It might seem unusual to list Richard Adams as an influence, seeing as how I’ve only read one of his books – but what a book.
For the uninitiated, Watership Down is The Aeneid in the animal kingdom. When the incursion of an industrial development forces a tribe of rabbits from their home, they must set out to find a new one. Along the way, they have a series of breathtaking adventures across the English countryside, all of it against the backdrop of Adams’ brilliant world-building.
Yes, world-building. Even though it takes place on modern-day earth, Watership Down stands as one of the best pieces of speculative fiction I’ve ever read. Adams invents an entire culture, vocabulary, social-structure and – most wonderfully – a mythology for his rabbits.
(Side note: Yes, I’m aware that Adams has written subsequent stories in this world. I look forward to reading them.)
Let’s focus on specifics. First, vocabulary. The rabbit world includes many pitch-perfect words that are indigenous to their culture and worldview. To wit:
Hrududu: Any man-made machine.
Owsla: The armed guard of any rabbit tribe.
Hrair: Any number larger than four. (Rabbits can only count that high.)
Frith: The rabbits’ all-powerful deity.
Inle: The rabbits’ angel of death.
I love speculative fiction. I’ll write about the novel Anathem (as well as its Olympian author, Neal Stephenson) in another blog, but like Anathem, Watership Down is packed with new-world vocab that just sounds right. Hrududu. Owlsa. When angered, the rabbits will exclaim “Frith and Inle!” Awesome!
For writers of speculative fiction, there’s a “sniff test” for all invented vocab. A well-crafted vocab word should feel right, should feel well-worn and lived-in. It should feel like it emerged naturally from a different world.
In my two science-fiction novels, I’ve tried to invent words (and entire turns of phrase) with the same care that Adams used to build his world in Watership Down. In my novel The Odds, there’s one vocab word in particular that I spent many hours considering. I felt like it was a word that needed to exist in this world, and I even feel like we could use it in our own. I went back to classic Latin to try and find the right-sounding word, and I said it out loud along with its opposite word, which does exist. (I don’t mean to be so vague, but I’d like for readers to judge this word on the page when they read my books.)
Moving on: Adams has also had an immeasurable influence on my world-building. Like I said in another blog, I like to spin yarns, and when it comes to my science-fiction novels, that means I’ve spun a lot of yarns about a world that doesn’t exist, and looking back my writing, I’ve found that Adams has had a huge effect on how I go about that kind of myth-making.
One of the main characters in Watership Down is the rabbit Dandelion, who is the tribe’s mythmaker, singer and herald. Over the course of the book, Dandelion tells several stories about one of the rabbitfolk’s legendary heroes, El-Ahrairah, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies. There’s a fantastic animated version of Watership Down, and it opens with one of these tales – specifically, the rabbitfolk’s creation myth. Behold:
Just think. One day, Adams sat down in front of a blank piece of paper, and he made all that up. When I craft my own myths, I try to write them with that kind of power. I’ll never be able to match Adams’ writing, but by Frith, I’ll have fun trying.
Wow. Just writing about this tells me that I have a lot more to say about Adams, new-world vocab, world-building, Neal Stephenson and a host of other topics. But for now, I’ll simply say, All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you! Digger, listener, runner – prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.