Watership Down

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Watership Down qualifies as one of the more unusual fantasy classics:

“All the world will be your enemy,
Prince with a Thousand Enemies,
and whenever they catch you, they will kill you.
But first they must catch you…
Be cunning and full of tricks
and your people shall never be destroyed.”

— Lord Frith’s promise to El-ahrairah

Every time critics and fans of fantasy begin to feel that they’ve seen it all, that it’s all been done, along comes a work from a totally unexpected direction that blows them away and changes everything. No sooner had Lin Carter, in the wake of Tolkien’s phenomenal popularity, constructed a history of fantasy that led from Morris to Dunsany to Eddison to Tolkien to the “Tolk-clones” than along came a work that didn’t fit into the pattern in any way. Rather than harkening back to medieval knights’ tales with suitable dollops of folk tale, fairy tale, and mythology thrown in, Watership Down [1] harkened back to an entirely different tradition: the beast-fable, to which Adams gave a whole new lease on life.

Among the most ancient of all literary types that have come down to us — Aesop’s Fables have remained perennially popular for over twenty-five centuries now — beast-fables have been used for everything from social satire (Reynard the Fox) and political commentary (Animal Farm) to trickster tales (Brer Rabbit) and children’s stories (The Wind in the Willows). Richard Adams, using the unlikeliest of materials — the story of a bunch of rabbits journeying to establish a new home — raises the form to the status of epic and subtly merged it with the burgeoning fantasy genre: the result was a masterpiece that transcended its genre, achieving best-seller status, [2] becoming one of the few modern fantasy novels to have a movie adaptation, [3] and inspiring a host of imitators. [4]

The moon sailed free of the cloud and lit the heather…
Fiver was looking far out beyond the edge of the common.
Four miles away, along the southern skyline, rose the seven-
hundred-and-fifty-foot ridge of the downs… “Look!” said Fiver
suddenly. “That’s the place for us, Hazel. High, lonely hills,
where the wind and the sound carry and the ground’s
as dry as straw in a barn. That’s where we ought to be.
That’s where we have to get to.”

A Place Where We Ought To Be

Rather than tell the story of a grand quest, a there-and-back-again with elves, dwarves, wizards, damsels, and all the other paraphernalia of generic modern fantasy, Adams looks back to an older model, Virgil’s Aeneid, which tells the story of a hero fleeing disaster (the Fall of Troy) with a few companions, seeking to find a new home where they can live in safety and establish a new community (Rome). Adams has specifically said (introduction to the Perennial Classics edition, 2001) that his inspiration for Fiver, the quiet little rabbit given to visions foretelling disaster, is the Trojan princess Cassandra, who warned of the coming doom but was not believed (it being her curse that her prophesies would always be true but never believed until too late). In a sense, his book is a “what-if” — what if a few friends had believed Cassandra and fled Troy before it was too late? What if, like Aeneas and his companions, they find a seductive temporary home that almost spells their doom (Carthage and the Land of the Lotus Eaters, Cowslip’s Warren of the Shining Wires)? What if, having reached their destined home, they are forced to fight their new neighbors (Turnus and the Latins, Woundwort’s Efrafans) to keep it? By basing his story on one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, [5] 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 BC). [6]

Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder,
a tenacious band who understood each other… There was no more quarreling…
They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities.
They knew now that it was on these and on nothing else that their lives depended…
Without Hazel [and the others] Bigwig would have died. Without himself he would have
died, for which else, of them all, would not have stopped running after such punishment?
There was no more questioning of Bigwig’s strength, Fiver’s insight,
Blackberry’s wits or Hazel’s authority.

A Band of Brothers

The most appealing feature of Adams’ book, perhaps, is his cast of characters. Many fantasies (and science fiction, mysteries, and so on) center entirely around one character, with perhaps a partner, love-interest, or sidekick to provide some interaction and the occasional plot-element (this is, incidentally, why so many of them make poor models for roleplaying games, which are all about the interaction of characters who are distinct but more or less equal). Watership Down, by contrast, is very much an ensemble book. There is never any doubt that Hazel is the main character, or that Fiver the prophet and Bigwig the warrior are almost as important (each becomes the point-of-view character for a chapter or more of his own). But Blackberry, the brains of their group, and Dandelion, the storyteller and fastest runner, are also not just likable characters but essential to the group’s success, while Pipkin, Silver, Hyzenthlay, and Blackavar are appealing in their own way, to say nothing of the impact of more eccentric characters like Bluebell the joker, Kehaar the seagull, and the sinister General Woundwort. From the Argonautica (the story of Jason & the Argonauts) and Robin Hood’s Merry Men to Star Trek and Tenchi Muyo, authors have understood the value of an ensemble of very different personalities, where almost any reader can identify with at least one of the characters and interest in and affection for the cast of characters becomes a chief appeal of the work.

