The wolf has always been a creature of legend and romance, of all animals one of the most invoked, celebrated and feared. In the Dark Ages, kings offered rewards, or pardons for wrongdoings, to those who collected sacks of wolves’ tongues. January, the leanest and harshest time of year, was known as ‘wolf-month’. Saxons and Danes used the word ‘wolf’ as part of the personal names of warriors and leaders, such as Aethelwulf or Cynewulf. A wolf was associated with St Edmund, the 10th century East Anglian king and martyr, who was for long the unofficial patron saint of the English. It was said to have guarded his head and helped monks and the king’s followers to find it. Despite this, the wolf was usually reviled by church scribes, carvers and illuminators. It is depicted as a sly and slinking beast, and as a symbol of evil and sin. But its fierceness and prowess was also acknowledged. Medieval lords took the wolf as their emblem in heraldry, while outlaws and renegades might be likened to wolves, and relish the comparison. As fairy tales began to be fashioned out of traditional and courtly fabric from the 18th century onwards, the wolf’s loping form was seldom far away. Little Red Riding Hood was by no means the only tale to feature a Big Bad Wolf. Wolves, along with ruined abbeys or castles, saturnine villains, immurement, phantoms, graveyards, decay and wronged heroines, were also very much part of the macabre landscape of the Gothic novel in the early 19th century. To begin with, wolves were also traditionally given the role of villains in fantasy literature; examples include J R R Tolkien’s White Wolves, who terrorised the Shire during an exceptionally cold winter, and the Wargs that are in league with the Orcs, in addition to Maugrim of C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. More recently, however, wolves have increasingly been given the role of heroes in fantasy fiction. Any journey into the fictional realm of the wolf therefore invokes no little trepidation, as well as excitement, in the heart of any reader.
There is a long and proud tradition in fantasy of anthropomorphically presented animals having epic adventures that are usually reserved for more standard (human) archetypes, like warriors and wizards. Whilst Watership Down is perhaps the most famous example of this fantasy sub-genre, Richard Adams’ novel is by no means on its own. Greatly influenced by Adams’ work was William Horwood’s equally epic Duncton Chronicles, the story of a mole kingdom almost as detailed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as well as a number of lesser known works like A R Lloyd’s Kine Saga, a heroic fantasy trilogy which charts the life and struggles of a weasel named Kine. Despite its many qualities, a lot of fantasy readers tend to be put off even by the thought of reading Richard Adams’ bunny-centric epic, perhaps imagining that any book that involves talking rabbits must be for children. However, Watership Down rarely fails to win the love and respect of readers, regardless of age, because like most great novels, it is a rich story that can be read (and re-read) on many different levels. The book is often praised for its many thought-provoking themes but also it’s equally praiseworthy as just a corking good adventure.