve Silberman reports in his 2015 book NeuroTribes, protected his charges from the eugenicist wrath of the invading Nazi regime by inventing the term “high-functioning autism” to throw Hitler’s brownshirts off (as opposed to Kanner popularizing the now-discredited “refrigerator moms” theory).
Except it turns out that actually wasn’t the case, as evidence uncovered in 2018 revealed that Asperger actually referred at least two “little professors” that he deemed “low-functioning” to a children’s clinic known as Am Spiegelgrund, despite knowing full well that the Nazis used the clinic as a euthanasia center. It’s probably not hard to see why several people, myself included, have consequently become hesitant to associate themselves with his name in that manner. And it also makes me question whether the governments of the world should continue to celebrate Asperger’s birthday on February 18 as International Asperger’s Day.
In any case, I simply prefer to refer to myself as “autistic” and “on the (autism) spectrum” nowadays. But enough history: let me explain how the symptoms of autism manifest in me (please note, however, that I will mainly be using TV Tropes.com’s Useful Notes page on Asperger Syndrome as a template for the following section: I know it’s not exactly a medical source, but the notes they have seem to be medically accurate. Plus, it’s straightforward and clearly explained, so… yeah).
The pervasive developmental disorders commonly classified under the autism spectrum are generally diagnosed based on three criteria: difficulty in communication, difficulty in socialization, and restricted interests. We’ll examine how those diagnostic criteria manifest in me in that order and then go through some miscellaneous symptoms that the Useful Notes article also mentions.
People on the autism spectrum have often been described as having “body language blindness.” On the other hand, TV Tropes argues that it can be more accurately described as “body language dyslexia.” It’s not that we can’t see the body language being used; it’s correctly interpreting it that’s difficult. Some of us try to compensate by watching TV and seeing how characters use their body language. That usually causes other problems since body language in fictional settings tends to be exaggerated, which causes neurotypical people to think that there’s something off about us.
It’s also not uncommon for autistic individuals to have speech problems (unless, of course, they’re nonverbal). They may develop a natural speaking voice that’s too fast, too loud, too formal, or too monotone. I was lucky enough to develop a fairly normal speaking voice, even though I do have a bit of a stuttering problem like others on the spectrum. My grandfather tends to stumble over his words as well, though, so I at least have company there.
Related to the restricted interests part of the diagnosis is that, naturally, autistic people tend to struggle with conversations that have nothing to do with whatever kind of topic they’re hyperfocused on at the moment. Indeed, we don’t tend to care for small talk, since in our view, a conversation that exists just for the sake of filling silence is pointless. We don’t want to talk about the weather or want to know “What’s up?” We have knowledge we want to share, damn it!
Finally, there is the fact that autistic people have a lot of trouble with facial expressions, which may have contributed to the myth that autistic people are sociopaths. Once again, autistic people may try to compensate by learning facial expressions from movies and TV.
Of course, the difficulty with expressing emotion and reading body language is a part of our problem with socialization, as is the unwillingness to speak unless the conversation is lucky enough to steer into whatever subject the ASD individual is interested in at the moment.
Another part is that it takes very strenuous effort for an autistic individual to initiate communication with another person because we never have any clear idea what to say. Not only that, but normal social interaction is often outright physically exhausting for people like us who aren’t built for it. Thus, we often adopt a “do not speak unless spoken to” attitude that we may stick to rigidly. I’ve mastered this art so well that my family full of Trump supporters still doesn’t know that I hate the man’s guts, simply because they’ve never bothered to ask my opinion.
There is also the fact that, unlike most neurotypical people, autistic people dislike eye contact, often finding it uncomfortable or even painful. Naturally, this is another factor that often hinders the autistic individual’s ability to read body language properly. Personally, I think I’m on the lower end of the “eye contact discomfort” meter, as I usually don’t have a problem with it if a person is directly addressing me. It’s usually still a bit uncomfortable, though, especially if the person is standing right next to me.
Perhaps other difficulties with socialization can be explained by the autistic individual’s relationship with logic. We tend to focus on step-by-step answers to any problems that cross our path. This often leads to autistic individuals being very literal-minded, often telling things how we see them because we see no point in pretending that something is anything other than what we perceive it as. Indeed, this often makes us unable or unwilling to tell a convincing lie.
Speaking of which, that brings us to the final socialization-related topic I want to talk about: the autistic individual’s relationship with empathy, especially social/cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to predict other people’s thoughts, emotions, and intentions. Unfortunately, this requires a lot of “reading between the lines” regarding body language and speech patterns, which, as we have established above, autistic people are terrible at. This, combined with our inability to emote properly, often leads people into inaccurately labeling us as sociopaths.
On the contrary, however, autistic people often have a higher than average capacity for affective empathy, meaning an ability to share another person’s feelings with them. While this often makes autistic people into very morally upright citizens, it can often be overwhelming for a person, given the amount of death and disaster that affects the world every day. Empathy and logic often combine in an autistic individual to produce a very “Treat others as you would want to be treated attitude.” This can present problems of its own, though, since not everyone wants the same things. Indeed, while some people like the idea of sadomasochism as part of their sex life, I certainly don’t.
The autistic ideas of empathy and logic may often combine into a deep sense of social justice. They logically think that powerful people using their power for selfish ends is illogical and hurts far more people than it helps. Indeed, logic and empathy were what made me turn away from my family’s conservatism when Trump was elected president. They tend to assume that there was a good reason Trump got into the White House because the American political system is the best in the world and only produces good results (although usually only if conservatives are leading it). On the other hand, I refused to accept that Trump was in any way qualified for the office of the most powerful person in the world. Of course, that ultimately led to me deciding that no one person should ever be allowed that much power, and now I am an anarcho-communist.
This is almost certainly the most visible symptom of ASD, even though it is the least significant, medically speaking. Of course, a big part of this is the fact that they often find themselves fascinated by a certain subject to the point that they end up defining their whole existence around it and gather as much knowledge as they can on it to the point that they can become leading experts on it. They can even make whole careers out of these restricted interests. Temple Grandin used her insight on animal behavior, especially cattle, to create innovations to make slaughterhouses as humane as possible. Greta Thunberg has managed to channel her rage and despair caused by her autistic obsession with climate change into political activism. Donald Triplett, one of Leo Kanner’s patients who became the first to be formally diagnosed with autism, would later put his abilities with rapid mental multiplication to good use at his family bank.