Ultimately, the story works because Adams makes us care for his characters, and care passionately for what happens to them. With unobtrusively fine writing (some of his nature descriptions to set the scene and mood are outstanding, such as the passage on moonlight in Chapter 22), he manages a careful balance between very real animals and literary characters. Many beast-fables have the animals acting just like people — for example, The Wind in the Willows’ Mr. Toad drives a motor-car (very badly) and lives in a grand house (Toad Hall), while his friend Ratty (a Water-Rat) loves to go boating on the river; Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit loses his new shoes and best blue jacket in Farmer McGregor’s garden. By contrast, Adams’ rabbits do not wear clothes, do not live in houses, and do not act like people in animal’s skins. They always remain rabbits first — digging burrows, eating silflay, passing hraka, and thinking about mating.

Rather unusually for an epic fantasy, Adams keeps the fantasy elements minimal; his would be a realistic novel except for three elements.

First, his rabbits can talk — and not just with each other, but (albeit haltingly, through a hedgerow ‘common speech’) with mice, hares, rats, cats, and even birds. Here Adams taps into what Tolkien called “one of the primal desires” at the heart of fairy-stories: “the desire… to hold communion with other living things” (JRRT, “On Fairy-Stories”, 1947). Ironically, the only ones they cannot communicate with are humans, who are cut off from all other animals.

“There is terrible evil in the world” [said Fiver].
“It comes from men,” said Holly. “All other evil [predators] do
what they have to do… Men will never rest
till they’ve spoiled the earth… ” [7]

Second, in addition to talking, his rabbits can think and plan at a level far beyond that of ordinary animals. While it’s true that science is now shifting to the view that animals are far more intelligent than previously thought — see, for example, the book The Parrot’s Lament, which argues that pet owners and zookeepers have a far better grasp of animal intelligence than do lab scientists — still, Adams’ rabbits’ ability to talk to each other enables them to have an oral history and wherewithal to coordinate action that is pure fantasy. That animals have distinct individual personalities, every pet owner who’s had more than a single pet knows; Adams’ achievement is to build on that insight so that he can create his rabbit characters with a minimum of fantasy, giving his work a convincing realism that improves the plausibility of his story.

Third and finally, we have Fiver’s visions. These appear supernatural even to his fellow rabbits; it’s a form of second sight that comes with no explanation, something that simply is and has to be accepted or rejected on its own merits. Given the number of people in the real world who believe in at least the possibility of some form of precognition, even this element only becomes overtly fantastic due to the precision and accuracy of Fiver’s foretellings. If not for the visions, the story as we have it would never have taken place, but Adams keeps this an intriguing undercurrent in the book rather than mere plot device; this is a considerable achievement in itself.

[T]he Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness… he is that cold,
bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today
and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows
where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit
is not far off… [The Black Rabbit] will come in the night and call a
rabbit by name: and then that rabbit must go out to him…. Some say
that the Black Rabbit hates us and wants our destruction. But the truth is
. . . that he, too, serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task
— to bring about what must be. We come into the world and we have to go
[out of it]… We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inle and only
by his will.

A Rabbit Mythology

One final memorable feature of Watership Down, which elevates Adams’ rabbits beyond clever animals into furry people (albeit still very much rabbits), is his construction of a whole rabbit mythology. Fantasy authors have been creating mythologies since Lord Dunsany created the first fantasy pantheon back in 1905 (The Gods of Pegana), but Adams does a particularly neat job of it. Rather than hashing out the standard cliches, or providing a poor adaptation of some well-known real-world pantheon (e.g., the Greek, Norse, or Egyptian deities), he worked out a creation myth, belief system, and legendarium that fits in smoothly with the actual life of a wild rabbit. They are, quite naturally, sun-worshippers, so Lord Frith (the sun) is their all-powerful Creator-God. Nighttime is when their many predators (“the thousand”) are most active, so their Grim Reaper is the Black Rabbit of Inle (Inle being their word for the moon). Adams even, in the Epilogue, gives us some idea of the rabbits’ afterlife in a moving scene describing the eventual death of Hazel from sheer old age that closes the book.

