I really can’t remember if I ever read Watership Down before – I feel as if I must have done, but I can’t really be certain. It is a book that I suppose I was always very aware of, I know my parents had several Richard Adams books on their shelves, including this one, and like most people of my generation, I can still remember the animated film that was made with its haunting Bright eyes theme song. This is a book that was chosen by my book group, and I was quite pleased to have the chance to read it, I probably never would have otherwise – although I was very unsure how I would feel about talking rabbits now (it is naturally a book about far more than talking rabbits).
“Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.”
The story of Watership Down can easily be seen as allegorical, exploring the struggle for freedom, societal roles and responsibilities, leadership and friendship. It’s hard not to consider the environmental aspects of the story as the animals strive for a safe place within a shrinking world surrounded by man. However, Richard Adams denied his novel was in way allegorical, or political and insisted it was just a story he had made up for his daughters. It is far more than a mere story however, in creating the story of Watership Down; Adams created an entire culture, with a fictional Lapine language, folk-lore, proverbs, mythology and traditions. This animal society is rooted in the peace of the English countryside, it’s a countryside intruded upon by man, man just one of the many “elil” (enemies of rabbits).
“Animals don’t behave like men,’ he said. ‘If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”
In the Sandleford warren, Fiver, a young, slightly undersized rabbit is troubled by a terrible vision, of which he struggles to make sense; Fiver’s visions have however proved correct in the past. Fiver’s vision seems to indicate the destruction of the warren, and he shares his frightening worries with his brother Hazel. Fiver and Hazel having no great status within their warren fail to convince their chief rabbit of any impending doom, and they plan instead to leave the Sandleford warren taking with them whoever will join them in a perilous and uncertain journey to find a new home. As their hurried plans become known Fiver and Hazel are joined by a small band of other unimportant rabbits, and in a last minute confrontation with members of the warren’s Owsla (a kind of military body loyal to the chief rabbit) they are joined by Bigwig and Silver former Owsla, whose strength and cunning will prove vital in the dangerous journey that lies ahead.
Leaving the behind the only world they have ever known, Hazel leads his brother and this disparate group of rabbits out into the unknown. Fiver feels he knows they must head for a hill, but between their goal and the start of their journey lay many dangers any one of which could see them killed. Fiver is not a leader, he is a quiet, intuitive little thinker, but other rabbits listen and usually follow his advice. Gradually, Hazel takes up the position of leader, although not especially powerful, he is a good and thoughtful leader, thinking of others, intelligent and loyal. During their journey they encounter Cowslip who invites them to join his unsettling, unnatural warren, where things are not quite what they seem and Bigwig gets caught in a snare. Soon they are off again; and the little band of limping bedraggled rabbits from the Sandleford warren arrive on Watership Down, the place of safety of Fiver’s visions.
This however is only the beginning of the story in some respects, as the rabbits soon realise, that if they are indeed to establish a new and successful warren on Watership Down, they will need does. Their quest to find does and encourage them to join the warren on Watership Down is a daunting one, and requires some of them to again set out on a journey. Having, helped and been befriended by a seagull Kehaar, the rabbits enlist his help in searching out other warrens from where they will may be able to recruit does. Kehaar tells them of some hutch rabbits on a farm nearby, and of another large warren a few days journey off. While three rabbits undertake the journey to the warren, Hazel and Pipkin seek out the hutch rabbits on the farm, and following a raid return to the warren on Watership Down with two does and a buck rabbit. When the other intrepid rabbits return, they bring with them tales of an enormous warren called Efrafa, an overcrowded warren ruled over by the despotic General Woundwort. The rabbits from Watership Down barely escaped with their lives. Still, an Efrafa doe named Hyzenthlay does want to leave and so a plan is devised to return and rescue those who wish to leave and are being prevented from doing so. More battles and trouble naturally follow, with General Woundwort following them back to Watership Down where a final terrible confrontation is unleashed.
“To come to the end of a time of anxiety and fear! To feel the cloud that hung over us lift and disperse—the cloud that dulled the heart and made happiness no more than a memory! This at least is one joy that must have been known by almost every living creature.”
Watership Down is quite a thick book at nearly 500 pages, but it is a surprisingly quick read. Much of it is indeed very gripping, more so than I had probably expected. I was particularly charmed by the descriptions of the natural world; Adams conveys very beautifully the peace of a hillside, the quiet, shade of woodland. I can’t say I absolutely loved this book, there were one or two sections which did drag a bit – and it took me almost a hundred pages to properly start enjoying it, but I liked it, and there is much to appreciate in the writing. While I was reading I was talking to my mum on the phone, about the book, she said “oh but you soon forget they are rabbits don’t you?” well no, I can’t say that I ever forgot that they were rabbits, though I became more involved with them than I had ever expected to.