Watership Down

Watership Down burst on the world in 1972 .  It was like a bomb.  Almost no-one knew of Richard Adams and yet the book quickly became a best-seller.  Let’s face it, it had all the right elements:  rabbits (game over already), expulsion from the homeland and the search for a new place to live (so now it is biblical), and a war between aggressive males and spiritual thinkers (new age – yay!).  That sounds silly.  It was an exciting, well-written saga, echoing the structure of some ancient myths, immediately appealing to children and adults, another compelling example of that strange British ability to tell stories about animals that capture hearts and minds within the framework of familiar myths and legends.  Like millions of others, my children and I loved it.

The journey to publication hadn’t been easy.  Richard Adams explained, many years later, that during long car journeys he would tell tales to his young daughters Juliet and Rosamund “telling the story of the rabbits … improvised off the top of [my] head, as [we] were driving along”  His daughters  insisted he write it down, “they were very, very persistent”.  Watership Down was rejected seven times before it was accepted by one-man London publisher, Rex Collings.  I wonder why it is that there are so many outstanding books that begin this way, rejected by publisher after publisher?  Even Collings was doubtful, telling an associate, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?”  He had few funds and didn’t pay Adams an advance but “he got a review copy onto every desk in London that mattered.”

Once published, it took off.  The Economist, that staid and conservative magazine, heralded the book’s publication, saying “If there is no place for Watership Down in children’s bookshops, then children’s literature is dead”.  A reviewer at Newsweek commented, “Adams handles his suspenseful narrative more dextrously than most authors who claim to write adventure novels, but his true achievement lies in the consistent, comprehensible and altogether enchanting civilisation that he has created.”

Not everyone was overwhelmed.  Keith Mano, a science fiction writer and conservative commentator writing in  the National Review declared it was “pleasant enough, but it has about the same intellectual firepower as Dumbo.” He added: “Watership Down is an adventure story, no more than that: rather a swashbuckling crude one to boot. There are virtuous rabbits and bad rabbits: if that’s allegory, Bonanza is an allegory.”  This was a striking counter to the view “plenty of other people have seen their histories in that book … some people see it as an allegory for struggles against the Cold War, fascism, extremism … a protest against materialism, against the corporate state.  Watership Down can be Ireland after the famine, Rwanda after the massacres.”  In his response to all this, Richard Adams was happy to make things clear, explaining “it was a story about rabbits”!

The book won Richard Adams the 1972 Carnegie Medal, as the year’s best children’s book by a British subject and several other awards.  With awards and glowing reviews, copies sold beyond the original print run of 2,500 by many multiples, making it a near-instant bestseller in the UK and the US.  It became Penguin’s all-time best seller, with 50 million copies in print across 18 languages.

It’s an epic story, opening with Fiver, a rather unprepossessing buck rabbit receiving a frightening vision of his warren’s imminent destruction.   He and his brother Hazel fail to convince the other rabbits of impending disaster, and with only nine followers, all bucks, they leave the warren.  After various adventures, the group meet Cowslip, who invites them to join his warren.  Most of Hazel’s band are relieved to finally be able to sleep and feed well, but Fiver senses nothing but death in the new warren.  Eventually Fiver works out that the new warren is managed by a farmer, who protects and feeds the rabbits but also harvests some every so often  for their meat and skins.  The band of rabbits leave, joined by Strawberry, yet another buck, who abandons his warren after his doe is killed by one of the farmer’s snares.

Fiver’s visions lead the group to Watership Down, where they are joined by Holly and his friend Bluebell, a pair of exhausted refugees, fleeing from the violent human destruction of their home, Sandleford Warren, and a second attack from Cowslip’s warren along the way.

Although Watership Down is ideal, Hazel realizes that, with no does, the new warren will collapse.  It is at this point we meet one of Adam’s more memorable creations, a black-headed gull, Kehaar.   He helps the rabbits find a nearby warren, Efrafa, which is close by Nuthanger Farm, where they find a hutch with rabbits inside.  Despite their uncertainty about living wild, the rabbits at the farm are willing to come to Watership Down.  However, they discover Efrafa is a ‘dictatorship’ warren, controlled by the dominant buck, General Woundwort, who refuses to allow anyone to escape his control.