Of course, it can be equally common for a person on the spectrum to end up changing their defining interest constantly. My personal experience is somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. I remember being even more obsessed with dinosaurs and other prehistoric life during my childhood years than the average kid was. There was also a period when I became oddly obsessed with the RMS Titanic (and the Hindenburg to a lesser extent). I also developed an interest in the paranormal during my later childhood, which has since developed into my obsession with religion and esoteric occult practices that combined with my love of fantasy novels to create The Divine Conspiracy. I’ve also had some low-key obsessions with subjects like music and literature crop up from time to time. For example, my family hates playing Trivial Pursuit: Classic Rock Edition with me because I usually wipe the floor with them. I also became obsessed with everything Watership Down after I rediscovered it (something you’ll learn all about during the retrospective this month).
It’s not just interests that are restricted for us, though. Autistic people are also well known for being oversensitive to certain stimuli, be it tactile, visual, or audio. Certain clothing materials can irritate their skin, for instance. Certain colors, patterns, or speeds of light can cause distress, especially for those who are co-morbid with epilepsy (which I, fortunately, am not). They can also be picky eaters, not just because of flavors they don’t like but also because certain textures can make a piece of food unpalatable, even if the flavor agrees with them. Sudden loud noises can trigger panic attacks in autistic individuals who are sensitive to noise.
While I’ve never had panic attacks or meltdowns due to loud noises, several have been problems for me in the past. I used to avoid restroom blow dryers like the plague when I was younger because I hated the noise. I also used to have such a low tolerance for spicy foods when I was a kid that I couldn’t even eat pepperoni pizza. Nowadays, I can use both without problem, although I still have trouble with spicy foods. I’m still a very picky eater today, as I still have trouble with several kinds of vegetables (although I have taken a liking to garden salads with ranch dressing as of late).
Autistic individuals have also tended not to be very “outdoorsy,” possibly due to being very unwilling to break their comfortable routines. I was born into a hunting family, though, so I tended to be much more of an outdoor person when I was younger (even though I didn’t become a hunter myself, as I loved animals too much). I tend to spend much more of my life indoors nowadays, although I usually like to walk in the woods surrounding my house now and again. I also really want to explore America’s national parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Olympic sometime in the future once this COVID epidemic finally dies down.
People on the autism spectrum often seem to appear less physically mature than others with different developmental disorders since their faces tend to be more rounded and thus more childlike. This has definitely been the case for me. I’m 25 (going on 26), and yet I still look like I’ve barely finished high school. As recently as three weeks ago, when I was showing an official at the local vaccine distribution center my ID, she was surprised that I was 25, as she would have guessed I was 18 at first glance.
Another symptom often associated with autistic people is a tendency to compulsively talk to themselves, similarly to Tourette’s Syndrome (minus the stereotypical foul language, which in real life only happens in ten percent of those with the disorder). This is especially true if the ASD individual starts daydreaming, which, as an aspiring fantasy writer, I tend to do quite frequently. Sometimes I’ll blurt out something one of my characters says in certain vignettes I cook up in my head. It’s never at the top of my lungs, though, and it hasn’t caused a major disruption… yet.
The autistic individual may also experience sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep, frequent nocturnal awakenings, and early morning awakenings. I tend to struggle quite a bit with falling asleep myself. Sometimes I manage to fall asleep within an hour of going to bed. Other times I end up lying awake for hours on end, unable to drift off because my mind is still buzzing. Either way, I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of going to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow as some others do.
Another symptom associated with ASD is a higher than average visual or auditory perception. This may be associated with the fact that the autistic brain tends to filter out fewer auditory signals than the neurotypical brain, which can be a major factor in why several autistic individuals are sensitive to loud noises. My version of this heightened perception often comes in being able to see and hear things that others around me usually don’t notice… although I’m not entirely sure if it’s because I actually have heightened perceptions or because I’m usually not interested in what people around me are talking about, so I let my eyes wander about my surroundings. Of course, I also wear prescription glasses, as my banner photo will attest, so it’s not like my senses are unimpaired in any way.
One other symptom I have that often worries me is my trouble with short-term memory.
Our issues with short-term memory usually come in the form of not being able to follow step-by-step instructions very well since the last task given to us often pops out of our head when the next task is given. This hasn’t caused much of a problem at my workplace, although I couldn’t tell you how to operate the paint mixer even though the boss has shown me at least once.
Somewhat related to this is our struggle with executive function, which means we have difficulty fully grasping the steps of certain processes and carrying them out. This is especially difficult for me since I’ve never been able to grasp how finances work (and have been somewhat unwilling to since, as a newly converted socialist, I’d much rather our society got rid of money anyway). This means I have a lot of trouble planning for the future, which makes me fear the future immensely, so I avoid it even more. I admit there is some comfort in “Indiana Jones-ing” it through life, especially given my newfound fondness for Daoism. However, at the same time, it still often feels like I’m gambling with my future “in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time…” at least, that’s how Terry Pratchett might put it.
Indeed, a lot of this may make it seem like my existence is a living hell. Sometimes, I don’t entirely disagree, especially given the capitalist dystopia I’m living under. Not only do I have to live with the fact that most of the people we put in charge of our governments and corporations are perfectly fine with letting hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people die every year just to preserve their own wealth and privilege. Not only do I have to live with the fact that there are likely more working-class people in the industrialized world (my own family included) who support them than don’t. I also have to live with the fact that my neurodivergence makes me a target for the ruling class, who would gladly throw me under the bus the first chance they get and replace me with a more neurotypical cog that can properly follow their orders.
However, at the end of the day, I still have my empathy. I still have the complete inability to have ulterior motives for the kind acts I perform. I still have impeccable attention to detail. I still have exceptional visual thinking skills. And probably most importantly, I still have my passion. I still have a desire to show my art to the rest of the world, no matter how much my inner critic tells me it sucks. I still have my drive to see this world changed for the better. I still have my intense love of what little unspoiled natural wilderness we still have in this world. And I still have unexplored horizons waiting for me to explore if I only have the courage to take that first step.
So, for a while on this website, I’ve been teasing a retrospective for the month of May since my birthday falls on that month, and I want to do a series of essays talking about a fictional work that had a big impact on me during my formative years. I’ve mentioned before on my blog entry about The Divine Conspiracy that I was a bit slow to discover the wonders of fictional literature. There were plenty of novels assigned to me by my English classes that I thoroughly enjoyed (The Outsiders, The Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, and probably some others that escape me now).
Especially as I got into my high school years, I began to seek out novels on my own time, like TheHunger Games trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Stephen King’s The Shining, and Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. But out of all the books I discovered during that period, there is but one that I can honest to God say actually changed my life. That book was written by a humble British civil servant named Richard Adams, and its name was Watership Down.
I mentioned in the “Animation Age Ghetto” essay I did a while back that I watched the 1978 film adaptation when I was around 8-10 years old after Mom rented it from a video store. I rediscovered it on YouTube during high school, and it (along with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away) woke me up to the fact that animation was more than a genre of children’s entertainment, which I had been deluding myself into thinking for most of my teenage years. From there, I purchased the novel on my Amazon Kindle, as well as some of Richard Adams’ other novels, like Shardik and The Plague Dogs. And it shortly grew into a life-changing rabbit hole (no pun intended) that led me on a journey that ended with me deciding to become a writer myself when I attended college just a few short years later.
