Rabbit realism and folklore: Richard Adams’s Watership Down

Watership Down (1972) is a very clever book. It’s fantasy, certainly, but what Adams does is takes the realistic details of the lives of rabbits and then writes about them as if they were sapient. They talk and tell stories and prophecy (which is what makes the book fantasy rather than science fiction) but they are still and always rabbits and you can’t forget that for an instant. The plot is straight from Livy—it’s the story of the founding of Rome—but the story is so essentially steeped in the natural history of the downland and the rabbits that the allegory never becomes intrusive. This is the story of Hazel and Fiver, not Romulus and Remus, and stealing the does from Efrafa, not the rape of the Sabine women. Or rather it’s both, and the classical resonances give weight and shape to the story of the rabbits. It’s one of those things where you wonder how anybody could have thought of it.

Things I noticed reading it this time—it’s probably ten years since I last read it—this is a very specific moment of countryside, as well as a very specific place. This is forty years ago, it’s 1970, with the myxomatosis plague only just over, and with the methods of farming not yet changed to the agribusiness of today. Also, humans inevitably smoke. I don’t think we see a human who doesn’t smoke—smoking is what distinguishes humans, the white sticks are their spoor. Yes, that was 1970 in Britain, I remember it well. Who says things don’t get better?

Even as a child I always found the authorial intrusions annoying. I didn’t want the bit of human point of view. And I liked working out what the rabbits didn’t understand, I didn’t need it explained in human terms. There’s a definite narrator here, and an implied human audience, and I’d prefer not to have that. He stops the story to say that rabbits don’t think about does with human ideas of romance, and it just isn’t necessary. But I suppose he wasn’t writing for an science fiction reader—goodness knows who he thought he was writing for, with his chapter start quotations. I was also a little startled to find references to the way animals and primitive humans can sense things and feel things that civilized humans have lost. I don’t know who he thinks primitive humans are. Gah.

Fortunately, there isn’t too much of this kind of thing. In contrast, I like the way the rabbits do struggle to understand new things, the way ideas like boats and inter-species co-operation are new and frightning to them. I think Adams does very well at conveying the rabbit point of view—alien, but not too alien to identify with. Most books about animals, especially books in which animals talk, and especially books for children in which animals talk, sentimentalise the animals. Adams doesn’t do this, and that’s why it works.

He also differentiates the characters extremely well—and they are memorable characters. There are also some beautiful bits of description of scenery—though skimmers can feel free to skim them without being afraid of missing anything except atmosphere and pretty prose.

I love the folklore, the stories of El-ahrairah. The stories feel so real, so much like actual folklore. And the best thing of all is the way that at the end the stories of what the characters have done themselves have become El-ahrairah stories. There’s something about this whole thing, the whole oral storytelling culture of the rabbits, that lifts the book above itself. Of course they have a thousand enemies, of course they have a thousand tricks, of course the Black Rabbit of Inle is in the moon. It all feels absolutely right.

I like the way it teaches you some words of the rabbit language, especially because this means that it can have Bigwig tell General Woundwort to eat shit, which isn’t something you usually get away with in a children’s book. I like the other two warrens they encounter, the warren with the snares and Efrafa, and how different they are. Adams may have meant them as parables about decadent America and totalitarian Russia, but that’s too much allegory for me. They work as very different rabbit warrens.

I can’t tell how true to life the rabbit lives are, as almost everything I know about rabbits comes from having read this at an impressionable age. I was walking in the Trough of Bowland at sunset once and rabbits were bounding off all around, and I said to my companion that we’d disturbed them when they’d come out to silflay, and he agreed, because we had. I don’t think I have seen a wild rabbit for the last thirty years without thinking of this book. I’ve used the word “tharn” of people. It’s so wonderfully immersive and atmospheric and real that I can’t really believe that Adams might have got any of the rabbity things wrong.

I’ve been to Watership Down, the actual place. I didn’t go there on purpose, I just happened to be there one day. There was a sign there saying it was Watership Down, which considering the ominousness of the sign in the book didn’t seem appropriate to me. There’s also an appalling travesty of a movie—avoid it if you can do so without biting off your own leg to escape.

When I was a child this was a long book, and the last time I read it I read it aloud a chapter at a time. So I was surprised to race through it in one day’s lying down straight-through reading.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.



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