by Richard Adams
Macmillan, 419 pp., $6.95
Disaster threatens a tribe. Warned by a prophet, led by a wily hero, a small remnant escape to find a new homeland. Their exodus is beset by enemies who swoop from the sky, set ambushes on the ground, infect the air with poison that can blind. On their progress they meet other tribes: one that relishes comfort and takes no thought for the morrow; another that lives in captivity and has lost the power to take decisions; a third so obsessed with security that it has given up all individual freedom.
The escapers learn to stick together; to modify their ways according to new necessities. They find allies—some large and powerful, some small and cunning. There are miraculous interventions: a force like a thousand thunderstorms with lightning strikes between them and their pursuers, as the Red Sea struck between the Israelites and the Egyptians. Guided by their leader, goaded by their uncomfortable prophet, cheered by their jester, inspired by their bard who tells them tales of their folk hero El-ahrairah, they struggle on to the promised land.
When they reach it, they are not long at peace. A brutal army invades their haven; walled up in their stronghold they suffer the apprehensions of Crusaders in castles besieged by Saracens. The wily hero risks his life in one last ruse; the enemy is smitten, hip, thigh, and jawbone; by a last miraculous intervention the hero is saved; the tribe is free to live in its own way in its own place. In fullness of time the hero grows old, but as he is gathered to his fathers in a sort of transfiguration, he feels, like Moses, his strength flowing out into those that come after him.
The heroes of this anabasis, as followers of book advertising will know, are rabbits. Rabbits who are threatened by a building development on their warren, whose prophet is an undersized runt, who meet semi-tame fellows who will end in the pot, wholly tame ones who are pampered pets, and others so terrified of the white blindness of myxomatosis that they choose to be virtual prisoners in their burrows. Rabbits who make allies of a mouse and a sea gull, who are saved from pursuers by a passing train. Rabbits from a lowland copse who have to adapt to survive on a bare hillside. Rabbits whose promised land is a ridge of the downs in Berkshire, England: Watership Down.
It is a real place, and the book has a map based on the Ordnance Survey to show its precise location, south of Newbury, west of Kingsclere, north of the railway line to Salisbury down which roared the force like a thousand thunderstorms. It is this down-to-earth reality that has enabled Mr. Adams to succeed in his desperate venture. For to endow the story of rabbits migrating from one warren to another with a sense of epic grandeur (hence the high-flown style of my first paragraphs) does strike me as something of a tall order. I …