Watership Down

Not about naval warfare, as you might think.

Did I ever mention that I love rabbits? Bar none, they are the cutest animals on the planet. Kittens? Puppies? Hamsters? Not even close. When I was a kid, a friend bought me a pet rabbit as a birthday gift (didn’t go over so well with my mom). For some reason, I named her after my sister, Bessie. But Bessie (the rabbit, not my sister) had a terrible life. She mostly sat in a large cage in my father’s orange grove eating lettuce and making Coco Puffs. We sometimes let her out to silflay (graze), until the day my dad tried to pick her up and she scratched his arm. He dropped her and she broke her back. I was fairly young at the time and still averse to the idea of death, so my parents neglected to inform me of Bessie’s death (again, my pet rabbit, not my sister). When I found out, I was devastated, until He-Man came on. The worst part is, she likely died painfully. I had two more rabbits after that, Helen and Dino (my other sister and my brother), who were taken out to play and silflay often. But all they ever seemed to do is dig. Once their escape tunnel under the fence was complete, I never saw them again. I cannot imagine what adventures they went on, but I hope they would make El-ahrairah proud.

All this brings me to Watership Down, a book by British author Richard Adams that is not about boats or naval warfare. I saw the animated version as a kid and remember being deeply, deeply moved, especially by the beginning, which describes how God created the world. To every animal, He gave a gift, the lion his teeth and claws, the buffalo his horns, etc. But the rabbit was too busy digging to pay attention, so God gave him large feet to run, and since the rabbit produced too many offspring, enough to cover the whole of Creation, God made it so that every other animal was the rabbit’s enemy. I came up with a word to describe my feelings for the film, and that word was sagotic. I don’t use it anymore, because it sounds silly, but it’s basically an adjective for saga, meaning “like a saga” or “referring to a saga.” By today’s standards, the film does not hold up. The animation falls flat and far behind Bambi, which makes me wish Disney had the rights to it (they can buy Marvel and Star Wars but not this?). Decades after seeing the movie, I purchased the book with hopes that it might conjure those old feelings, and I am happy to report that the wall of jadedness about my forty year old heart has been greatly moved. To give you an idea, a lady at the Starbucks where I was reading the last chapters asked to borrow my phone, and I had to brush her off lest she notice my watering eyes.

OMG! So cute!

You might wonder how a book entirely about rabbit life could be so emotionally investing, but it makes sense once you learn of the tremendous challenges to their survival. They not only have to worry about finding food and shelter, but are constantly threatened by elil, the rabbit word for predator (did I mention the author invents his own rabbit vocabulary?). To drive the point home, El-ahrairah, the mythical first rabbit created by Frith (God), and father of all rabbits, is called the Prince with Ten Thousand Enemies. Rabbits live in constant fear. When they run, it is never out in the open if they can help it, and when a rabbit dies, it is said that they ‘stop running’. Whether you’re human or animal, rabbit life makes for great drama. In Watership Down, however, rabbits are known for their cleverness. Many chapters are devoted to rabbits telling tales of El-ahrairah, the Prince known for his wits, who escapes a fox or steals from a garden protected by dogs. These were, by far, my favorite bits of the story.

Much of the Watership Down’s 400+ pages seem wordy and unnecessary, however, and I actually rode the donkey-carriage a few times, which got me to thinking I would be giving it three stars. You have to wonder who the book was intended for, as it’s much too long for children, and once you get into it, the violence and vocabulary dispels any notion that children were a target demographic. However, I cannot imagine many adults wanting to read a book where nearly every character is a rabbit. Who published this, anyway? How was the editor persuaded? What did Adam’s query letter look like? “Dear Sir, please consider my 500 page book about rabbits . . .” And yet, I am elated that something like this got into print, because Richard Adams is an exceedingly brilliant story teller.