Rather than churches, doctrine, and sacraments, Adams’ rabbits have stories, legends they tell and re-tell, about El-ahrairah, “the Prince of a Thousand Enemies”, the apotheosis of Brer Rabbit into “Everyrabbit,” the ultimate trickster. In the course of the book Adams incorporates five inset tales of El-ahrairah into his overall narrative (“The Blessing of El-ahrairah,” “The King’s Lettuce,” “The Trial of El-ahrairah,” “El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle,” and “Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog”), as well as snippets from another (“The Fox in the Water”). [8] Not a deity but a cultural hero a la John Henry or Odysseus, El-ahrairah’s exploits inspire and encourage the rabbits who believe in him, while those who do not (those of Cowslip’s Warren) become profoundly unnatural, essentially losing their ability to function as wild animals. In a particularly neat touch, near the end of the book Adams includes a brief passage where Hazel hears a rabbit mother tell her children a version of part of the adventures of Hazel and his friends as an El-ahrairah story. Hazel himself remarks “I seem to know this story… but I can’t remember where I’ve heard it,” and it becomes clear that, since El-ahrairah is a celebration of all that’s clever and indomitable about rabbits, the deeds of brave and exceptional rabbits get caught up into his legend and become part of the tale, a rather fitting form of immortality for Hazel and his friends.

‘And what happened in the end?’ asks the reader who has
followed Hazel and his comrades in all their adventures…
[The authorities tell] us that wild rabbits live for two or three years
. . . but Hazel lived longer than that. He lives a tidy few summers — as they say in that part of the world — and learned to know well
the changes of the downs to spring, to winter and to spring again.
He saw more young rabbits than he could remember.
And sometimes, when they told tales on a sunny evening
by the beech trees, he could not clearly recall whether
they were about himself or about some other rabbit hero
of days gone by.

— From the Epilogue

Watership Down and Your Game

The great popularity of Watership Down among fantasy readers in the 1970s is reflected in its being the inspiration for an early roleplaying game, Bunnies & Burrows (FGU, 1976), essentially an unlicensed adaptation of Adams’ work. Many years later, Steve Jackson Games published a much expanded version of the game adapted for use with the GURPS rules system (1992); like the original, it is now long out of print. Given the appeal of the book, there have also been any number of homebrew systems for Watership Down-inspired rabbit adventures over the years, some of them quite effective. Even for those who have no desire to roleplay rabbits, Hazel and company are one of the best available models of an ensemble of characters with very different personalities and talents adventuring together.

Bibliographic Note

An extremely successful book, Watership Down is readily available in libraries and bookstores across the country, in both paperback (ISBN 0380002930) and hardcover (ISBN 068483605X). The “Perennial Classics” edition (ISBN 0-06-093545-6) of 2001, a trade paperback, has the added feature of a new Introduction by Adams describing the origins and inspiration for the book. As a sign of Adams’ success, perhaps, it is usually shelved in the Literature/Fiction section of bookstores, not the fantasy/sf section. It has never been out of print since its initial publication, now over thirty years ago.


[1] The title, “Watership Down,” refers not to some aquatic disaster but to the place where the story takes place: a down is a specific type of long, narrow hill, usually made of chalk (cf. the Barrow-Downs in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). Watership Down itself lies thirty-odd miles south of Oxford in south-central England and about thirty miles north of the neartest point of contact with “Big Water” (the port of Southampton); for those with access to a large-scale map of England, the story begins in the country of Berkshire (Sandleford Warren) but then travels into Hampshire (everything south of the river Enborne, which they cross in Chapter 8). The website www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~talami/watershp/ posts dozens of photographs of the actual, real-world landscape in which the story takes place, including the Down itself, Nuthanger Farm, the Iron Road, and so on.