There are five works from the franchise that I will be covering for this retrospective:
The original novel, as well as the 1996 sequel Tales from Watership Down
The 1978 film adaptation
The 1999 children’s television series
The discography of the British punk/metal band Fall of Efrafa, whose Warren of the Snares trilogy is loosely based on the Lapine mythology presented in the books
The 2018 Netflix miniseries
So yeah, I’ve got a pretty busy month ahead of me as far as writing goes. I’ve also got that essay on my relationship with autism spectrum disorder that I still have to finish. I also want to get the first part of my Divine Conspiracy pilot uploaded on DeviantArt before the end of the month, come hell or high water. The Watership Down franchise is something I am very passionate about, however, so it should be relatively easy for me.
Things are gonna get pretty busy over the next month, beautiful watchers. I hope you’re ready to come along for the ride!
Well, technically not post-vaccination since I got the Pfizer vaccine, and I need a second shot of it in three weeks or so, but it’s definitely a start.
I just wanted to give a brief summary of what kind of writing activities I will be up to in the next two months, both here and on DeviantArt. I have two ideas for major essay posts. I’ve wanted to write a post detailing how being on the autism spectrum affects me for a while now. I feel that it’s important to share my story to maybe give other potential readers out there, be they neurotypical or otherwise, perspective on where exactly I’m coming from.
I’ve also become interested as of late in comparing different anarchist schools of thought to see which ones I like best. I’m personally biased towards anarcho-communism since that’s the one I currently know the most about (aside from anarcho-primitivism, which I’m not really a fan of). Still, I’m very interested to learn about other philosophies on the libertarian socialist front to see what they have to say.
Of course, those are likely to be very research-intensive subjects, so I definitely won’t be able to get both out before the beginning of May, which is when I plan to roll out a new yearly project: the Birthday Retrospective. My birthday is in May, so I figured I’d give myself a present by doing a retrospective on a media franchise that had a big impact on me at some point during my formative years. What’s this year’s retrospective going to be about? You’ll have to wait until May 1st to find out. It’s a surprise!
Finally, there’s the matter of what the coming months will hold for my DeviantArt account. I haven’t posted there since I uploaded my Melonheads story sometime around Valentine’s Day. I plan to change that shortly, as I have made it my goal to upload the first part of my Divine Conspiracy pilot before I get my second vaccination. That might take a while, as I’ve had many ideas for changes to the opening scenes ever since I first published the manuscript for a college writing class three years ago. The good news is that I feel the manuscript gets better as it goes along, so there will likely be less need for major changes as it goes along. Stay tuned on my DeviantArt site for more info.
And that’s pretty much everything I have to update you on at the moment. You can probably expect the autism piece sometime before the end of this month, and I’ll likely be getting to the anarchism ranking list after the May retrospective. Have a nice spring, and please, for the love of God, get yourself vaccinated so we can get this virus under control!
Much ink has been shed over the past half-century arguing which band in all the history of rock music is the greatest. Some may point to 50s rock ‘n’ roll icons like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, who help codify the genre in the first place. Some may point to the Beatles and the Beach Boys for helping elevate not just rock but also popular music in general to an art form. Others may point to the rough and tumble blues rock of the Rolling Stones and the Who that helped lay the groundwork for punk rock. And still others may invoke the names of prog rock icons like Queen, Yes, and Pink Floyd for fusing rock and roll with the artistic sensibilities of classical and jazz music.
And while all those things are certainly true, for this humble music lover, the greatest band would have to be one that really feels like it represents rock music’s past, present, and future. And that band, for me at least, is Led Zeppelin.
This band is often best remembered for its heaving blues rock tunes like those of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple that helped lay the blueprints for the genre of heavy metal. However, the band is equally famous for its eclectic influences. Their songs included influences from genres as disparate as folk music (including Middle Eastern and Indian), country, gospel, funk, reggae, and even synth-pop and punk rock in their later years. Granted, they probably weren’t as prone to genre roulette as Queen was, but their discography is still pretty diverse. Guitarist Jimmy Page has even gone on record saying that he wanted Led Zeppelin’s music to have elements of “light and shade.” That’s certainly obvious in songs like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “In the Light,” and others that I will cover in my top 20 list of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs. Why top 20? Because the band is just that good!
So without any further delay, let’s talk about them. I should tell you ahead of time that if you don’t see any of your favorite songs on here, that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. Indeed, I can’t think of a single Led Zeppelin song I outright hate. This is just my list, and these are the songs from their discography that appeal most to my musical tastes, starting with…
20. All My Love
I hate to start the list with such a tear-jerker of a song, but there was no way I could leave this one off the list. Indeed, this song is all about one of the most painful events an adult person can go through: the pain of losing a child.
During the band’s 1977 US tour, singer Robert Plant received the news no parent ever wants to hear: his five-year-old son, Karac Pendragon Plant, had died of a stomach infection aged only five. Perhaps it was only natural that Plant felt it necessary to include a song dedicated to his memory on their 1979 album In Through the Out Door (the last album released by the band before drummer John Bonham’s untimely death from alcohol poisoning a year later necessitated the band’s breakup).
The song is notable because it was one of only two songs on which Jimmy Page didn’t receive a writing credit (the other being “South Bound Saurez,” also from In Through the Out Door). Instead, it was up to bassist John Paul Jones to help craft the musical accompaniment to Plant’s tale of grief, loss, and acceptance. As such, Jimmy Page’s guitar takes a back seat to Jones’ sweeping and orchestral synthesizer work.
Plant’s lyrics, meanwhile, make heavy use of symbolism and mythological references in his struggle to put his feelings into words. He compares Karac’s soul to “a feather in the wind,” having become one of the soft, lighter-than-air things that a child chases while out in the yard having fun. Plant goes on to call out the Fates (possibly referring to either the Moirai from Greek mythology or the very similar Norns from Norse mythology) to weave him a thread to lead out of the labyrinth of despair he finds himself in, much like how the Cretan princess Ariadne gave Theseus a thread to find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur. In the end, though, Plant concludes that nothing, not even death, can break the eternal bond of love between a father and son.
This song caused something of a divide between the band when it first came out. Plant obviously considered it one of Led Zeppelin’s finest moments. But Page and Bonham greatly disliked its soft rock sound, thinking that it strayed too far from the band’s roots. Of course, they weren’t brave enough to voice their opinions at the time, as they knew that criticizing a song about their lead singer’s dead son would be in poor taste. Personally though, I think it’s great when a band that cultivated such a macho image can show such vulnerability. Although, speaking of macho…
19. Whole Lotta Love
What can I say about this song that hasn’t already been said? It’s the single that made them big in the U.S. and was the only song of theirs to break the Billboard Top 10 in the country. It also holds the bittersweet distinction of being the final song performed live by the band before Bonham’s death.
