Rabbits (says Mr Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which is it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now.The story of Watership Down starts when, at a peaceful warren in Sandleford, a small rabbit named Fiver has a forewarning: he senses that something absolutely dreadful is about to happen to the warren, and that all must flee to save their lives. His brother Hazel knows that Fiver’s sixth sense is normally right (and, although they cannot read it, near the place where the rabbits stand there is a notice board saying that the land the warren is in will soon be used for construction, so Fiver is indeed right), so he takes him to see the Chief Rabbit, so that they may warn him. But, since they lack any sort of evidence, the Chief Rabbit does not believe Fiver. The little rabbit cannot shake his feeling off, though, so later that night, along with his brother and a group of other rabbits willing to follow them, they leave the warren.
What follows is almost 500 pages of adventures. The rabbits must travel a long way until they find a place to start a new warren, and they face many dangers during this journey. After the warren is settled, their adventures continue. They have conflicts with other warrens that lead what can only be described as fear-dominated and unnatural lives for rabbits, and, since there are only bucks in the group, they must find does willing to join them.
Watership Down is a story for children about a group of rabbits. It is, however, a story for children about a book of rabbits that quotes frequently from Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Yeats, Mallory, Robert Browning, William Blake and Thomas Hardy, among others. It is also as much a story about people as it is about rabbits.
Richard Adams did a lot of research on the habits of wild rabbits, and his characters are completely believable as wild animals. But books with animals as characters naturally tend to tell us as much about people as they do about animals, and this is no exception. This is a story about people's cruelty towards animals, and about humankind’s abuse of nature. It is also a story about society and fear, and the struggle for freedom, and the ways in which we lead our lives. And it's about loyalty and friendship, and courage and endurance and hope.
Richard Adams created a very rich and fascinating culture for these rabbits. They have a language of their own, Lapine, and several words of it are used in the story. They also have myths and folktales and they often tell each other throughout the novel – stories about El-ahrairab the trickster and his companion Rabscuttle, stories about the ominous Black Rabbit of Inlé. The way these tales are interwoven with the story, along with the rabbit’s culture, values and beliefs was extremely detailed and felt very real.
The book is beautifully written, and full of insightful comments that never, ever intrude on the story. A few examples:
Human beings say, ‘It never rains but it pours.’ This is not very apt, for it frequently does rain without pouring. The rabbit’s proverb is better expressed. They say, ‘One cloud feels lonely’: and indeed it is true that the appearance of a single cloud often means that the sky will soon be overcast.
Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it. For them there is no winter food problem. They have fires and warm clothes. The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security. For birds and animals, as for poor men, winter is another matter.Watership Down is a perfect example of how children’s books can be as complex and relevant as books for adults. It’s a story full of meaning, and also a very gripping one. The book is rather long, but not for once did I lose interest in what was going on with this group of rabbits. I treasured each moment that I got to spend with this book, and once I turned its final pages I knew I would miss these unforgettable characters – Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Holly, Dandelion and others will always remain in my heart. Fortunately, I discovered that Richard Adams revisited them in a book called Tales From Watership Down. It is not a sequel to this novel, but a collection of short stories, some about these characters, some expanding on Lapine mythology and folklore. I really look forward to reading it.
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Words by Annie
B&B ex libris
Dog Ear Diary