The Hazeid - a rabbit's epic
When Hazel’s younger brother Fiver prophesizes impending doom to their Sandleford warren, a splinter group break free of their chief’s authority and embark on a journey to find a new home. Their group consist of a mixture of personalities including the storyteller, Dandelion, the industrious Blackberry and the warrior, Bigwig. After suffering perils and temptations on en route, as well as collecting three rabbits from another warren and three rescued hutch rabbits, they arrive at Watership Down. The adventure is far from over as Hazel realizes the need for does to help propagate their new home and to secure their legacy. This decision will lead them into greater dangers when they meet the rabbits of Efrafa governed under a tyrannical martial rule by the monstrous General Woundwort…
After the brilliant 1978 film made an indelible impression on me, it wasn’t long that I sought out the book. Despite being an avid reader at the time the book seemed rather intimidating in size and structure at the time. I was barely 10 years old and had never owned a book that was divided into four parts all containing chapters, all prefaced with erudite sounding literary quotations. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to have a mother who also loved the film and read it to me. Years later I discovered that Richard Adams, the author, created the story to entertain his daughters when they took long car journeys into the countryside. With this in mind, I think this book is particularly enjoyable when being shared between parent and slightly older children (eight to 12 years).
Of course, don’t let age restrict you. “Watership Down”, like “The Lord of the Rings”, might have been first intended for children, but it reads like an epic novel and holds its own against any other literary classic. In fact, despite Adams’s humble remarks about it all being just a made up story with his main sources coming from his military experiences during the Battle of Arnhem and Ronald Lockley’s nature book, “The Private Life of the Rabbit”, there is clearly the mark of classic mythology in here. I would agree with the author that there is little about actual politics in here - unless we consider some of Adams’s personal opinions regarding animal welfare, which comes across as very light compared to his other novels such as “The Plague Dogs – but there seems to be something very Roman in its morals and ideas. “Watership Down” seems to draw quite heavily from both Homer’s “The Odyssey” and, in particular, Virgil’s “The Aeneid”. From “The Odyssey” we see the apathetical Lotus Eaters in the form of Cowslip’s warren. However, “The Aeneid” seems to be at the core of “Watership Down”. After all, it is the story of refuges from a destroyed home that embark upon a quest to found a new and glorious homeland. Once there, Hazel’s decision to seek out females to breed with is a much more ethical version of “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. There are also obvious classic heroic counterparts found in all the rabbits of the story.
“Watership Down” is often a misjudged story (and film for that matter) by the ignorant as being just a “fluffy bunny” story. It is far from it. Apart from the suspension of disbelief required by the rabbits having their own religion and mythology, and being able to communicate with little trouble with other animals such as Kehaar the seagull, Adams does not pull back from the harsh realities of a wild rabbit’s life. If your only experiences of fictitious rabbits come in the form of Harry the Bunny then you are in for a big surprise. Rabbits are killed and savagely wounded by a variety of other animals, including their own species in bloodthirsty fights – a duel at the end sparing little anatomical detail over the injuries being inflicting on the two combatants – and the whole philosophy of an Adams rabbit, as upheld in their own fables about El-ahrairah the Prince of Rabbits (and the “Prince with a Thousand Enemies”) is about survival through cunning. Even controversial self defence coach, Geoff Thompson, dedicates a whole essay to this book in his motivational book “Everything that Happens to me is Fantastic”. Although clearly written for older children, this is not the lightest of reads.
Despite having a strong emotional investment in the work, which probably has a lot to do with my love of the film, I can see some possible flaws. There is the aforesaid animal welfare moralizing – humans are evil and responsible for most of the ills of the world – which is contained in most of Adams’s work and not always supported, particularly with regards to the “rescue” of the hutch rabbits. However, it isn’t heavy preaching and will be down to own personal opinions as to whether or not his points are valid. The biggest flaw comes from the otherwise appealing structure of the narrative. “Watership Down” is one epic story, but it also contains many minor stories. These sometimes take the form of the fables Dandelion tells and sometimes they diverge into self-contained sub-plots. In this sense, Adams gets a little carried away with the epic feel of his work and a bit more ruthless editing might have improved the flow a little. Sometimes this works, but when we get to the story’s otherwise thrilling climax it doesn’t. At the end of the story we have enough dramatic skipping backwards and forwards between two series of events without the pointless story of a captured rabbit being added in. This neither significantly adds to the sense of threat nor does it progress the plot. Instead it is a rather irritating digression. It’s a small gripe, but looking at “Tales from Watership Down”, Adams’s eventual follow-up, one can see that many of these stories would have been better reserved for this short story collection. “Watership Down” remains one of my favourite books and one that I find inspiring on an allegorical level – even if this wasn’t the author’s intention – and further excites my interest in the devices of mythological storytelling. Being a staunch individualist it I am happy to say it is a book that shows the happy co-existence of community with individual strengths. Hazel’s warren of free-will is shown as the harmonious balanced ideal contrasted against Sandleford’s archaic stagnation, Cowslip’s apathy and Woundwort’s conformity under authoritarian dictatorship. It is an epic for children representing the values of ingenuity, vision, courage, loyalty, resilience and friendship.