It was also one of several that landed the band in court when one of the American bluesmen they took inspiration from took offense to the band not crediting them. Plant decided to sing lyrics heavily inspired by the song “You Need Love” by Muddy Waters over an original riff created by Page. Willie Dixon, who wrote the lyrics for “You Need Love,” ended up suing the band over it in 1985 after his daughter introduced him to the song. The suit was settled out of court, and Dixon was given a writing credit on the song.
Genius.com has described the song as the band’s most sexually explicit track (even though the “squeeze my lemon” verse from “The Lemon Song” exists), mostly because of how obvious it is that Plant is using the word “love” as a euphemism for his…
Of course, this song would probably be just another Led Zeppelin proto-metal freak-out if it weren’t for the infamous middle section, a psychedelic free jazz-esqe sound collage produced through a combination of Page twiddling around with a Theremin as well as every dial, knob, and switch on Olympic Studios’ mixing board. I remember Ozzy Osbourne describing how freaked out the middle section made him when he first heard it, and frankly, I don’t blame him.
Cap it all off with a short but very sweet guitar solo from maestro Page, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide hard rock classic.
18. Going to California
The penultimate track from the band’s famous untitled fourth album originally started as a song about California earthquakes. Indeed, Jimmy Page even experienced a minor earthquake when he traveled to L.A. to mix the album. It ended up as an acoustic folk ballad about a lovesick man traveling to the Golden State to escape an unsupportive girlfriend, likely inspired by how both Plant and Page had a crush on Joni Mitchell at the time.
However, several oblique references to California’s tectonic instability still show up in several places, often as references to godlike entities throwing obstacles in Plant’s way in the same manner they did to Odysseus in the age of myths:
The mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake,
As the children of the sun begin... to awake.
Seems like the wrath of the gods;
Got a punch on the nose and it's started to flow.
I think I might be sinking.
Honestly though, it’s the last verse of this song that really put it on the list since it really speaks to the unshakable feelings of wanderlust, loneliness, and lovesickness I’ve been feeling, especially in the age of COVID:
To find a queen without a king;
They say she plays guitar and cries... and sings... la la la.
Ride a white mare in the footsteps of dawn,
Tryin' to find a woman who's never, never, never been born.
Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams,
Tryin' to tell myself it's not as hard, hard, hard as it seems...
The last couplet is especially poignant for me since I have painful social anxiety thanks to being on the autism spectrum. I’m also very far left in terms of politics, which is extremely frustrating for someone living in this hyper-capitalist dystopia we call “The Land of the Free.” My dreams of an anarcho-communist utopia seem like hills compared to the mountainous walls that the 1% have built to keep them from coming to fruition. But I have no intention of surrendering them any time soon.
17. The Rover
This track (the second on the landmark double album Physical Graffiti) started as an acoustic piece before it evolved into the swaggering hard rock masterpiece we know today, boasting one of my favorite riffs in all of the band’s discography.
The lyrics tell of a person living a nomadic lifestyle, traveling all across the world to see places like London and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and experiencing the simple joys of life like firelight, purple moonlight, and “the rested rivers flow.” But there are signs of “a new plague on the land,” which the protagonist elaborates on in the third verse:
Oh how I wonder, oh how I worry,
And I would dearly like to know
If all this wonder, and earthly plunder,
Will leave us anything to show?
However, the protagonist also seems to be on a messianic mission (“Traversed the planet, when heaven sent me; I saw the kings who ruled them all”). He warns the people of Earth:
And our time is flying.
See the candle buring low!
Is the new world rising
From the shambles of the old?
He tells us that we can survive this apocalypse “if we could just join hands.” That’s definitely a message this soy-boy pinko commie can get behind.
16. No Quarter
The penultimate track from Houses of the Holy is definitely one of the darkest tracks Zeppelin ever put out. The band achieved the atmospheric sound on this recording through Page slowing the recorded track down using pitch control in the studio and compressing his guitar track, thus giving the instrument a smooth yet growling tone. The track’s cold tone is accentuated by John Paul Jones’ cryptic keyboard lines, played on both acoustic and electric pianos.
This greatly complements the lyrics, which seem to be told from the point of view of the wife of a soldier telling her children why their father has gone out into the cold winter night. Given the line “the winds of Thor are blowing cold,” many have speculated that the song is about a party of Vikings going on the warpath against Christian missionaries trying to stamp out the Norse religion. How else would you explain lines like “They carry news that must get through… to build a dream for me and you”? Of course, the song’s title indicates that the Vikings are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.
Sadly, some lyrics, like “The devil mocks their every step,” indicate that their mission is doomed. The line that goes, “The dogs of doom are howling more,” even seems to draw parallels between Scandinavia’s Christianization and the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok. Indeed, the “dogs of doom” could easily be referring to Fenrir, Skoll, and Manegarm (or Hati), who fulfill their roles at the last battle by killing Odin, swallowing the sun, and swallowing the moon, respectively.
Indeed, this song often puts me in mind of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, which is somewhat ironic, given that story takes place in the deserts of the American West. But still, both that and “No Quarter” are equally bleak tales about the horrors of war and the often bloody history that lies at the foundations of Western civilization.
15. The Rain Song
Believe it or not, Houses of the Holy’s resident love ballad was actually John Bonham’s idea. The idea came to him after George Harrison asked him why the band didn’t do more ballads. Page even quoted “Something,” one of Harrison’s most beloved contributions to the Beatles’ discography, on the song’s first two chords. Plant still considers this one of his favorite vocal performances.
The lyrics tell the story of a romantic relationship’s ups and downs, using the seasons as a metaphor. It starts with “It is the springtime of my loving; The second season I am to know,” referencing the blooming of love against the barrenness of winter. The verse is backed with an orchestral instrumental backing, thanks to Jones’ Mellotron keyboard and soft guitar courtesy of Jimmy.
Hints of cynicism start to cast shadows over the protagonist’s happiness in the second verse (“It is the summer of my smiles. Flee from me, keepers of the gloom”). This indicates that the singer knows that fissures are starting to form between him and his significant other as autumn rolls around. Still, though, the instrumental backing continues to be joyful and upbeat.
Things take a turn for the darkness of winter as the guitars get louder and more distorted, as the gloom that the singer was trying to chase away comes crashing down (“I curse the gloom that set upon us!”). However, the track still ends on a hopeful note, as the lyrics in the image at the top of this section will indicate, while the instruments settle back down into the more relaxed tone they kept through the rest of the song.