Our heroes, the clever Hazel, the clairvoyant Fiver, and Bigwig, the warrior, along with a host of less memorable rabbits, narrowly escape the destruction of their warren (an underground village where the rabbits live). They then go on a Tolkienesque journey (complete with map and endless descriptions of foliage) to find a new place to live on Watership Down, only to realize their survival depends on finding females. See, wild rabbits live for 3 years on average, so offspring is paramount. Their quest to find sex leads them to Efrafa, a warren run by Nazis, apparently, because every rabbit there who is not in the officer’s club is treated like a worker in some dystopian novel. To liberate the does, our heroes must risk everything, and in this way the book turns into a kind of espionage, prison escape, World War II story, but with rabbits, which may sound strange, but is awesome in actuality.

I could argue that the book should begin with the last two parts, and some cutting would doubtless benefit its flow, but these seem like petty concerns when the author manages to make you feel so much for his characters. There is even a bit of allegory to be found, when the rabbits look to their folktales for courage and inspiration in the worst of times, just as we turn to religion. Watership Down is the kind of book that makes me want to be a writer. Someday, I hope readers will feel the same inspiration as they turn over the last page in my book, that they’ll get that sagotic feeling.

Helen and Dino and Bessie (the rabbits, not my siblings) wherever you are (running in rabbit heaven, surely, with El-ahrairah), this post is for you.

Dear Editor: Ages of Aenya Query 2014

Dear Editor,

Age of Aenya is a trio of interconnected fantasy novellas at c. 170,000 words.

City by the Sea: To save her family from starvation, Thelana leaves her homeland in search of civilization. But in Hedonia, she is forced to live as a vagabond, until she is caught stealing the pearl eyes from the idol of the Sea God. But when a star falls to the Sea, the city is swallowed by waves. Amid the turmoil, Xandr, the last of her people, fights to save her.

The Serpent’s Eye: When Xandr is poisoned by a merchant trader, Thelana crosses into the West, where the days grow longer and hotter. Her only salvation is a ruin lost in time. But as the man she loves clings to life, he relives the last days (in a dream that is not a dream) of his great ancestor—the martyr who helped to free mankind from slavery.

Flesh and Steel: Hidden away since birth, Emma grows into an awkward young woman, accused of witchcraft and sold as a slave. But a chance encounter with Xandr and Thelana takes her on an adventure to reach the peak of Mount Spire before a golem of imaginable power reshapes their world.

From six years of age, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and that was to make fiction, the kind that is remembered for generations. In 2000, I earned my BA in English from the University of South Florida, where I helped as a tutor and editor. I continue to write essays, reviews and short fiction on my blog, The Writer’s Disease, while perfecting my craft as a novelist.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Nick Alimonos
E-Mail: alimonosnick@gmail.com
Home Phone: 727-XXX-XXXX
Cell Phone: 727-XXX-XXXX

Altruism, Cracked.com, and the Dangers of Pop Philosophy

History, science, and philosophy are terribly nuanced things. They do not easily conform to our instant information age. You cannot condense the intricate mechanics of ancient civilizations to a soundbite or the myriad ideologies of any one philosopher to a TOP TEN list. You will never read a historical journal with titles like “Five Things You Thought about Spartan Oral Sex that is Wrong!” In grad school, my professor literally told me I would be “crucified” by the scholarly community should I make broad generalizations in my research papers, so while Cracked.com may claim that Romans were not as orgy happy as movies portray, the truth is more subtle. The Roman Empire was as vast and diverse as the United States, and people did participate in orgies, just as there were those who found such behaviors abhorrent. Unlike the monotheistic world we live in today, the Greeks and Romans of antiquity dealt with differences of opinion and morality through veneration of different gods. If you believed orgies are morally justifiable, you likely spent time with acolytes of Aphrodite, where sex was part of their religious ritual. For the more prudish, there was Athena, whose priestesses remained chaste through life. If you really want to learn something about the ancient world, log off and pick up an actual history book written by an actual accredited historian.

Sites like Cracked.com have also given rise to pop philosophy, but based on the jaded outlook of most of their articles, I think they should be renamed Cynicism.com. I recently had the (mis)fortune to read a post entitled, 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better PersonWhat incensed me most was this:

Let’s say that the person you love the most has just been shot. He or she is lying in the street, bleeding and screaming. A guy rushes up and says, “Step aside.” He looks over your loved one’s bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife — he’s going to operate right there in the street.