Well, you know what is going to happen next, there’s going to be a raid!  Holly manages to identify an Efrafan doe, Hyzenthlay, who wants to leave Efrafa.  She enlists other does to join in, and with help from Kehaar, Hazel and Blackberry extract Hyzenthlay’s group and bring them to Watership Down.  The next part of Watership Down follows the travails of this group on their long journey home.  Eventually, they manage to get back to Watership Down, but do so unaware they have been shadowed by one of Woundwort’s patrols.

Later that summer, Woundwort turns up at Watership Down with his army of bucks ready to  destroy the warren at and grab back the escapees. However, the Watership Down rabbits push back the attack, and unleash Nuthanger Farm’s dogs to attack the aggressors. Despite being gravely wounded, Woundwort refuses to back down; his followers flee the dogs in terror, leaving him to stand his ground alone.  Woundwort’s body is never found, and in the process of releasing the dogs Hazel is nearly killed by one of the farmhouse cats at Nuthanger Farm.  He’s saved by young Lucy, the former owner of the escaped hutch rabbits.

The dramas are over, and as time goes on, the warren on the downs becomes safely established.  Woundwort never returns, and becomes a heroic legend to some rabbits, and a scary bogeyman to frighten children for others.  Kehaar rejoins his flock but continues to visit the rabbits every winter.  However, he refuses to search for Woundwort;  it is clear that even he still fears him.

Many years later, on a cold March morning, an elderly Hazel is visited by El-ahrairah, the spiritual prince of all rabbits and the hero of the traditional rabbit stories that are told through the course of the book.  El-ahrairah invites Hazel to join his owsla (rabbit groups are known as owsla), reassuring Hazel that Watership Down will continue to  succeed and prosper.  In a moving ending to the story, Hazel leaves his friends and no-longer-needed physical body, departing Watership Down with the Rabbit Prince.

Hazel is a wonderful creation, guaranteed to entrance younger readers.  He senses danger, his feelings attuned to underlying tensions and duplicities.  He isn’t a dominating leader, and he knows when to defer to Holly and Fiver.  He is eminently identifiable:  you can’t help but want to have his sensitivity, happily leaving all the battles to others who are bigger and stronger.  He’s the rabbit for the academically inclined, rather than the sporting enthusiasts.  Curiously, the does are less compelling individuals, not exactly written off as subservient, but fulfilling a relatively minor role.  Overall, I remembered it as a compulsive adventure, with just the right mix of mysticism, violence, fantasy and love to entrance a reader.

Has it held up?  Perhaps not as well as I had anticipated.  There are some stories which can be read and reread several times.  Others seem to lose something once read, as if they are sustained by unexpected adventures and risky choice points.  Once you know how they are resolved, then a key part of the story is lost.  Also, I suspect today it comes across as a very English and middle-class tale, even if I can’t quickly justify that comment.  The key (good) characters are nice, with ideal values, and trouble comes from big bullies, controlling males.  Maybe that’s the limitation:  it was a story for England in the 1960s and 1970s, but out of kilter with our currently far more confusing and ambiguous world.

What is does do well, in a way that many British writers seem to achieve so effectively, is to meld the human and the animal.  Like Peter Rabbit, Mole and Rat, and others in this genre, the individuals in the story allow us to simultaneously enjoy the world of a group of animals and their distinctive behaviour while also identifying with the very human characteristics they possess, and how they respond to danger.

It’s a delicate balance, and, I think, often exposed when attempts are made to transfer these stories to cinema.  Watership Down and Wind in the Willows have resulted in second-rate movies, and Peter Rabbit has only succeeded because the film version is little more than the familiar drawings animated, leaving the simple story told exactly as it is.  The film of Watership Down, an animation, pushes the story into easily digested Disney territory, even if some ‘concerned’ parents and reviewers were worried about the violence and death.  They must have been concerned all the way through most of Disney’s movies!

I have been reading a series by Christelle Dabos recently:  The Mirror Visitor books tell the story of a young woman, Ophelia as she battles her way through various amazing and almost improbable worlds.  The series offers one way of understanding the appeal and the limits of Watership Down.  The adventures of Hazel and the other rabbits are exciting, certainly, and there are some excellent, thrilling moments.  But the story is unilinear.  There is an end point to which scenes and choices are oriented:  while you are not entirely confident the members of this little band will make it, and you sense some certainly won’t, the eventual resolution is clear.  Christelle Dabos piles on confusions and complexities, almost suggesting this saga will never be resolved, and such is the mass of confounding detail you feel like reading each book twice before going on to the next, not because you are confused, but rather just to relish the extraordinary world she has created.  The idea that the Mirror Visitor books are moving towards a clear and identifiable end point is laughable!