The song tends to put me in mind of a quote by singer-songwriter Nick Cave discussing love songs in the context of Federico Garcia Lorca’s famous essay “The Theory and Function of Duende” (Duende being a Spanish term for heightened and authentic emotion conveyed through the arts, especially of a melancholic nature):
All love songs must contain duende, for the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain… The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic, and the joy of love. For just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil- the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here- so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgment of its capacity for suffering.
Nick Cave, Love Song Lecture, October 21, 2000
I think Plant does a fine job capturing the suffering that love can bring even to couples who know they are right for one another. So much so, in fact, that it brings out my own anxieties about the struggles of love. What if, if I ever do find a girlfriend, I’m not emotionally strong enough or mature enough to handle the challenges that will inevitably come to test our relationship? What if there are still some toxic elements from my conservative upbringing held within my subconscious that will drive her away? Or maybe my autism will be too much for her to handle? But still, I want to try at least.
14. Immigrant Song
Without a doubt one of Led Zeppelin’s most popular songs, this track opens up their third album with a bang, somewhat tricking the first-time listener into thinking the rest of the album will be this much of a heavy metal barnstormer before surprising them (hopefully pleasantly) with the diverse folk-blues offerings that would characterize the band’s later discography.
The somewhat tongue-in-cheek lyrics were inspired by a concert the band performed in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the summer of 1970. The band likened themselves to the Vikings that lived on the island nation in days of old, even making references to its famous hot springs (“We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow”). Of course, references to aspects of Norse mythology, like “the hammer of the gods” (i.e., Mjolnir) and Valhalla, are obligatory. Several historical references, like the bloody battlefields the Vikings left behind (“How soft your fields of green can whisper tales of gore”) and their eventual Christianization (“So now you’d better stop and rebuild all your ruins! For peace and trust can win the day, in spite of all your losing!”) also appear in the lyrics. However, that last one could also be the victorious Vikings making peace with their conquered, promising a fair rule as long as the colonized cooperated with them.
The song has since been described as one of the first Viking metal songs, even though it bears no musical resemblance to many contemporary bands often considered “Viking metal” (i.e., Bathory, Ensiferum, Enslaved, Falkenbach, etc.). Still, it’s probably the closest to true heavy metal that the band ever reached (except for another song on this list that we’ll get to later).
13. Fool in the Rain
This song is most famous for its instrumentals and the story told by its lyrics. On the instrumental side, it’s probably best remembered for John Bonham’s performance on drums. Whereas the rest of the band performs in common 4/4 time, John’s drumming follows a 12/8 meter, giving the track a polyrhythm that lends a sense of tension despite its light and upbeat tone. The breakdown in the middle, where the song doubles down on its Latin samba-inspired elements, is also well regarded, as well as the guitar solo that immediately follows it, one of my personal favorites from Jimmy.
The lyrics seem like they’re just the usual Led Zeppelin tale of heartbreak and loneliness, with a coming rainstorm symbolizing our protagonist’s heartbreak over his lover standing him up… until it suddenly isn’t. As the last verse reveals:
Now my body is starting to quiver
And the palms of hands're getting wet.
I've got no reason to doubt you, baby;
It's all a terrible mess.
And I'll run in the rain till I'm breathless.
When I'm breathless I'll run till I drop (Hey!).
The thoughts of a fool's kind of careless;
I'm just a fool waiting on the wrong block!
Plant apparently took inspiration from a similar story told in the 1957 song “Silhouettes” by the doo-wop group the Rays. Whereas that song ends happily with the singer clearing up the misunderstanding with his girlfriend, “Fool in the Rain” ends ambiguously, with the singer still running to catch his lover as the song ends. I sincerely hope he made it, honestly.
12. Misty Mountain Hop
This song, which opens side two of the untitled fourth album, is one of several to feature references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. The song itself, however, is based more on real life events that happened to Robert Plant. From what I can gather, Plant was loitering in Hyde Park (some sources say Primrose Hill Park), possibly due to intoxication, which led to him getting arrested. Wikipedia also suggests that a police raid on a “Legalize Pot Rally” on July 7, 1968, also in Hyde Park, may have inspired the lyrics to the song.
Plant uses these incidents as a jumping-off point to discuss whether or not our law enforcement agencies, as we have constructed them, are really qualified to handle such power, and how the average person seems to ignore all the abuse committed in the name of law and order as long as they are not on the receiving end of it:
If you go down in the streets today, baby, you'd better,
You'd better open your eyes!
Folk down there really don't care,
Really don't care, don't care, really don't,
Which way the pressure lies!
In the verse before that, Plant asks the listener if they are truly happy under this flawed system:
Why don't you take a good look at yourself,
Describe what you see,
And baby, baby, baby, do you like it?!
There you sit, sitting spare like a book on a shelf rusting
(AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!) Not trying to fight it!
All the while, the jaunty riffs provided by Page’s guitars and Jones’ electric piano keep an ironically upbeat tone despite the dystopian lyrics (“You really don’t care if they’re coming (Oh oh oh!); I know that it’s all a state of mind!”). It kind of reminds me of “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads, come to think of it.
It makes the actual Tolkien reference in the last verse somewhat confusing, however, when Plant has been criticizing his listeners throughout the rest of the song for drowning themselves in drugs and escapist fantasy novels rather than confronting the horrors of the modern world. It also seems to tread dangerously close to “love it or leave it” territory, which, at least currently, is impossible considering that my country is powerful enough to squash any socialist movement in any developing nation the minute it starts hurting Fortune 500 bottom lines.
Then again, maybe the protagonist has been captured by the dystopian government portrayed in the song and tortured until he’s so insane that he thinks he’s become a character in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Or maybe he’s just using the Misty Mountains as a metaphor for a socialist movement powerful enough to finally challenge the capitalist status quo, come hell or high water. I would definitely prefer the latter.
11. Over the Hills and Far Away
This is one of the best songs to demonstrate the band’s “light and shade” approach to several of their songs. The song is famous for its shift between an acoustic intro and a hard rock middle section before ending with a soft harpsichord solo courtesy of Jones. It also may be another Tolkien song, as the title is similar to the poem “Over Old Hills and Far Away.”
The lyrics are yet another tale of heartbreak and loss. But unlike, say, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” or “Dazed and Confused,” where the singer wallows in despair over losing their lover, here the lyrics take a more introspective and optimistic outlook. The first verse, where the singer proclaims that the love his girlfriend has is “maybe more than enough,” seems to take place many years before the second verse, where the singer has become older and wiser (“Many times I’ve loved, many time been bitten; Many time I’ve gazed along the open road”).
The narrator continues to describe all the things he’s learned over the years, with the second verse and part of the third taking the form of several aphorisms:
Many times I've lied, and many times I've listened.
