Richard Adams amazing story of rabbits - Watership Down (1972)

Watership Down

  • Author:  Richard Adams  (b. 1920)
  • Rank:  #74
  • Publisher:  Macmillan
  • Published:  1972
  • Pages:  478
  • First Line:  “The primroses were over.”
  • Last Lines:  “He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap.  Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  Carnegie Medal
  • Film:  1978  (animated  –  ****)
  • Read:  Spring, 1990

The Novel: Richard Adams always claimed that Watership Down wasn’t an allegory.  Well, it doesn’t really matter, because it reads so well as one.  Perhaps it’s the influence of the film, especially the way the Efrafrans are portrayed, but I always thought of it as an allegory about the second World War.  We have the desperate flight away from certain death.  We have the desperate last stand along the water against the coming evil.  Then we have the final battle in which evil is vanquished.

Of course, it’s so much more than that.  That’s part of what makes it such an incredible novel.  We have rabbits – one of the least interesting life forms, and they are brought amazingly to life.  Adams immediately gives us a sense of the overwhelming danger of their world.  Everything can kill them, everything will try to kill them.  But as it says on the movie poster, first they must catch them.

The story is set with the first epigraph.  We get the feeling of a Greek tragedy.  And certainly it is very much like one.  We have the visionary, the one who can see beyond the world, who warns everyone of imminent death.  Then we have the long epic journey to find a new home and the mighty battles that must be fought to maintain it.  But all of this crouched in language we can understand and stark, simple sentences that allow us to understand what it is like to be a rabbit: “Rabbits avoid close woodland, where the ground is shady, damp and grassless and they feel menaced by the undergrowth.”

Yet, Adams also manages to create an entire mythology for the rabbit world: the creation of the world by Frith and the stories of El-ahrairah, a version of the Native American trickster who is lord of all rabbits.  Their stories keep the rabbits company along the road and perk up their spirits.  Meeting the dangerous warren along the way who doesn’t speak of such stories only adds to the allegorical nature of the novel.

Then we meet General Woundwort.  We have already been impressed with the heart of Bigwig, with the leadership of Hazel, with the vision of Fiver.  We have seen their strengths, but so far they have faced nothing worthy of them.  Adams gives a detailed history of Woundwort, of his being orphaned by a weasel, of how he took over a warren and established authority and kept everyone alive and safe.  Order and strength at the price of fear.  Most of the second half of the book deals with the rabbits efforts to explore Woundwort’s warren and come away with does so that their own new warren atop Watership Down can survive.  They manage to pull it off, but they are not far enough away to escape Woundwort’s vengeance and only through guile and wits do they manage to save themselves during a final epic battle.

I came upon this novel in my least preferred way – I had seen the movie as a child and finally got around to reading the book in high school.  I was impressed with it then.  I still am.  It won the Carnegie Medal for Children’s Literature.  But it so much more than that.

the poster for the 1978 animated version of Watership Down

The Film: I suppose it is so great because for a long time it was the anti-Disney film; the only truly great animated film not made under the auspices of the mouse.  And not just that it wasn’t made by Disney.  But, while Disney films may have their dark moments (evil witches, the death of Bambi’s mother, dragons, etc.), they are, in the end, happy movies made primarily for children.  This film, while one of my favorites as a kid, is anything but.  It is dark and filled with death and danger in every minute.  Yet it is also the triumph of life.  It is the story of a group who start out barely trusting each other, in the end become the closest of friends and how they flee destruction, face down evil and in the end will survive, for generations to come.

The animation on the film is quite good.  It doesn’t come alive in quite the same way that the Disney films do, but it perfectly captures the actual parts of the British countryside that Adams wrote about it and makes the animals seem real – both the rabbits who are the heart of the story, and the dangerous animals all around them.

I’ve seen it so many times and it received so little attention when it came about, I can’t figure out how to quite approach it.  It does a very good job of boiling down the novel to an acceptable length for an animated film, yet it even manages to perfectly encapsulate the theology present in the novel.  It is a complete film and while it might have one song (“Bright Eyes”), it doesn’t feel the need to fill out the story by throwing in various singing scenes.  It is too dark for that.

There is one thing I want to mention.  I have always been a much bigger fan of Batman than Superman.  I have always admired leadership and intelligence much more than brute strength.  Watching Watership Down, I am always reminded of that.  I like Bigwig, like the way he fights for those around him.  But I always considered Hazel the leader.  Woundwort himself never grasps that idea.  He thinks Bigwig, so strong and powerful, must be the leader.  When he finds out that he isn’t, he wonders what the hell kind of rabbit is strong enough for Bigwig to follow.  But Bigwig knows who the true leader is and that moment where he looks at the general and tells him that his Chief Rabbit has commanded him to stay in this spot and so he will stay has always been my favorite moment in the film.

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