You ask, “Are you a doctor?”

The guy says, “No.”

You say, “But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re an old Army medic, or …”

At this point the guy becomes annoyed. He tells you that he is a nice guy, he is honest, he is always on time. He tells you that he is a great son to his mother and has a rich life full of fulfilling hobbies, and he boasts that he never uses foul language.

Confused, you say, “How does any of that fucking matter when my [wife/husband/best friend/parent] is lying here bleeding! I need somebody who knows how to operate on bullet wounds! Can you do that or not?!?”

Now the man becomes agitated — why are you being shallow and selfish? Do you not care about any of his other good qualities? Didn’t you just hear him say that he always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday? In light of all of the good things he does, does it really matter if he knows how to perform surgery?

In that panicked moment, you will take your bloody hands and shake him by the shoulders, screaming, “Yes, I’m saying that none of that other shit matters, because in this specific situation, I just need somebody who can stop the bleeding, you crazy fucking asshole.”

So here is my terrible truth about the adult world: You are in that very situation every single day. Only you are the confused guy with the pocket knife. All of society is the bleeding gunshot victim.

If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.

Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving, and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold.

Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.

Funny? Sure. But the problem is that most of the 16 million readers (16 million!) have little to no background in philosophy, and little to no ammunition with which to challenge such ideas.
The last line states that, “love and kindness matter . . . as long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.” But for this to be true, the inverse must be also, that people only do things for reward, that there is no true selfless action or altruism. Similar arguments have been made by Nietzsche, Hobbes, and Ayn Rand, that one way or another, we are all using each other for personal gain. Even something as seemingly altruistic as giving money to the poor can be viewed as a selfish act, as the reformed Ebeneezer Scrooge’s of the world earn status in their communities or at the very least, enjoy a sense of self-importance. Looking specifically at the Cracked story, however, we can find many flaws. You could argue that the ability to stop bleeding wounds is of primary importance, trumping other human qualities, but without compassion, a trained medical professional would not care to stop and help your loved one. After all, how does helping a stranger benefit them directly? Doctors are not being paid for working “off duty”. But just as crucial in this case is honesty. A dishonest individual without training may lead you to believe they can offer some service while delaying a 911 call. If my wife were shot and bleeding in the street, first and foremost I would hope for someone compassionate enough to care to help me; then and only then will it matter whether they have the capacity to do so. In all areas of life, honesty and compassion matter, whether you possess some helpful skill or not. But let’s take this case even further. Suppose after being shot, this paramedic managed to save my wife, but she becomes permanently disabled, unable to make dinner, take romantic walks or even make love. My wife can no longer provide me with my needs and wants, whereas many other women can. Does this writer contend that I abandon her for someone who can better provide for me? Most people in such instances remain with their spouses, continuing to love and care for them, despite great personal loss.

Altruism is more than just some feel-good hippie philosophy. It is rooted in the evolution of our species. Even among non-humans, survival-of-the-fittest is often less beneficial than cooperation. In nature, we find symbiotic relationships the norm, not the exception. Life forms as brainless as your immune system developed during primordial times for mutual gain. While sea turtles may not care much for their young, human beings, acting only in self interest, would doom the species as a whole. In ancient times, it was not uncommon for a woman to die to bring new life into the world, and even today children come at a substantial financial loss. If women acted without a sense of altruism, their infants would not survive. I would, in fact, make the case that altruism originated among our species due to necessities of childbirth. We learn to care for each other from our parents who cared for us. For this reason, we find examples throughout history of people who acted with enormous risk to themselves for zero personal gain, like the German families who hid Jews in their homes during the Nazi regime, or more recently, the man who jumped under a moving subway train to save the life of a complete stranger who had fallen on the tracks.

Altruism is intrinsic to humanity, which is why we find it in all societies throughout history, serving as the basis for our religions. While pop philosophers may argue the alternative, it does not sit right with me or with most people. Just try telling a friend or family member that you only value them for what they can do for you. While human emotion can often lead to erroneous beliefs, in this case, altruism feels right because it is.