Many times I've wondered how much there is to know.
Many dreams come true, and some have silver linings.
I live for my dreams, and a pocketful of gold.
In the third and final verse, after the narrator has decided he has lived his life to the fullest (“Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing; Many, many men can’t see the open road”), he proceeds to ponder the philosophical implications behind the word “many”:
Many is a word that only leaves you guessing.
Guessing 'bout a thing you really ought to know!
From then on, the song gradually quiets down, presumably symbolizing the narrator growing old and making peace with his youthful mistakes as he lays himself down for his final rest. I wonder how relatable this song is to the surviving members nowadays?
10. What Is and What Should Never Be
The second track from the band’s second album seems to be a tale of forbidden love. It is another light and shade track, with soft verses with lightly picked guitars alternating with crushing hard rock choruses. Plant sings the chorus in a way that almost seems to predict rapping, with lyrics inspired by an affair Plant had with Shirley Wilson, the younger sister of his then-wife Maureen.
The song has got a lot going for it: the poetic lyrics describing castles and sailing away high up in the sky on wings of passion, the epic riffs (including one at the end of the song that alternates between stereo channels), and one of my favorites John Paul Jones basslines.
I’ll admit, though, that the whole lyrical theme of “forbidden love” kind of sours the experience since it reminds me a bit too much of Jimmy Page’s infamous fling with Lori Maddox, a groupie who was only 13-14 when their relationship started. This, sadly, was a common practice back then, as I’ve found out. Maddox even claims to have lost her virginity to David Bowie before she even met Page. This hasn’t ruined my appreciation for their art, but it’s still important to remember that these people were humans, and discussing where they went wrong in their personal lives is important if we want to avoid making the same mistakes they did.
9. Gallows Pole
This song is kind of similar to “Misty Mountain Hop” in that it combines dark lyrical subject matter with an infectiously groovy instrumental track that takes normal folk instrumentation, turns it up to an almost punk rock level tempo, and ends with one of my favorite Jimmy Page guitar solos.
The song is an adaptation of an old English folk ballad named “The Maid Freed From the Gallows” that became especially popular after folklorist Francis James Child collected it in his Child Ballads collection in the 1880s. Knowing Led Zeppelin’s influences, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if they took inspiration from Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s version, recorded in the 1930s as “The Gallis Pole.”
Perhaps the most notable aspect of this song, besides how the instruments build on a crescendo as the song gets faster and faster, is how the story ends. You see, in the original folk ballad, the protagonist would usually end up being released from their punishment, the hangman satisfied with their bribe. In Led Zeppelin’s version, the hangman receives gold and silver from the condemned man’s brother and sexual favors from his sister. How does he respond?
Your brother brought me silver
And your sister warmed my soul,
But now I laugh and pull so hard!
See you swinging on the gallows pole!
Yeah, it’s not exactly a happy ending. It gets darker when you remember this quote from the first verse where the condemned man asks his friends if they have anything to offer the hangman:
I couldn't get no silver,
I couldn't get no gold.
You know that we're too damn poor
To keep you from the gallows pole.
That opens up the disturbing possibility that the condemned man is in this situation because of his poverty rather than being an unrepentant serial offender. It’s certainly not hard to read this song as an anti-death penalty tract in that light, something that is sadly still relevant today, especially in America where systemic racism in the criminal justice system means that black people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white people.
8. Ten Years Gone
I think Robert Plant explained the song best in a 1975 interview:
I was working my ass off before joining Led Zeppelin. A lady I really dearly loved said, “Right, it’s me or your fans.” Not that I had fans, but I said, “I can’t stop. I’ve got to keep going.” She’s quite content these days, I imagine. She’s got a washing machine that works by itself and a little sports car. We wouldn’t have anything to say anymore. I could probably relate to her, but she couldn’t relate to me. I’d be smiling too much. Ten years gone, I’m afraid. Anyway, there’s a gamble for you.
Remember that duende that Nick Cave was talking about earlier? This song has it in spades. It’s difficult not to empathize with Plant’s dueling emotions here. On the one hand, choosing the music over his girlfriend allowed him to be hailed as a god of rock and roll and gave him, in Freddie Mercury’s words, “fame and fortune and everything that goes with it.” But on the other, Plant still clearly feels a lot of regret at how the affair turned out and still often thinks about how it would have worked out if he had stayed with her.
Of course, Plant was seventeen in 1965, and lasting relationships don’t usually form in your teens. But the connection is still there, which Plant compares to the flow of rivers (“Though the course may change sometimes, rivers always reach the sea”) and eagles who always come back to the same nest (“We are eagles of one nest; the nest is in our soul”).
Greatly complementing Plant’s conflicting emotions is Page’s guitar work, which used up to 14 different tracks on some of the harmony parts. While it’s greatly effective in embodying the complex emotions evoked by the track, it made the song difficult to replicate in a live setting. John Paul Jones had to have a three-necked guitar built for him to help recreate the song live.
7. In the Evening
This track, which opens In Through the Out Door with quite a bang, is notable in that Jimmy Page forgoes his stalwart Gibson Les Paul guitar in favor of a Fender Stratocaster. This allows him to pull off some pretty unique stunts with the guitar’s tremolo arm, including depressing the strings low enough to create a unique metallic scraping sound by letting the strings rub against the pick-ups before launching into a truly epic guitar solo. It also introduces the orchestral stylings of John Paul Jones’ newly acquired Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer.
Plant’s lyrics follow a simple theme: a man who is unlucky in love trying to figure out what he’s doing wrong. He appears to spend much of the track arguing with someone else, either a friend, family member, psychologist or even himself. After spending the first verse declaring that he needs to assert dominance (“So don’t let her play you for no fool. She don’t show no pity, baby. She don’t make no rules.”), the outside party steps in, telling the protagonist he can’t force a woman to sleep with him if she doesn’t want to (“So don’t you let her get under your skin. It’s only bad luck and trouble from the day you begin.”).
The outside party tells the protagonist that it’s his wallowing in despair that’s keeping him from seeing a way out of his situation (“I hear you crying in the darkness; don’t ask nobody’s help. Ain’t no pockets full of mercy, baby, because you can only blame yourself.”). Indeed, a lot about the lyrics seem, at least to me, to represent a member of the incel community trying to pull himself out of his nihilistic downward spiral (which I know is a bit of a stretch considering the word wouldn’t be invented for another fourteen years, but still…). I especially like the message presented in the last verse:
That your days may bring,
No use hiding in a corner
Because that won't change a thing!
If you dance in the doldrums,
One day soon its got to stop, got to stop,
When you're the master of the off-chance,
When you don't expect a lot.
