Watership Down – The Iliad Told from the Point-of-View of Rabbits

Author: Richard Adams
Genre: Fantasy (Talking Animals)
Publisher: Penguin Books UK, 1975
No. of Pages: 478.

4375801793Like many books in my – ahem – modest collection, this was a charity shop bargain: hands down the best 40p I have ever spent in my life. I read it for the first time last summer, then, being recently in the reality-endangering position of between books, I decided I wanted to relive the magic of a rogue group of rabbits fighting adversity to create a safe heaven on the Hampshire downs. A blog post, of course, quickly followed. If you are not familiar with the book (as I wasn’t) then you might at least have seen the 1978 film by Martin Rosen, or, if you had young children in 1999-2001 – or were indeed a young child yourself – the CITV series might have been on your radar. Personally, I saw both adaptations before I ever read the book; as an animal-loving 6/7 year old I adored the series, the movie on the other hand scared me half to death. With these two vastly conflicting responses I approached the book with a certain amount of trepidation – it proved, however, to be completely unfounded.

When a pair of young brothers, one possessing the gift of precognition, foresee danger for their warren, they manage to convince a small band of bucks to desert it and seek a safer, better future elsewhere. But the world is one of constant danger for a rabbit on the move. Facing threats from predators, humans and even their own kind, the motely band must learn to work and act together or face being destroyed from the inside. Trusting their wits, cunning and trickery, handed down from the great El-ahrairah himself, they must fight and scheme for their bare right to survive, or else admit defeat and stop running altogether.

“El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. 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 shall never be destroyed.”

In tone and structure, this book reads like a meeting between The Hobbit and Moby Dick, with a scope that can only be described as The Iliad told from the point-of-view of rabbits. (It is not for idle reason that it is named ‘one of the great novels of the century’). And while it is a story about rabbits, it is also a study of them too with a deliciously instinctual core, and the close detail of what it might be like to live as an animal at the more undesirable end of the food chain. This novel has its nose pressed firmly to the ground, with its vivid descriptions of plants and grasses, as well as the defamiliarising effect of seeing our own everyday objects and proven facts explored through the eyes of an animal which just can’t possibly conceive of them. For me, all of this and more, is part of what makes this work so endearing and worthy of its firm place among my favourites. But the true axis on which it turns, on which all good stories should turn, are its characters.

In the overcrowded Sandleford warren, none of our heroes are initially worthy of any particular note. Largely rank-and-file rabbits who were born without status, they are resigned to hashing out a living at the rawer end of the system, their only chances of improvement lying with being strong or clever enough to get into the Owsla – the rabbit military equivalent. What subsequently makes these rabbits worthy of notice though is their initiative in designing to leave the warren, and their ability to step away from accepted precedent and adapt to new situations: things which even us high-minded human beings struggle with. Our gang of heroes is, nevertheless, about the most rag-tag, rogue and unlikely bunch of bucks to ever cross the downs in summer, and this is part of what makes the book so thrilling as the company must learn, first and foremost, how to react to one another, and how to conduct themselves in a society which is compact enough for all of their opinions to matter.

Among this cast of characters we have: Hazel, the main protagonist and brother to Fiver, who becomes the capable, self-sacrificing leader of the band; Bigwig, named so for the crest of fur on top of his head, who is the veteran fighter and bluntly pragmatic to the bone; Fiver, the rabbit with the gift of foresight, whom everybody comes to trust and rely on; Dandelion, the storyteller and swiftest runner; Blackberry, the rabbit with a plan to get them out of any situation (and the relative intellect of Einstein); and Pipkin, the innocent, the trusting and the irrepressibly optimistic. Therefore, although this is a book, yes, about rabbits, what it manages to achieve and inspire is so much more than that – horror, humour, fear, desperation, triumph, all mediated through the disposition of an animal we take for granted. And, on this note, there is nothing more grim and humbling than reading the destruction of a warren by man from the point-of-view of a rabbit. It’s a chapter which doesn’t leave you lightly.

“I heard the commotion before I smelt [the poisoned air] myself. The does seemed to get it first and some of then began trying to get out. But the ones who had litters wouldn’t leave the kittens and they were attacking any rabbit who came near them. […] Very soon the runs were crammed with rabbits chewing and clambering over each other. They went up the runs they were accustomed to use and found them blocked. Some managed to turn round, but they couldn’t get back because of the rabbits coming up. And then the runs began to be blocked lower down with dead rabbits and the live rabbits tore them to pieces.”

In my various trawls through the internet I’ve seen this book categorised as a ‘low fantasy,’ which I think is rather unfair. While the locations of the story are real enough, the events of the narrative, in my opinion at least, have every right to be held up against Tolkien and even George R. R Martin. With a deceptively simple style, this book delves into a rich cornucopia of fantasy expectations and satisfies them in bulk, with everything from the passing use of Lapine, to the various and insidious powers which have to be taken down. One of the most satisfying fantastical elements, however, has to be the art of interior storytelling. In warm burrows on cold winter nights, or in trying situations, rabbits gather round to hear the stories of their species, and the experience is literally magical. Blending beautifully the nuances of religion and North American Trickster tales, the stories of El-ahrairah, lord of all rabbits, weave through this book like a second strand, boosting our own hero’s stories to legendary status. In these guiding tales, the sun is the creator of all life: a godly entity known as Frith, and death comes in the way of sickness and despair through the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who appears and calls a rabbit by name. It is a world as richly immersed in history and culture as Rowling’s Harry Potter series, so, for this reason and more, I find the term ‘low fantasy’ entirely undeserved. Or perhaps I just have really low standards …

Continuing to subvert all expectations of a book about rabbits, this novel presents a view of various societal structures which is absolutely fascinating. Held up against Hazel’s free-living dream is Cowslip’s warren of Shining Wires, where rabbits dance, push stones into walls and are absolutely forbid to ask ‘where’ anything; and the militaristic, totalitarian state of Efrafa, where every facet of life is controlled to avoid the detection by man. It is a work which is highly anthropomorphised and anthropological, and which perhaps even carries a political tone not far short of Swift himself. Though I leave this to more motivated minds than mine to either support or disprove.

In conjunction with the rise of Efrafa comes the late-introduced tyrant: General Woundwort, a rabbit as cunning as any predator and twice as aggressive, with the honeyed speech of all effective dictators. In neither the film nor the book is his nightmarish aspect lost; capable of inspiring all rabbits to be brave, capable of tearing them limb from limb when it suits his deluded purpose. If El-ahrairah is the lord of all rabbits, and a powerful force of good, then Woundwort is equally deserving of the legendary status as brother of the Black Rabbit of Inlè. When a plot by our heroes disgraces the General’s authority in Efrafa a fight to the death ensues upon the downs, where the sacrifices made by some have surprising and far-reaching consequences.

“’Thlayli,’ he said, ‘we’ve unblocked a run out here. I can bring in enough rabbits to pull down this wall in four places. Why don’t you come out?’
Thlayli’s reply, when it came, was low and gasping, but perfectly clear.
‘My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.’”

4.5 / 5


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