Watership Down

elahrairah by chibimaryn

Watership Down is a classic heroic fantasy novel, written by English author Richard Adams, about a small group of rabbits. Although the animals in the story live in their natural environment, they are anthropomorphized, possessing their own culture, language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry, and mythology. Evoking epic themes, the novel recounts the rabbits’ odyssey as they escape the destruction of their warren to seek a place in which to establish a new home, encountering perils and temptations along the way.

The novel takes its name from the rabbits’ destination, Watership Down, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England, near the area where Adams grew up. The story is based on a collection of tales that Adams told to his young children to pass the time on trips to the countryside.

Watership Down began as a story Richard Adams told to his two daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, on a long car journey; in an interview, Adams said he ‘began telling the story of the rabbits … improvised off the top of my head, as we were driving along.’ He based the struggles of the animals in the story on the struggles he and his friends encountered during the Battle of Oosterbeek in WWII. His daughters insisted he write it down—’they were very, very persistent’—and though he initially delayed, he eventually began writing in the evenings, completing it 18 months later. The book is dedicated to his daughters. However, Adams had difficulty finding a publisher; his novel was rejected 13 times in all, until it was finally accepted by Rex Collings, a small publishing house.

Adams’s descriptions of wild rabbit behavior were based upon ‘The Private Life of the Rabbit’ (1964), by British naturalist Ronald Lockley. The two later became friends and went on an expedition to the Antarctic, resulting in a joint writing venture, ‘Voyage Through the Antarctic,’ published in 1982.

The novel begins in a warren with Fiver, a young rabbit, who is considered a runt by the warren and yet is also a seer, receiving a frightening vision of his warren’s imminent destruction. He and his brother Hazel, the main character of the novel who at this point is low in the rabbit hierarchy, attempt to persuade their chief rabbit of the danger facing them, but are ignored. They then set out on their own with a small band of rabbits to search for a new home, though with difficulty, as the warren’s military caste—the Owsla—try to prevent them leaving.

Watership Down has been described as an allegory, with the labors of Hazel mirroring the timeless struggles between tyranny and freedom, reason and blind emotion, and the individual and the corporate state. Adams draws on classical heroic and quest themes from Homer and Virgil, creating a story with epic motifs.

It has also been suggested that Watership Down contains symbolism of several religions, or that the stories of El-ahrairah (the rabbit’s heroic ancestor) were meant to mimic some elements of real-world religion. Adams said that the rabbits in Watership Down did not worship, however, ‘they believed passionately in El-ahrairah.’ Adams explained that he meant the book to be, ‘only a made-up story… in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls.’ Instead, he explained, the ‘let-in’ religious stories of El-ahrairah were meant more as legendary tales, similar to a rabbit Robin Hood, and that these stories were interspersed throughout the book as humorous interjections to the often ‘grim’ tales of the ‘real story.’

The book explores the themes of exile, survival, heroism, political responsibility, and the ‘making of a hero and a community.’ ‘The hero’s journey into a realm of terrors to bring back some boon to save himself and his people’ is a powerful element in Adams’s tale. This theme derives from the author’s exposure to the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell, especially his study of comparative mythology, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ (1949), and in particular, Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ theory, also based on Carl Jung’s view of the unconscious mind, that ‘ the stories in the world are really one story.’

The concept of the hero has invited comparisons between ‘Watership Down’s’ characters and those in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and Virgil’s ‘Aeneid.’ Hazel’s courage, Bigwig’s strength, Blackberry’s ingenuity and craftiness, and Dandelion’s and Bluebell’s poetry and storytelling all have parallels in the epic poetry. ‘Hazel stands in the tradition of Odysseus, Aeneas, and others.’ John Rateliff calls Adams’s novel an Aeneid ‘what-if’ book: what if the seer Cassandra (Fiver) had been believed and she and a company had fled Troy (Sandleford Warren) before its destruction? What if Hazel and his companions, like Aeneas, encounter a seductive home at Cowslip’s Warren (Land of the Lotus Eaters)? Rateliff goes on to compare the rabbits’ battle with Woundwort’s Efrafans to Aeneas’s fight with Turnus’s Latins. ‘By basing his story on one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Adams taps into a very old myth: the flight from disaster, the heroic refugee in search of a new home, a story that was already over a thousand years old when Vergil told it in 19 BCE.’

Watership Down’s universal motifs of liberation and self-determination have led to some minority groups to reading their own narrative into the novel, despite the author’s assurance that it ‘was never intended to become some sort of allegory or parabel.’ Rachel Kadish, reflecting on her own superimposition of the founding of Israel onto Watership Down, has remarked ‘Turns out plenty of other people have seen their histories in that book…some people see it as an allegory for struggles against the Cold War, fascism, extremism…a protest against materialism, against the corporate state. Watership Down can be Ireland after the famine, Rwanda after the massacres.’ Kadish has praised both the fantasy genre and Watership Down for its ‘motifs [that] hit home in every culture…all passersby are welcome to bring their own subplots and plug into the archetype.’

In 1978 Martin Rosen wrote and directed an animated film adaptation of ‘Watership Down.’ The film featured the song ‘Bright Eyes,’ sung by Art Garfunkel.

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