Maybe that’s the reason this song speaks to me so much (or maybe it’s just the “twilight majesty” of the instruments, as AllMusic puts it). As a person on the autism spectrum, it is tough to be assertive, which I feel is a good quality to have when trying to get a date. Autistic people also tend to find comfort in routines, and it takes a lot to get them to break those routines. (Let me be clear, though; I am not an incel, and I find their views on women and sexual assault to be truly sickening). But I’m not giving up hope just yet.
6. The Battle of Evermore
Coming to us from the untitled fourth album, this track (as well as the next song on this list) is probably the most overt flirtation the band ever made with Celtic folk music. It is also one of several to feature references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work and even throws in some Arthurian references for good measure. Plant claims the lyrics were originally inspired by a book he read about Scottish warfare, however.
The song is backed by acoustic guitar and mandolin courtesy of John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, respectively, even though the latter had virtually no experience on the instrument before recording the track. As he explained in a 1977 interview with Trouser Press, “I just picked up John Paul Jones’s mandolin, having never played a mandolin before, and just wrote up the chords and the whole thing in one sitting.” He would later describe his fingerpicking style as “sort of a cross between Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, and total incompetence.” Maybe it’s just because I don’t know shit about how the mandolin is actually played, but I definitely can’t tell the difference when listening to the track.
As for the lyrics, that’s where this song’s other unusual feature comes in. It is the only Led Zeppelin song to feature a guest vocalist, namely Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention. She and Plant perform a call and response vocal throughout the song, with Plant as a narrator and Denny as a town crier:
R.P.: The Dark Lord rides in force tonight
And time will tell us all!
S.D.: Oh, throw down your plow and hoe!
Rest not to lock your homes!
All of this combines to create a song that breeds an atmosphere of pure mythological majesty. The numerous references to The Lord of the Rings certainly help with this (the “Queen of Light” aka Galadriel, or “The drums will shake the castle wall; the Ringwraiths ride in black, RIDE ON!!!”), as does the passage that refers to King Arthur (“I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon, waiting for the eastern glow”). The song overall seems to refer to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields outside Minas Tirith, which served as the centerpiece of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Return of the King.
It overall shares the same melancholic yet hopeful atmosphere that I feel whenever I rewatch the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and one that I hope I can replicate if I ever get The Divine Conspiracy off the ground.
5. Ramble On
This article was originally just going to be about this song before I remembered just how obsessed with this band I was. It’s another song dealing in Tolkien references (their first, in fact, as it was released on their second album).
The instrumentals are notable for Jimmy Page’s violin-like guitar solos (produced through cutting the treble on the neck pickup of his Les Paul and putting the signal through a specially produced sustain-producing effects unit) and by the unusual percussion utilized during the verses, which John Bonham played on an unknown object (a guitar case? An upside-down garbage can? His drum stool?).
Several references to Tolkien’s writings show up again, as Plant sings about trying to find a girl. Although “girl” might be a symbolic term here, as there are several indications that the “girl” may actually be referring to the One Ring:
'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor,
I met a girl so fair,
But Gollum and the evil one
Crept up and slipped away with her!
Then again, the Tolkien references may be allegorical, and the singer is comparing his girl to the One Ring because he knows she’s not good for him, yet he just can’t bring himself to let her go. No matter what you think, though, one cannot deny that this song is a beautifully ethereal masterpiece. The editors of Rolling Stone magazine apparently agree, as they listed this song as the 440th best of all time.
4. Stairway to Heaven
This is the song that first got me into Led Zeppelin. I had remembered hearing a few of their songs on the local classic rock radio station and eventually decided to look up “Stairway to Heaven” on YouTube. I expected it to be a hard rock banger like the others I’d heard. What I found instead amounted to nothing less than a religious experience, and nothing was ever the same.
Much like with “Whole Lotta Love,” this song has been discussed and analyzed so much that it’s hard to know where to start. Of course, everyone knows that the instrumental track is gorgeous, with the vaguely Celtic folk-sounding intro, the angelic twelve-string guitar riffs, the sweeping guitar solo, and the triumphant hard rock conclusion. But what do the lyrics mean? Do they even mean anything at all, or was Plant just using words like another instrument, like Jon Anderson of Yes was often apt to do? I can’t pretend to know the definitive answer, as this song seems to be one of those “death of the author” type deals, but I can offer my own interpretation… or rather, talk about why I agree with Genius.com’s interpretation since it’s the one that makes the most sense to me.
What we know for sure is that it starts with a materialistic woman who has somehow attached spiritual meaning to her worldly possessions:
There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold,
And she's buying a statirway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed,
With a word she can get what she came for.
In an interview with Total Guitar magazine in 1998, Plant himself summarized the lady in the first verse as “a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration.”
The verse continues with the lady seeing “a sign on the door,” which may be a reference to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which (among other things) condemned the Catholic Church’s practice of indulgences, which was a very literal case of buying a stairway to heaven. The “you know sometimes words have two meanings” portion could be a reference to the Doors of Durin in Moria from The Lord of the Rings, or it could just be a cheeky reference to the cryptic nature of the song itself. Then it takes a turn toward the natural with the couplet that seemingly criticizes the lady’s self-absorption in not noticing the natural beauty around her:
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings;
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
From then on, the song takes a turn toward the more spiritual as the narrator wonders how he can earn himself a stairway to heaven the right way. He references going west, which may be a reference to the Undying Lands in The Lord of the Rings, the Native American belief that the human soul travels west after death, or the popular Old West colloquialism “Go west, young man!” The “rings of smoke through the trees” line could refer to psychedelic drugs or Gandalf and his fondness for tobacco.
Plant’s assertion on the Song Remains the Same recording of “Stairway” that “I think this is a song of hope” is demonstrated especially well in the next two verses, the fourth verse starting with a metaphor of spring bringing new life:
If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now.
It's just a spring clean for the May Queen.
And ending with this truly inspiring message:
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run,
There's still time to change the road you're on.
Throughout this section, though, there is a new antagonist in the form of the “Piper,” who seems to be trying to lead our hero astray and has already got the lady in his grasp. He tries one last time to get the lady to listen to his words that money only has power because we believe it does:
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know,
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?
A shade of darkness casts itself over the lyrics as the hard rock section kicks in, with the narrator singing about how “our shadows [are] taller than our soul.” This could be a reference to Carl Jung’s conception of the shadow archetype, which is all the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of and try to keep hidden, or it could be a commentary on legacy. The lady comes back, but this time as a figure shrouded in light, seemingly having finally realized the futility of her materialistic existence and realized that “the tune will come to you at last when all are one and one is all.”
In all, it would seem to me that the song is a story about a holy man (Jesus? A bodhisattva? An aboriginal shaman? Just some spiritually-minded everyman?) trying to save a woman he loves (platonically or otherwise) from being consumed by the horrors of the 20th-century capitalist system by showing spiritual truths from a simpler pre-Industrial pagan age.
