Monday, September 9, 2013

Rediscovering Watership Down

As a child, I was a precocious and voracious reader. In my early teens, ravenous and impatient, I raced through Richard Adams's Watership Down. Now, forty years later, I felt a strong desire to return to it, and so I did.

But this time, with less time remaining to me, I took more time, and enjoyed a summer of rediscovering Watership Down.

It turned out that I remembered almost nothing. Of course, I remembered brave Hazel, Prince of the Rabbits. And I remembered that I had identified strongly with Fiver, the introverted, moody, unathletic young rabbit who had visions of the future.

There are many more rabbits in Watership Down, of course: Bigwig, who is powerful and fearless; Dandelion, with his marvelous stories; Blackberry, fast and clever; Silver, the faithful lieutenant; Pipkin, the tiny rabbit with an enormous heart; Speedwell, the adventurous scout; and Holly, the wise old veteran who shares his wisdom with the youngsters.

This seems so cliched when summarized thus, and it's fair to attribute to Watership Down a certain amount of "me too". Following in the footsteps of such ground-breaking work as The Wind in the Willows or A. A. Milne's tales of the Hundred Acre Wood, Adams clearly was climbing on the shoulders of the giants that went before him.

But Adams brings a fresh spirit and a very graceful style to his epic tale, and his love of his characters carries him past cliche into a work that truly deserves to be considered in the same class.

Surely what most readers remember about Watership Down is the way that it immerses you in the world of the rabbit. "The holes and tunnels of an old warren become smooth, reassuring and comfortable with use," writes Adams, describing what it's like to be a rabbit away from home on a wet morning, sheltering in a dank hole instead:

Bigwig, with all his usual brisk energy, set to work. Hazel, however, returned and sat pensive at the lip of the hole, looking out at the silent, rippling veils of rain that drifted across and across the little valley between the two copses. Closer, before his nose, every blade of grass, every bracken frond was bent, dripping and glistening. The smell of last year's oak leaves filled the air. It had turned chilly. Across the field the bloom of the cherry tree under which they had sat that morning hung sodden and spoiled. While Hazel gazed, the wind slowly veered around into the west, as Cowslip had said it would, and brought the rain driving into the mouth of the hole. He backed down and rejoined the others. The patterning and whispering of the rain sounded softly but distinctly outside. The fields and woods were shut in under it, emptied and subdued. The insect life of the leaves and grass was stilled. The thrush should have been singing, but Hazel could hear no thrush. He and his companions were a muddy handful of scratchers, crouching in a narrow, drafty pit in lonely country.

Others may remember the clever and fascinating fables and legends re-told by the rabbits as their oral history, tales of the great rabbit prince El-ahrairah and his sometime companion Rabscuttle. Just reading the titles of the stories will give you a hint at the delights they hold:

  • The Story of the Blessing of El-ahrairah
    "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."
  • The Story of the King's Lettuce
  • The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah
  • The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle
  • The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog

Still others will prefer to read Watership Down as being a story with a greater purpose. Adams goes out of his way, in his introduction, to state that

I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car.
But whether this is false modesty, or whether it is more a description of what he "intended" than what actually became, it is clear that Watership Down is, in fact, far more than "simply the story about rabbits".

Firstly, there is the topic of gender identity. Nearly every character in the book is a rabbit, and nearly ever rabbit is male; there are female rabbits in the story, but rarely are they even given names, and no female rabbit plays any significant role until very late in the book, when several of the male rabbits choose mates and settle down to raise families. Moreover, in some sort of bizarre throwback, the otherwise modern-thinking rabbits think nothing of organizing and executing raiding parties to kidnap females from other tribes for their own purposes. Worse, at times the roles of the females are described in the most demeaning sort of way:

Buck rabbits on their own seldom or never go in for serious digging. This is the natural job of a doe making a home for her litter
Trying bringing this sort of attitude up in any second grade classroom nowadays and you'll be hooted out of school.

Secondly, there are of course the social issues raised by the book. In the large, Watership Down is a story of the clashes of various sorts of social organization, from democratic to authoritarian to socialist to libertarian. Almost every animal in the book has an opinion about the right way to organize things, and the central crisis of the book involves an epic battle to overthrow the cruel dictator who has imprisoned his rabbits with both physical bullying and psychological manipulation. Adams skillfully describes the subtle and effective techniques that the tyrant uses to cement his power:

Woundwort was no mere bully. He knew how to encourage other rabbits and to fill them with a spirit of emulation. It was not long before his officers were asking to be allowed to lead patrols. Woundwort would give them tasks -- to search for hlessil in a certain direction or to find out whether a particular ditch or barn contained rats which could later be attacked in force and driven out.


The patrols were the training grounds of cunning trackers, swift runners and fierce fighters, and the casualties -- although there might be as many as five or six in a bad month -- suited Woundwort's purpose, for numbers needed keeping down and there were always fresh vacancies in the Owsla, which the younger bucks did their best to be good enough to fill. To feel that rabbits were competing to risk their lives at his orders gratified Woundwort, although he believed -- and so did his Council and his Owsla -- that he was giving the warren peace and security at a price which was modest enough.

A more true description of the rise of a warlord I have rarely read.

And there are religious discussions, too, as for example when Fiver and Hazel get into a discussion about whether there is life after death:

"Well, there's another place -- another country, isn't there? We go there when we sleep; at other times, too; and when we die. El-ahrairah comes and goes between the two as he wants, I suppose, but I could never quite make that out, from the tales. Some rabbits will tell you it's all easy there, compared with the waking dangers that they understand. But I think that only shows they don't know much about it. It's a wild place, and very unsafe. And where are we really -- there or here?"

"Our bodies stay here -- that's good enough for me. You'd better go and talk to that Silverweed fellow -- he might know more."

Still, in the end, I think that Watership Down remains for me the same book that it was forty years ago when I first spend time between its covers: a stirring and action-packed tale of derring-do and adventure, of exploration and escapades and thrills and chills, and of great battles to sing of around the hearth:

Along the western horizon the lower clouds formed a single purple mass, against which distant trees stood out minute and sharp. The upper edges rose into the light, a far land of wild mountains. Copper-colored, weightless and motionless, they suggested a glassy fragility like that of frost. Surely, when the thunder struck them again they would vibrate, tremble and shatter, till warm shards, sharp as icicles, fell flashing down from the ruins. Racing through the ocher light, Bigwig was impelled by a frenzy of tension and energy. He did not feel the wound in his shoulder. The storm was his own. The storm would defeat Efrafa.

What's not to like about that? The world can still use some fine books about youngsters who set out to make a better world and, along with a few scrapes, mis-steps, and false starts, persevere and succeed in the end.

I'm glad I returned to Watership Down. I know not if I shall return to it again; I suppose only time will tell.

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