Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 1: The Novels

First edition cover

The original novel was inspired by a series of improvised stories that the original author, Richard Adams, told his two daughters, Juliet and Rosamund, during long car journeys. They centered on two rabbits named Hazel and Fiver, the latter of whom had psychic powers that allowed him to see the future. When Adams had finished his story, the girls insisted that he write it down. He hesitated but was finally convinced when he was reading a bedtime story from a mediocre book and became convinced that he could write a better story than that. By his account, he spent the next eighteen months writing the book, working in the evenings after supper. The completed book would bear the dedication, “To Juliet and Rosamund, remembering the road to Stratford-upon-Avon.”

Adams drew from several sources in building the characters, especially several characters that he met during his service in the Airbourne Company of the Royal Army Service Corps during World War II. Hazel was based on an officer he served under who “had the natural power of leadership.” Bigwig, future head of the Watership Down Owsla (aka rabbit law enforcement/military caste), was based on another officer who was “a tremendous fighter who was at his best when he had been told exactly what he had to do.” Kehaar, the rabbit’s seagull ally, was based on a Norwegian resistance fighter who Adams had become acquainted with. Fiver was inspired by the tragic Greek character of Cassandra (although he’s obviously more successful in getting others to listen to his prophecies, otherwise we wouldn’t have a book). Finally, he tied it all together by reading the book The Private Life of the Rabbit by Welsh naturalist Ronald Lockley so he could convincingly portray his rabbits in their wild setting.

The book was rejected by seven publishers, all of whom thought there was no audience for it. Adams puts their objections this way: “Older children wouldn’t like it because it’s about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it’s written in an adult style.”

However, when the manuscript landed on the desk of Rex Collings, a one-person publisher in London, the book finally went somewhere. He asked his associate, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of whom has extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” Fortunately, he wasn’t. The first edition of the book, published in November 1972, sold out very quickly and garnered numerous positive reviews. The Economist even went as far as to claim that “if there is no place for Watership Down in children’s bookshops, then children’s literature is dead.” The book would receive a big boost in popularity after Macmillain Inc. published the first US edition in 1974.

But enough of the making-of documentary. What is it about the book that captured the hearts of so many readers?

The Novel

The basic story should likely be familiar to most, but for those who aren’t, here’s a quick rundown of the plot:

The story starts in the hedgerows of Sandleford, a hamlet in the English country of Berkshire. A warren of rabbits lives there, among them a pair of “outskirters” (basically unimportant average Joe rabbits) named Hazel and Fiver. Fiver, a diminutive runt with the gift/curse of clairvoyance, foresees a horrible disaster descending on the warren. Hazel, his brother, fails to convince their chief rabbit to evacuate, and so he and Fiver leave of their own accord. They are joined by Bigwig and Silver (both former Owsla), Blackberry (the “smart guy” planner of the group), Dandelion (gifted with speed and a great storyteller), Pipkin (a runt rabbit even smaller than Fiver, naturally inclined to timidity), Hawkbit (“a rather slow and stupid rabbit”), Buckthorn (strong and a good fighter, though still too young to join the Owsla), and Speedwell and Acorn.

They encounter several perils along the way to their new home, with the elil (predators) and hrududil (motorized vehicles) sometimes being the least of their problems. They also encounter a warren led by an eccentric rabbit named Cowslip, which seems like an idyllic paradise where a kindly farmer feeds the rabbits. After Bigwig is nearly strangled to death by a snare, however, the rabbits figure out that the man is harvesting them for their meat and skins, and the native rabbits are using them to increase their own odds of survival. They depart, but not before being joined by Strawberry as they leave, heartbroken over losing his doe, Nildro-hain, to another wire.

They finally make a home on a hill called Watership Down, located about three miles south of Sandleford. Speaking of Sandleford, two rabbits from the former warren, Owsla captain Holly and plucky jokester Bluebell, arrive at the down to inform the others what happened: Men came, filled in the burrows, poisoned the trapped rabbits with gas, shot most of the ones who escaped and then dug up the warren to make way for housing developments.

After Holly recovers, he leads an expedition to another warren another three miles south called Efrafa, which was spotted by Kehaar, a wounded black-headed gull who was nursed back to health by the rabbits. They wish to see if their chief rabbit wishes to relieve its overcrowding problem by sending some of their does to Watership Down, for the rabbits neglected to bring any does with them when they left Sandleford. Meanwhile, while attempting to release some other does from a hutch on nearby Nuthanger Farm, Hazel is shot in the hind leg by the farmer. He miraculously survives, mostly because Fiver has a vision telling him where his brother is hiding, only to receive bad news about Efrafa.