Then again, maybe this comment on “Stairway to Heaven’s” Genius.com page sums it up better:
This all happened in 1970. It’s fair to assume they were pretty high. As in 1970 Led Freaking Zeppelin high. So, yeah… deep, meaningful Biblical allegory, or some hippies trying to rhyme, often unsuccessfully, bits of Tolkien-style mythology in between coughs and giggles? You decide.
Genius.com user SSL9000J
3. When the Levee Breaks
Moving from the closing song of side one of the untitled fourth album to the song that closes out the album as a whole, we come to probably Led Zeppelin’s darkest song, both musically and lyrically. The song features several parts where Jimmy Page slowed down the already heavy and droning guitar riffs and harmonica solos during recording. The result was probably the closest that Page’s guitar work came to the heaving proto-doom metal of contemporary hard rockers Black Sabbath.
Lyrically, the song retains the same subject matter as the 1929 country blues classic by Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie that inspired it. In 1927, the Mississippi River burst its banks in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, inundating 27,000 square miles in up to 30 feet of water. Around 500 people drowned, and 630,000 were left homeless, including 200,000 African-American farmworkers, many choosing to join the Great Migration to northern industrial cities. It remains the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States.
The original song and the Led Zeppelin cover both use this tragedy to illustrate the dark place that black people in America were in at the time. The flood came toward the tail end of what has often been called “the nadir of American race relations,” which, depending on who you ask, started with the end of Reconstruction or with Northern Republicans fully abandoning the Jim Crow South in 1890 and lasted until either the 1920s or World War Two.
Of course, this period also saw the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the end of the American Indian Wars, with the Natives being imprisoned in reservations and their children getting their indigenous heritage beaten out of them in boarding schools. Indeed, listening to this song in 2021, it’s hard not to think about how things still haven’t changed in terms of how people of color are still discriminated against in this country, even though legal discrimination is a thing of the past.
The sludgy and echoing instrumentals (including John Bonham’s much-beloved drum intro) provide a perfect complement to Plant’s wailing vocal delivery as he grants us this peek into the darkness at the heart of American history. It’s not for nothing that AllMusic critic Steven Thomas Erlewine calls it “an apocalyptic slice of urban blues.”
This song, which closes out disc one of Physical Graffiti, has been described by all four band members as Led Zeppelin’s crowning achievement. Even though there’s no guitar solo, I find it hard to disagree. Everything about this song just comes together so well; the guitar riff and how the orchestra echoes it, John Bonham’s underplayed yet sill bombastic drumming, the subtle polyrhythms (the guitar is in triple meter while the vocals are in quadruple). Everything’s flawless!
The lyrics are in a class of their own. Much like “Stairway to Heaven,” the lyrics tell of a journey. Unlike the quasi-religious lyrics of “Stairway,” however, the story told by “Kashmir” seems to be more of a metaphor for the journey of life itself. As Plant explains:
It was an amazing piece of music to write to and an incredible challenge for me. Because of the time signature, the whole deal of the song is… not grandiose but powerful. It required some kind of epithet or abstract lyrical setting about the whole idea of life being an adventure and being a series of illuminated moments. But everything is not what you see. It was quite a task because I couldn’t sing it. It was like the song was bigger than me. It’s true: I was petrified, it’s true. It was painful: I was virtually in tears.
Robert Plant, radio interview with Richard Kingsmill, 1995
As with many other Zeppelin tracks, possible references to mythology and Tolkien abound. Some have suggested that the “elders of a gentle race” might refer to Tolkien’s elves, although others suggest that it’s a reference to the Book of Revelation. The “father of the four winds” may refer to the Greek god Aeolus and his four children (Boreas (north), Zephyrus (west), Notus (south), and Eurus (east)). It could also refer to Vayu, the Hindu god of wind and breath, and his three avatars (Hanuman, Bhima, and Madhvacharya).
Of course, the verse that begins with “All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground” is a reference to the real life journey that first inspired the song: a trip Page and Plant made through a road in southern Morocco after the band’s 1973 tour that traveled for miles in a dead straight line, with sandstone ridges surrounding it all the while. It was apparently named after the Kashmir region of the Himalayas because Plant had wanted to visit the region for a long time and apparently still hasn’t.
But in all the annals of rock history, I think we can all agree that Plant’s fifteen-second howl at around the fourth minute is in the top ten greatest moments in rock and roll history, even in the 2007 performance at the O2 Arena. The old man’s still got it!
1. Achilles Last Stand
This is another travelogue song with mythological elements which opens up the 1976 album Presence with a bang. Their far more metalized answer to “Kasmir” describes Robert Plant’s travels in Morocco, Spain, and Greece. The references to Greek mythology were inspired by Plant likening his heel, broken in a recent car crash, to Achilles, killed by an arrow to the heel during the sacking of Troy. The opening lyrics (“It was an April morning when they told us we should go”) even refer to how the Illiad describes the Greek fleet leaving for Troy on an April morning. Of course, it also describes the carefree nature of travel itself and the excitement of introducing new songs like “Achilles’ Last Stand” to their screaming fans once Plant is recovered (“Oh, the songs to sing, when we at last return again!”).
Of course, though, the most famous lyric to come out of the song is this immortal line: “The mighty arms of Atlas hold the heavens from the earth.” While mentioning Atlas here is appropriate considering the Greek mythology theme, it more likely refers to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Further references include “Albion remains, sleeping now to rise again,” which is outwardly a reference to English poet William Blake’s prophetic works. However, I wouldn’t blame anyone who took it as another reference to King Arthur.
The music manages to replicate “Kashmir’s” orchestral magnificence with Page’s copiously overdubbed guitar work. It’s another song that inches very close to bona fide heavy metal territory over its ten-and-a-half-minute runtime. It even includes the so-called “heavy metal gallop” that would become a staple of Iron Maiden’s discography. Indeed, John Bonham’s rapid-fire drumming reminds me of Lars Ulrich’s drumming in the thrash section of Metallica’s “One.” And of course, we can’t forget to mention Jimmy Page’s epic guitar solo, which he himself has described as the best he’s ever done.
With a driving groove that never gets boring even over ten minutes, soaring vocals complemented by an equally soaring guitar solo, and wonderfully evocative lyrics that speak to my own sense of wanderlust, I feel very confident in rating as my favorite Led Zeppelin song of all time.
Well, that was much bigger than I expected it to be. It was a lot of work, but probably the most fun I’ve had working on this blog in a while. Stay tuned for updates on what to expect in the next two months. I promise you that May will be a particularly eventful month for this website, as my birthday is that month, and I’m going to be doing a retrospective on a work of fiction that this blog very likely owes its very existence to. I’ll see you then, guys.