“What’s that you’re reading?” Asked the man next to me on the train. Inwardly sighing (and probably outwardly too, because all civilised people understand never to interrupt someone who is reading, particularly not on a commuter train where generally we all do our best to politely pretend nobody else exists) I showed him the cover. It was Watership Down, which I re-read roughly every year. He smiled and shook his head. “Isn’t that a children’s book?” I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Not really”.
I read Watership Down for the first time when I was about nine years old. I remember very little else about that summer, except that I also read The Hobbit and The Day of the Triffids at roughly the same time, quietly borrowing them from the bookshelves of various family members. It was the summer I fell in love with books in general, and fantasy in particular.
The Hobbit may have caught my imagination, and The Day of the Triffids began my enduring obsession with apocalyptic fiction, but it was Watership Down that captured my heart. It’s a story which the author Richard Adams originally told to his two daughters to keep them entertained on a long car journey. Luckily for us, they convinced him to write it down and it was of course eventually published. Adams had no thought of it being successful. His only ambition was to have a hardback he could present to his daughters.
On the surface, yes it is a children’s book – not that there is a thing wrong with that – it is after all a book featuring talking rabbits. For anyone out there who hasn’t already had the joy of reading Watership Down, it’s about a band of plucky rabbits who following a terrifying prophecy of destruction leave their warren and set out in search of a new home. It’s a book of two halves, with the first focusing on obstacles they encounter on their journey – arrest by their own warren’s Owsla (rabbits close to the Chief Rabbit, here acting as warren police), predators, betrayal by their own kind, and the inevitable jostling for leadership. The second half turns into a kind of rabbit version of The Great Escape when they hatch a plan to free some rabbits from a nearby warren which suffers under the dictatorship of one of fiction’s greatest villains, General Woundwort. It’s a classic epic quest entwined with a whole new fantastical lapine culture and even language (and who doesn’t want to be able to swear in rabbit?) which as a kid totally blew my mind.
Then I got to be the kind of age where you’re embarrassed by any evidence you ever liked anything which might have been aimed at anyone younger, and I gave my copy of Watership Down away to charity. Fortunately I then grew up some more, realised how much I missed it and how ridiculous I was, and bought a new copy. That’s when I discovered that Watership Down, like all truly great books, contains something new every time you return to it.
Re-reading it as a young adult, the themes of trust, friendship, loyalty and honour shone through. The heart of Watership Down is in its hero, Hazel. Hazel trusts his brother Fiver when he tells them that death is coming to the warren, and Fiver trusts Hazel to lead them to safety. With most of the warren not believing Fiver, they’re joined by rabbits who for one reason or another are dissatisfied with their lot but who eventually become stalwart followers and friends. While not without his faults, Hazel is a brilliant hero and a surprisingly modern leader. He does become their Chief Rabbit, not because he is the strongest or the smartest but because he understands that he isn’t. He knows which of the rabbits to call on depending on whether he needs brains or brawn, and what’s more he knows how to get the best out of them and acknowledges their contribution without trying to take credit for it himself. He earns their loyalty to the point they are willing to fight and die for him.
Hazel is also something of a visionary and incredibly brave. It’s he who has the idea to befriend creatures which rabbits would normally have nothing to do with, an idea which pays dividends when the seagull Kehaar becomes a vital part of their plan to free rabbits from Woundwort’s police-state like warren, Efrafa. And when Woundwort arrives at Hazel’s warren intent on revenge, Hazel goes out alone to meet him. In a last ditch attempt to prevent bloodshed, he suggests an alliance of their two warrens, which Woundwort – revealing himself to be nothing more than a petty despot – ultimately rejects. And it’s Hazel who comes up with a genius but daring plan to defeat Woundwort and his army, and leads in building the alliance he originally suggested.
Re-visiting Watership Down now, I find it as enchanting and even more relevant than ever. While Adams did not intend for Watership Down to be an allegory of any kind, there is no doubt that Hazel and his band stand for freedom and decency. They refuse to compromise their principles and accept control of any kind. The first warren they consider joining offers luxury in exchange for the acceptance that they will be farmed. Woundwort’s warren offers safety in exchange for agency. It is clear that security without freedom is not security at all but a prison, which must always be fought against with all of our strength, courage and wits.
There’s also the way the overall story is broken up by rabbit legends which our heroes tell to each other on their journeys. The hero of these fables is a rabbit they call El-ahrairah, a sort of Robin Hood figure who they all aspire to be, full of tricks and bravery and when needs be, capable of great sacrifice. These miniature fairy tales are embedded in the story like gemstones in a ring, and show that Adams understood the importance of stories. They are not merely escapism. They can sustain us through dark times and remind us of who we are and what we want to be. If there ever was a time we need stories, it is now.
Watership Down may at first glance look like a cosy children’s book about talking rabbits, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about doing what is right, even if nobody seems to listen; it’s about being afraid and facing our fears anyway; it’s about being stronger with our friends; it’s about fighting totalitarianism; and it’s about the power of stories. If you haven’t read it before, please buy or borrow a copy now. Your life will be richer for it. Plus, you know you want to be able to swear in rabbit.
I’ll end with a quote from Adams himself: “Naturally, I am glad that the book has been enjoyed by so large a public, and that it plainly has a wide appeal (although the reason has never been altogether clear to me).” He may not have understood the reason why, but I’m so glad that he did get to see how much Watership Down has meant to so many, including me. Thank you, Richard Adams.
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)