If that sounds a put-down of Watership Down, it’s unintended.  Adam’s book is a ‘great read’.  However, today it seems to be something of a throwback to a time when stories were simpler, characterisations more accessible.  It is like looking back to that era of movies set in the early days of the US, when you knew if the cowboys were good or bad by the colour of their hats:  white good, black bad.  Today we expect, and possibly want, the characters to be more ambiguous, and an end point for resolution seems less important.  I wonder, too, if we still want talking animals to read like humans, dress-ups as it were.  Writers today are likely to throw those assumptions aside.  No simple assumptions about animals, or humans for that matter.  Ophelia is a suitable amazing fantasy character, able to ‘read’ history through her fingertips as they touch something from the past, as well as being able to travel through mirrors, and at the same time has the power to strike, main and kill.  Quite stunning!

Many reviewers and commentators have noted the links between Watership Down’s key protagonists, and classical stories, especially Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.  The parallels are evident:  Hazel’s courage, Bigwig’s strength, Blackberry’s ingenuity and craftiness, and Dandelion’s and Bluebell’s poetry and storytelling all hark back to key figures and events in The Odyssey.  Indeed, one scholar, John Rateliff, calls Adams’s novel an Aeneid ‘what-if’ book: what if Fiver (Cassandra) had been believed and the rabbits had fled their doomed warren before its destruction? The similarities continue, with Hazel an Odysseus, and Rateliff goes on to comment,  “By basing his story on one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Adams taps into a very old myth: the flight from disaster, the heroic refugee in search of a new home, a story that was already over a thousand years old when Virgil told it in 19 BC.”

Current novels show a rather different approach to classic Greek and Roman epics about gods and their interactions with ‘everyday folk’.  One excellent example is to be found in two recent novels by Madeline Miller, who takes two familiar myths, and retells them through the eyes of a previously relatively minor protagonists, Patroclus as Achilles friend and partner in reimagining an aspect of Homer’s Iliad, and, in her second book, Circe, exploring her place in the story of Odysseus.  We enjoy reading the familiar story from a different perspective, and enjoy re-considering key events, revelling this new way of looking at what happened, almost as if what we are reading is a quite different story.

Richard Adams went on to write several other books after Watership Down.  First Shardik and then The Plague Dogs continued his interest in animals and environmental issues.  Then he changed course, and wrote The Girl in a Swing, a slightly surreal romance.  He continued writing novels, but most have disappeared from libraries and home collections.  Like many other authors, it seems he may have had one brilliant book in him, but just one.

However, it’s more than possible I’m not the best person to comment on Watership Down.  I met Richard Adams once.  My wife was working for Puffin Books, and she was assigned the task of taking him to lunch.  We were living in Adelaide at the time.  I went along because I was designated as the person to pay the bill!  Authors are often quite unlike their books:  in this case Richard Adams came across as a rather pretentious author, rather boring, and certainly it was clear he was happy to dominate the conversation over lunch.  Maybe he felt that was expected of him.  Our role was to be a suitably thankful audience.

At one point during the lunch, Richard was asked about other writers whose work he enjoyed, and, in particular, to whom he would compare himself.  I can’t remember for sure, but as I recall I think he suggested Kenneth Graham.  For me, that wasn’t a good choice (I love Wind in the Willows).  All I can say is ‘the devil made me do it’, but I replied (I had been suitably quiet during the meal) “Perhaps not Kenneth Graham, but rather more like the Enid Blyton of her Secret Seven books”.  There was a moment of horrible silence.  Then the Penguin representative quickly jumped in, and asked Richard another question, carefully designed to flatter his perceptions, while I disappeared to pay the bill.  I guess that tells you something about me, about Richard Adams, and the lovely Penguin representative.  Not exactly a Fiver, but I am not usually so forthright and rude.  Clearly the devil was hard at work that day beside the River Torrens in Adelaide.  Hey, there might be a book in that!