Their chief rabbit, General Woundwort, is a despot who ensures that no rabbits succumb to elil through harsh regimentation, brutally punishing those who refuse to fall in line. However, the cunning Watershippers manage to outsmart the general when Bigwig meets up with Hyzenthaly, a doe leading a passive resistance movement in the warren, and orchestrates a massive escape, leading the fugitives onto a small boat, with Kehaar hampering the Efrafan’s pursuit.

But the Watershippers underestimate Woundwort’s vindictiveness, and he leads his own Owsla to the down and lays siege to the warren (Kehaar, having departed for his native “peeg vater,” is not available to assist). He is thwarted when Hazel, Dandelion, and Blackberry set the dog from Nuthanger Farm on them. Woundwort stands his ground and is presumably killed, although his body is never found, and at least one of his officers still believes him to be alive even months after the fact. Hazel, meanwhile, is saved from the farm cat by the farmer’s daughter, Lucy, and returns to the down unscathed.

The story ends years later, with the warren thriving. A much older Hazel is greeted by the rabbit’s legendary folk hero El-ahrairah, who invites him to join his Owsla, to which he happily obliges.

Why It’s Worth Your Time

Perhaps the book’s best feature is how Adams refuses to anthropomorphize the rabbits beyond raising their intelligence level a bit to make them more relatable to human readers. They are still believably portrayed as vulnerable prey animals, even if they are better able to hold their own in a fight. Consequently, they behave as if death is a moment-to-moment possibility, which it very much is, not just from foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, and birds of prey, but also men.

Indeed, rabbit-human relations are rather complex in the book. Whereas seemingly any animal can effectively communicate with the rabbits if enough effort is put into learning their language (even elil), humans are so far above them on an evolutionary scale that understanding them is all but impossible. Their presence hangs over the story in the same way that Cthulhu and his eldritch brethren hang over the protagonists of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Of course, as Hazel finds out in the final chapters, humans do have a leg up on Cthulhu in that they sometimes do notice their fellow animal’s suffering. Of course, this fact is more confusing than uplifting for Hazel since Lucy is still of the same species that so brutally tore apart his old warren.

Besides that, Adams also distinguishes his rabbit protagonists by giving them their own unique culture, which revolves around their religious beliefs. I mentioned El-ahrairah above, who basically serves as both an Adam figure (as the first rabbit) and a Jesus analog (given how the rabbits treat him as their mythic savior). However, given the rabbits’ love of tricks, his personality could be better described as “halfway between Beowulf and Bugs Bunny,” in TV Tropes’ words. In addition to him, there are several other mythological god-like figures, including Lord Frith (their creator deity), Prince Rainbow (Frith’s right-hand-man who has something of a love-hate relationship with El-ahrairah), Rabscuttle (chief of El-ahrairah’s Owsla and his closest friend), and the Black Rabbit of Inle (the rabbit grim reaper). General Woundwort is added to the pantheon after his disappearance as a sort of bogeyman figure who serves as the Black Rabbit’s right-hand… er, rabbit, I guess.

Adams even came up with a language for the rabbits to speak for whenever he needed a word for a concept unique to the lagomorph experience. For example, humans don’t really need a word for the practice of going above ground to feed. This concept is simplified into the Lapine word silflay, meaning “above-food.” Other Lapine words used in the book include hlessi (wanderer), flayrah (garden food like lettuce, carrots, etc.), and hrair (thousand… or any number above four, since rabbits can’t count any higher). Adams has explained in interviews that he wanted the language to have “a wuffy, fluffy sound” since he figured that’s what rabbit speech would sound like if they could talk. Certain words also have an onomatopoeic quality, especially hrududu (made to sound like a rabbit’s impression of a running engine). Granted, the Lapine language isn’t nearly as well developed as the various languages that were the foundation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium (which isn’t that surprising since Tolkien was a linguistics scholar and Adams wasn’t). Indeed, Adams freely admitted that he made up the words to the language as he went along. Still, as Keren Levy of The Guardian notes, the language is “somehow easy to accept as one we have always known.”

