Originating from car-ride stories told by a father to his two daughters, Watership Down by Richard Adams is a tale that has more to it than what at first meets the eye.
When I originally picked up this novel I was skeptical, especially since books consisting of only non-human characters are not my usual choices. But I was determined to read something new for my second book of the 2020 Reading Challenge, and I will be the first to admit that it did not go the direction I anticipated at all.
I read the Introduction before reading the novel and I was struck by the amount of research that clearly went into writing this book. Even though it began as a story told spontaneously to his daughters, when he wrote it down he went to great lengths to make it as accurate as possible.
For this reason, you will see frequent references to a book called The Private Life of the Rabbit by R. M. Lockley. Adams was inspired by his readings and conversations with Lockley which resulted in the creation of various scenes, including the raid of a farm.
Also, one aspect of the book which made it quite endearing was the author’s creation of the rabbits’ language, Lapine. My personal favorite word is hrududu, the term for machines, using onomatopoeia from the rabbits’ perspectives to create words such as this one.
Additionally, I noticed that, similar to the function of the Spanish suffixes “-ito” or “-ita” to add a tone of affection, Lapine uses the suffix “-roo” to communicate the same idea.
Adams also does an incredible job telling the story from the perspective of the rabbit and it is easy for the reader to get completely lost in the writing, making it quite a page-turner. This creates opportunities for humor, and Adams does not disappoint here either (chapter 39 puts boats in a totally different perspective!).
The story begins with a rabbit named Fiver who sees a large notice board placed in the ground. The rabbits cannot read that the board announces plans to erect modern upper-class housing on the ground they live under, but Fiver is disturbed by the heavy posts and cigarettes stamped into the ground, and senses imminent danger quickly approaching.
His ideas seem ridiculous to others in his warren (i.e. connecting rabbit burrows), and he is ignored by most. However, Fiver, his brother Hazel, and a handful of friends barely escape the warren with their lives.
They embark on a remarkable journey harried with elil (i.e., predators), and work diligently to create a sustainable warren in their new home, Watership Down. The rabbits go through many adventures during this time, including raiding nearby farms, finding does to grow their warren, and even fighting to defend their new home from other less-than-friendly rabbits.
“To rabbits, everything unknown is dangerous. The first reaction is to startle, the second to bolt” (5.5).
As the quote explains, rabbits are not known for their bravery. However, some of these rabbits fight those instincts, leading to one of the primary ideas, the importance of courage.
For example, Fiver knew something terrible was about to happen and risked his life to recruit other rabbits and escape, going against the arrogant Chief Rabbit’s orders to remain in the warren. By doing this he saved his friends’ lives, and consequently many more.
Additionally, Bigwig, a large warrior rabbit, almost perished for his warren by infiltrating a neighboring warren known for mistreating its inhabitants, convincing those within to escape and live in Watership Down so that the warren would not die out for lack of re-population.
All rabbits in Watership Down display some form of courage, whether strong or weak, for they must travel across the countryside and overcome many frightening obstacles including rivers, train tracks, any hrududu, humans, dogs, cats, and neighboring rabbits bent on conquering them. Through the strong courage of Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, and other rabbits, the warren survived, but it was not without their bravery.
To put Watership Down in comparison to another well-known tale, this theme of courage made me think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in which the hobbits--the smallest of them all--had to leave the comforts of their home, fight back their usual fear of anything strange, and brave terrors of the world in order to save the Shire.
Likewise, the smallest creatures in this story, rabbits, left their comfortable home and endured frightening things in order to preserve their warren.
“[Hazel] was simply the one—as a Chief Rabbit ought to be—through whom a strong feeling, latent throughout the warren, had come to the surface” (23.117).
While Fiver has the power of foresight and Bigwig is physically the strongest, Hazel demonstrates his strength by becoming the leader to his warren; this strength of leadership does more to unite the warren than all of Bigwig’s prowess.
When he notices his rabbits almost falling over from exhaustion, he makes decisions for both rest and perseverance. When a dangerous task must be undertaken, he does not shirk from his duties. Likewise, when he desperately wants to join a mission to help the warren, he knows when it is appropriate to stay home and protect his vulnerable ones.
Part 4 of the novel is titled “Hazel-rah,” which is perfectly fitting, for Hazel’s strength is made most clear in this section. In Lapine, the suffix “-rah” is used to indicate a leader or chief rabbit, and the gift of this suffix from the warren to Hazel is highly significant, showing their trust in his leadership.
Through these examples, Hazel is juxtaposed against the other chief rabbit characters. While the others, such as the evil General Woundwort, focused on their lust for power, Hazel cared only for the welfare of his warren, thus being a prime example of what a leader and Chief Rabbit should be, which also has great significance in light of the mythology used in the novel.
"El-ahrairah is a trickster," said Buckthorn, "and rabbits will always need tricks" (16.11).
Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of Watership Down is the use of mythology to put uneasy minds to rest and to stimulate cleverness for the rabbits’ current situation.
The character El-ahrairah (also known as “Prince with a Thousand Enemies”), the hero of these stories, is seen as being the ultimate Chief Rabbit; he is a Robin Hood of sorts, tricking characters such as the Rainbow Prince out of carrots and cabbages so he can feed his warren. He is considered to be the model which Chief Rabbits should follow.
Entire chapters are devoted to these stories, and through them, readers can also learn about the rabbits’ perspectives on how they came to be, why they have bushy tails, why they have so many enemies, why they’re so nimble, and so on. The tales are fascinating and humorous, much like a Robin Hood legend, and they are strategically placed by Adams for times when either explanation or comic relief is necessary.
There is a note I should make about the mythological aspect of Watership Down. Adams states in the introduction that it is in no way to be read as an allegory, but he does create characters who are seen as being deities to the rabbits (such as the sun, called Frith). This is an issue for some readers, but keep in mind that Adams did not write for the purposes of theological accuracy.
If you do try to find an allegory in the story, you will only be disappointed by piecing one together that is filled with holes, missing the goal of the story. If you want to read a solid allegory, I suggest Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. But I digress.
I was impressed by Watership Down and while I didn’t think I would enjoy a book about rabbits, I’m very glad I read it. The depth of research in this book is evident, which adds to the cleverness of the tale (be sure to read the footnotes!).
Adams writes about an animal most unlikely to demonstrate qualities like courage and uses them to show exactly what those qualities should look like. And through all of this, he builds a rich history for his characters through mythology, and does not fail to balance witty humor with intensity and somberness, strongly drawing the reader into the story.
At the same time, he tells the tale while personifying animals to the point where it feels off during the scene written from the perspective of a human.
There is so much more I could say about this novel, but I will leave you with my highest recommendation for it. If you enjoy an adventure story that goes deeper than surface-level and you are willing to branch out into a different type of narrative, I encourage you to give Watership Down a try.
Written by Alexandria Garcia