Posted by: mattcolvin | August 23, 2013

Pharaoh’s Baker in the Plague Dogs


I’m reading Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs with Ezekiel. (Thank you, Faith Academy library! What a blessing!) I have spoken before about Adams’ allusivity, especially as he uses Homer and Vergil in Watership Down. I first read The Plague Dogs back in my own teen years, so it is very entertaining to read it again some 25 (?) years later.

Here’s a bit I caught tonight, from Snitter’s conversation with the Pekinese just before he and Rowf escape from the building where the dogs are imprisoned in wire pens.

“What are you doing?” asked the Pekinese, nose pressed against the wire.”Why are you loose? What’s that on your head? It smells of that stuff the whitecoats put over everything.”

“It’s to keep the frost out,” answered Snitter. “My head’s a bird-table, you know. The whitecoats cover it with bread every morning and then watch while the birds come and eat it.”

The parallel is an ominous one. Like the baker, Snitter is in prison, has visions of his head, and hopes to escape. There the similarity appears to end, however, since Snitter does escape, and the baker doesn’t. A bit of misdirection?

I dont know if there’s more to the allusion, but that it is an allusion, I have little doubt. Not sure why I didn’t get it as a teenager. Ezekiel recognized it.


  1. I’ve had The Plague Dogs on my shelf for many years, yet have never read it. Watership Down is my favorite book – I read it about every other year – and for some strange reason I’m afraid that The Plague Dogs won’t live up to the high expectations in my head and will actually affect my enjoyment of Watership Down. Yeah, I know, that’s silly… I’ll make a point to read it soon.

    • I don’t think it’s quite as good, but I remember it as an enjoyable book. Others by Adams – Maia, Shardik, The Girl in the Swing were not so good.

  2. Yeah, I’ve heard about some of those… I also have a follow up to Watership Down (Return to Watership Down I think?) that I haven’t read for the same reason. I’ll tell you how much I love WD – every time we get pregnant – much to my wife’s horror – Thlayli goes right to the top of the boy’s name list… and, of course, I would try to slip in Bigwig as his nickname. I think God’s looking out for her though, because so far we’re 5 for 5 with girls.

  3. Oh, by the way, you mentioned that you’ve written about WD before – where can I find that? I looked in the Greek Literature and mythology sections, but didn’t see it.

  4. I found this post by searching for “The Plague Dogs” tags. I’m currently reading The Plague Dogs and this reference entirely went over my head! Upon reading up on it, you’re obviously completely right about the allusion.

    Apologies for the wall of text, you might be able to tell that I haven’t found anyone nearby to discuss this with!

    I’ve caught a few of the others, though I have no clue how many I’ve missed. There are a good few Hamlet ones that I pick up on.

    Adams using the references within his narration throws me. During the escape of the dogs through the research centre, we get this:

    “they came to a halt at last in the guinea-pig house, where all manner of guinea-pigs – ginger, black, white, black-and-white, ginger-and-black, long-haired, short-haired, tragical-pastoral, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral – were kept in reserve for the needs of the station.”

    I’ve been getting used to it but at first it really nonplussed me. The conclusion I’ve reached is it helps to offset the descriptions of the terrible things that are done to the research animals. Thoughts?

    Watership Down is wonderful. I came across a collection of it, Shardik and The Plague Dogs and bought it on the strength of WD alone. Shardik, as you’ve mentioned, is less good and is honestly rather odd. It takes a turn part-way though which I wasn’t expecting.

    Tales From Watership Down is, I think, the name of the part-sequel Adams wrote some years later. Upon reading it recently I could understand why you’d want to stay away from it. It’s a companion piece with no whole, engaging story. I liked it, mind you.

    Brian, in terms of affecting your enjoyment of WD I’d recommend giving The Plague Dogs a shot. Its tone is different and it is more rooted in human society. Instead of a brief mention of a person’s point of view at the end of the story (as WD), human viewpoints comprise rather more of the book. It serves the book well in the long run.

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