Much has been made of supposed political allegories present in the book. Adams swore up and down until the day he died that it was not his intention. As he states in the introduction to the edition I own: “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.” It isn’t hard to see why people started drawing those connections, though. The novel is rife with themes of exile, leadership, liberation, self-determination, heroism, and community-building, and it’s hard not to read certain themes of environmentalism into the discussions the rabbits have regarding humans. Take, for example, this impassioned plea from Strawberry to the Efrafans (who are often thought to have parallels with Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia):

“Animals don’t behave like men,” he said. “If they have to fight, they fight; 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.”

Chapter 27, “You Can’t Imagine It Unless You’ve Been There,” pg. 237, Scribner edition

There’s also this infamous quote from Captain Holly as he recounts Sandleford’s destruction to the Watershippers: “Men will never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed all the animals.”

Even if Adams didn’t intend a political message to the story, it’s clear that a lot of people struggling against oppression have seen themselves in the characters.

One last cool feature of the book I want to talk about before I move on is the fact that every location described in the pages actually exists in real life. Every location can be found within a single strip of land stretching about 7-8 miles long, between the hamlet of Sandleford in the province of Berkshire all the way to the stretch of the River Test where the towns of Overton and Laverstoke are located (Efrafa is on the other side of the railroad at the crossing of two bridle paths known to the rabbits as the Crixa), with the actual Watership Down located smack dab in the middle. Indeed, Richard Adams lived in the region his whole life, so it makes sense that he might want to immortalize it in his most popular work.

If there is one criticism I have to give of the book, it would definitely have to be the portrayal of the female characters. Aside from Hyzenthlay, most of the does are treated as little more than breeding stock to help the Watership Down warren survive, especially the hutch does that Hazel nearly gets himself killed over. Indeed, while Holly and Hazel are discussing the hutch does as the latter lies recovering in a ditch at the foot of the down, he asks, “Are they any good?” Adams tries to dismiss this in the narration by pointing out that rabbit gender relations are not comparable to humans. But the damage was still done, as far as some feminist critics were concerned. Adams apparently came to agree if the official sequel is any indication.

Tales from Watership Down
Cover of the December 2012 first Vintage Books edition, which I own a copy of.

Tales from Watership Down, published by the Hutchinson printing firm in 1996, was written to be more of an anthology series than a single narrative. The nineteen stories contained therein are divided into three parts. The first part, consisting of seven stories, features more tales of El-ahrairah and two more modern stories. The second part, consisting of four stories, consists entirely of side quests taken by El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle on their way back from Inle, the land of the dead. The third part, consisting of the last eight stories, detail events in the Watership Down rabbit’s lives that take place in the months after Woundwort’s defeat.

Some have criticized the new El-ahrairah tales as pointless since they don’t have context with the story like the ones in the original novel. While I can’t argue against that criticism, I still find many new adventures entertaining in their own right. “The Scent of Smell” is probably my absolute favorite story in the book, thanks to probably being the most epic and adventurous tale in Lapine mythology. Others that have stuck in my mind include “The Tale of the Three Cows” (especially because of the downright Lovecraftian way in which the Third Cow is described), “The Hole in the Sky” (okay, seriously, how much cosmic horror was Adams reading when he wrote this?), and “Speedwell’s Story” (in which one of the more nondescript rabbits from the original novel reveals himself to have a… rather interesting imagination, to say the least).

The stories of how rabbit society on the downs restructures after the fall of Woundwort’s regime are also interesting to read, even if the stakes are a lot lower with the dictator dethroned. We get to see things like forming a new warren halfway between Watership Down and Efrafa called Vleflain. We get to see the story of Flyairth, a spirited doe who, despite nearly undermining the stability of Watership Down due to her pathological fear of the “white blindness” (known to humans as myxomatosis), inspires the Watershippers to promote Hyzenthlay to the position of co-chief rabbit alongside Hazel. We see an escaped hutch rabbit named Stonecrop who gets treated like dirt because of how strongly he smells of humans, only to prove himself by scaring an invading horde of weasels away from Vleflain with his scent. And, perhaps most importantly for feminist critics, we get to see Hyzenthlay-rah prove herself as she leads a wounded doe named Nyreem to Watership Down.

Ironically enough, given how critical the reviews on Goodreads seem to be of the El-ahrairah stories in this book, I actually somewhat prefer them over the Watership Down tales, as they had much more of an epic style closer to the first book. Still, despite all that, I think Tales is a worthy sequel and well worth reading at least once.

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