Watership Down

Not about naval warfare, as you might think.

Did I ever mention that I love rabbits? Bar none, they are the cutest animals on the planet. Kittens? Puppies? Hamsters? Not even close. When I was a kid, a friend bought me a pet rabbit as a birthday gift (didn’t go over so well with my mom). For some reason, I named her after my sister, Bessie. But Bessie (the rabbit, not my sister) had a terrible life. She mostly sat in a large cage in my father’s orange grove eating lettuce and making Coco Puffs. We sometimes let her out to silflay (graze), until the day my dad tried to pick her up and she scratched his arm. He dropped her and she broke her back. I was fairly young at the time and still averse to the idea of death, so my parents neglected to inform me of Bessie’s death (again, my pet rabbit, not my sister). When I found out, I was devastated, until He-Man came on. The worst part is, she likely died painfully. I had two more rabbits after that, Helen and Dino (my other sister and my brother), who were taken out to play and silflay often. But all they ever seemed to do is dig. Once their escape tunnel under the fence was complete, I never saw them again. I cannot imagine what adventures they went on, but I hope they would make El-ahrairah proud.

All this brings me to Watership Down, a book by British author Richard Adams that is not about boats or naval warfare. I saw the animated version as a kid and remember being deeply, deeply moved, especially by the beginning, which describes how God created the world. To every animal, He gave a gift, the lion his teeth and claws, the buffalo his horns, etc. But the rabbit was too busy digging to pay attention, so God gave him large feet to run, and since the rabbit produced too many offspring, enough to cover the whole of Creation, God made it so that every other animal was the rabbit’s enemy. I came up with a word to describe my feelings for the film, and that word was sagotic. I don’t use it anymore, because it sounds silly, but it’s basically an adjective for saga, meaning “like a saga” or “referring to a saga.” By today’s standards, the film does not hold up. The animation falls flat and far behind Bambi, which makes me wish Disney had the rights to it (they can buy Marvel and Star Wars but not this?). Decades after seeing the movie, I purchased the book with hopes that it might conjure those old feelings, and I am happy to report that the wall of jadedness about my forty year old heart has been greatly moved. To give you an idea, a lady at the Starbucks where I was reading the last chapters asked to borrow my phone, and I had to brush her off lest she notice my watering eyes.

OMG! So cute!

You might wonder how a book entirely about rabbit life could be so emotionally investing, but it makes sense once you learn of the tremendous challenges to their survival. They not only have to worry about finding food and shelter, but are constantly threatened by elil, the rabbit word for predator (did I mention the author invents his own rabbit vocabulary?). To drive the point home, El-ahrairah, the mythical first rabbit created by Frith (God), and father of all rabbits, is called the Prince with Ten Thousand Enemies. Rabbits live in constant fear. When they run, it is never out in the open if they can help it, and when a rabbit dies, it is said that they ‘stop running’. Whether you’re human or animal, rabbit life makes for great drama. In Watership Down, however, rabbits are known for their cleverness. Many chapters are devoted to rabbits telling tales of El-ahrairah, the Prince known for his wits, who escapes a fox or steals from a garden protected by dogs. These were, by far, my favorite bits of the story.

Much of the Watership Down’s 400+ pages seem wordy and unnecessary, however, and I actually rode the donkey-carriage a few times, which got me to thinking I would be giving it three stars. You have to wonder who the book was intended for, as it’s much too long for children, and once you get into it, the violence and vocabulary dispels any notion that children were a target demographic. However, I cannot imagine many adults wanting to read a book where nearly every character is a rabbit. Who published this, anyway? How was the editor persuaded? What did Adam’s query letter look like? “Dear Sir, please consider my 500 page book about rabbits . . .” And yet, I am elated that something like this got into print, because Richard Adams is an exceedingly brilliant story teller.

Our heroes, the clever Hazel, the clairvoyant Fiver, and Bigwig, the warrior, along with a host of less memorable rabbits, narrowly escape the destruction of their warren (an underground village where the rabbits live). They then go on a Tolkienesque journey (complete with map and endless descriptions of foliage) to find a new place to live on Watership Down, only to realize their survival depends on finding females. See, wild rabbits live for 3 years on average, so offspring is paramount. Their quest to find sex leads them to Efrafa, a warren run by Nazis, apparently, because every rabbit there who is not in the officer’s club is treated like a worker in some dystopian novel. To liberate the does, our heroes must risk everything, and in this way the book turns into a kind of espionage, prison escape, World War II story, but with rabbits, which may sound strange, but is awesome in actuality.

I could argue that the book should begin with the last two parts, and some cutting would doubtless benefit its flow, but these seem like petty concerns when the author manages to make you feel so much for his characters. There is even a bit of allegory to be found, when the rabbits look to their folktales for courage and inspiration in the worst of times, just as we turn to religion. Watership Down is the kind of book that makes me want to be a writer. Someday, I hope readers will feel the same inspiration as they turn over the last page in my book, that they’ll get that sagotic feeling.

Helen and Dino and Bessie (the rabbits, not my siblings) wherever you are (running in rabbit heaven, surely, with El-ahrairah), this post is for you.

One thought on “Watership Down

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  1. Reblogged this on the Writer's Disease and commented:

    Over the past two days, the world has become a little dimmer. We’ve lost three great voices, singer-songwriter George Michael, actress and writer Carrie Fischer, and the lesser known but equally significant Richard Adams, author of “Watership Down.” Adams lived to see 96. As a tribute to him, I am reposting my review of his book here. No surprise, it’s wonderful. And for you, Richard, may El-ahrairah lead you to greener pastures.


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