[2] With the recent success of authors like Robert Jordan in America and Terry Pratchett in England, it’s easy to forget how exceptional it was for a fantasy author to hit the mainstream best-sellers’ list before the 1990s: Tolkien had done it in paperback in the mid-60s, but aside from Adams (the #2 bestselling fiction book of 1974) the only ones to achieve these heights were Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the year’s #1 in 1972 and 1973) and Tolkien himself with his long-awaited The Silmarillion (#1 for twenty-one consecutive weeks in 1977-78).

[3] Watership Down was adapted as a feature-length animated film (1978), with distinguished voice-actors such as Michael Hordern (the voice of Gandalf in the BBC Lord of the Rings), Joss Ackland (who played C.S. Lewis in the original Shadowlands), Nigel Hawthorne, Sir Ralph Richardson, Roy Kinnear, Dernholm Elliot (of Indiana Jones fame), John Hurt as Hazel, and Zero Mostel as Kehaar (his final film). The movie is actually grimmer than the book, killing off several additional characters. An interesting example of late 70s animation and a rare example of an animated film made in England rather than America or Japan, it was not a commercial success and largely disappeared until the recent explosion of back-catalogue DVD releases coupled with the revival of interest in animation and fantasy film was made it available again; it was released on DVD last year (2002).

[4] Perhaps foremost among a host of imitators are William Horwood’s Duncton Wood (1980), which is about moles, and Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song (1985), about cats. Brian Jacques’ extremely successful “Redwall” series (Redwall, 1986; Mossflower, 1988, and so on), which now consists of over sixteen books, has superficial similarities but in fact harkens back more to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) than to Adams’ tradition.

[5] While the Iliad and Odyssey are more esteemed today (quite rightly, in my opinion), Virgil’s imitation of them in the Aeneid was far more influential in the Middle Ages: virtually every nation in Christendom sought to trace its ancestry back to the Trojans. Hence, the beginning of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight (c.1370s) describes how, while other refugees fled to Rome and Tuscany and Lombardy, Felix Brutus led the Trojans to Britain (a legend given in more detail in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, 1136). Even the Icelandic Prose Edda (c.1220s) includes a passage rather bizarrely tracing Odin’s descent from King Priam of Troy.

[6] This literary origin for Adams’ work also comes across in the quotations with which he prefaces each of his fifty chapters. Unlike the quotes from rock music that punctuate much of modern fantasy (or as much of it as includes quotations from other works), Adams’ come from literature (with a capital “L”): Auden, Yeats, Bunyan, Browning, Tennyson, Blake, Hardy, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, Greek playwrights, Dostoevsky, Austen, the Bible, and a host of others. These citations, which always contain extremely apt allusions to the theme of the chapter, help give a literary air to Adams’ book that many more generic fantasies lack.

[7] The evil that men do is a persistent theme in Adams’ work: his next book after Watership Down, Shardik (1974), vividly depicts the evils of slavery. The Plague Dogs (1977) is, along with an engrossing tale of yet another desperate escape, an extremely effective condemnation of vivisection and the torture of lab animals (but he did takes pains to include a few humans opposed such practices). The Girl on a Swing (1980), at once a haunting love story and horrifying ghost story, has at the hidden core of its plot an act of almost unbelievable cruelty that ultimately determines everything else that happens in the book. Traveller (1988) tells the story of America’s most brutal war, from the point of view of Robert E. Lee’s horse, rather in the manner of Robert Lawson (Paul Revere’s Horse, Ben and Me, Captain Kidd’s Cat). In a recent interview, Adams stated that he is currently, at age 83, at work on a new novel about slavery (“Where Are They Now?”, Book magazine, July/August 2003 issue).

[8] The complete tale, along with several others about El-ahrairah, are included in the eventual follow-up book, Tales from Watership Down (1996). This collection of nineteen short stories includes nine stories about El-ahrairah not found in Watership Down itself (one of which, interestingly enough, is directly based on the story “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance” by M. R. James; see the “Classics of Fantasy” column for October 2002), a nonsense tale, a rabbit ghost story (again touching on the theme of human cruelty; see [7] above), and finally eight stories that together make a sort of inconclusive novella pendant to the original book, telling what happened to Hazel and the others over the next few months (the winter, spring, and early summer following Woundwort’s defeat).

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