Premise: A group of rabbits are forced to flee from their warren when an ominous human noticeboard goes up. Faced with several dangers including dogs, foxes and hrududus (the lapine word for motorised vehicles), the rabbits travel to Watership Down where they set up a seemingly idyllic new home. However, they soon find that they have to contend with the tyrannical figure of General Woundwort, who isn’t enamoured with a rival warren being set up so close to his own.
When I first told my nearest and dearest that I was writing a novel and sent out a couple of sample chapters to get their thoughts, one of my friends replied that he thought the concept was pretty good but added glibly that there was a dearth of talking animals. Whilst I’m afraid that I won’t be adding any talking animals to my story at any point soon(!), it did get me thinking about novels and other works of fiction which feature creatures with communicative powers. We’re mostly looking at children’s books here, of course. Anthropomorphic animals in their various guises feature in faerie tales, Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl, the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter and the Wind in the Willows to name but a few. It is a list that is almost inexhaustibly lengthy but, by contrast, such speech-empowered fauna is much fewer and far between in serious fiction aimed at adults. And even though Watership Down is ostensibly a children’s book, I would argue that it is so crammed full of thought-provoking themes about environment, friendship, society, politics and diplomacy that it is as relevant for readers who have left their younger years behind as it is for those who still hold onto the possibility that dragons might somehow be real.
Adams claimed that the novel was based on nothing more intellectual than a bedtime story he invented for his children. However, it is a consequence of how our brains work that anyone who sits down to write anything is affected by the life that they have lived up to that point. Watership Down is riddled with various conflicts and I would guess that Adam’s experience of living through the Second World War, serving in Palestine, Europe and the Far East, has helped shape the themes of threat and combat that hang over the whole thread of the narrative. The structure of the Sandleford Warren (where the novel begins) is described in hierarchical, quasi-military terms. The small group that decide to leave the warren are accused of mutiny and placed under the threat of death for their crimes. Later, the description of the warren's destruction horribly evokes the use of gas in the trenches during the First World War. And the Efrafa Warren of General Woundwort has the feel of a Nazi concentration camp.
Another theme that is prevalent throughout the novel is the impact of human activity on nature and wildlife. Evidently, there is the destruction of the Sandleford Warren right at the beginning. But throughout the book, the rabbits are affected by human intervention even though, up until the final chapters, humans remain murky shadows that linger in the background. Roads, railways, farms and even a boat become challenges and obstacles. The rabbits are affected by the strange smells and sounds, and are blinded by the lights of oncoming hrududus. Whilst Watership Down appears to be a human-free paradise, there is still the threat of the nearby farmer and the memory of their near extinction persists up until the last pages.
Within the narrative, there are several stories within the story. These are fables, mostly, about the rabbit god, El-ahrairah. They cleverly help add a complexity to the characterisation of the rabbit protagonists as well as anchoring their world with a sense of history and myth. Since Watership Down was originally intended as a bedtime story, it isn’t difficult to conjecture that Adams included this element as a way of underlining the power and importance of storytelling, especially in a communal setting. As with the other themes in the book, it is almost as if Adams is urging us to look backwards at what we have lost – that sense of shared narrative. i.e. In our 21st century world, if we don’t tell our stories, how can we understand each other in our increasingly multicultural society? And if we don’t pass on the ‘old stories’ then how can we stop ourselves from repeating the mistakes of the past?
In short, then, this is a much more powerful novel than a mere bedtime story. It is a fable and an adventure and a social commentary all rolled into one. If you haven’t read it, go out and find yourself a copy. And if you haven’t read it since childhood, dig it out and read it all over again.
Who might enjoy this book: Anyone who has the capacity to see the world through a rabbit’s eyes!