Watership Down

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 think he has pulled it off.

He acknowledges in a foreword that his lore comes from a book by the naturalist R. M. Lockley, The Private Life of the Rabbit. The rabbits of Watership Down do not wear little jackets and shoes like Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, or have chairs and tables in their burrows; nor do they smoke seegyars like Brer Rabbit, or go gadding with Miss Meadows and de gals. Grass turns to pellets in their stomachs; they defecate; they mate; in an overcrowded warren with not enough to eat, the does reabsorb their embryos. To make sure that we share his concern with all aspects of rabbitry, Mr. Adams now and then pauses in his story to inform us, for instance, why rabbits are better at going uphill than down, or how the serious digging in a burrow is done by does.

All this sounds improving if hardly exciting, but such passages convince one that Mr. Adams knows what he’s talking about, and thus make one readier to credit him when he is describing desperate chases and hair-breadth escapes. He is a master of menace and suspense. I have no special feeling for rabbits, indeed mildly dislike them, but I read the last hundred pages at a gulp, heart thumping at the crisis when Bigwig goes alone to the grim warren of Efrafa, or when those powerful bullies mount a surprise attack on Watership Down.

Mr. Adams has invented some good-sounding words to describe his rabbits’ activities, such as silflay for “to go above ground to feed,” hraka for droppings, and tharn for the frenzy of an animal hypnotized by fear, as when caught in the headlights of a car. His touch is less sure when the rabbits talk. It must be easier to invent plausible language for animals when they are part human, as Brer Rabbit is in part a Southern Negro, or Mr. Toad of The Wind in the Willows is in part an Edwardian bounder. Clearly, Mr. Adams does not want us to anthropomorphize his creatures; yet Hazel, explaining his plan of campaign, or Holly his raid on an enemy warren, sounds to my ear too like those resourceful boys in Arthur Ransome’s books. Decent chaps all! Worse still, the rabbits’ allies, sea gull and mouse, talk in that pidgin lingo that foreigners used to speak in simple-minded books and plays, setting all true-blue Anglo-Saxons in a roar: “Vat for you do?” “Meester ‘Azel, ees rabbits vork ‘ard.”

I much prefer Mr. Adams when he is plain—“where the turf ended, the sky began” conveys in a flash the rabbits’ view from the down—or in his high style, as when he meditates on moon-light:

When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile.

Or when he is describing the terrain:

But at least the cover was good. June was moving toward July and high summer. Hedgerows and verges were at their rankest and thickest. The rabbits sheltered in dim green sun-flecked caves of grass, flowering marjoram and cow parsley; peered round spotted hairy-stemmed clumps of viper’s bugloss, blooming red and blue above their heads; pushed between towering stalks of yellow mullein.

Such passages are more than decoration; they (and the chapter headings from Aeschylus, the Psalms, and the Epic of Gilgamesh) dignify the action, making it not just the trek of a bunch of rabbits, but a movement of creatures who are no less part of nature than we are, and whose humble disasters and migrations have a claim to the attention of men, for all the greater scale of theirs.

Now and then Mr. Adams points to a likeness in the way men and rabbits behave in a certain situation (after working to overcome an obstacle, success will be followed by a pause) but in no way is this a fable of human behavior like Animal Farm. For all their way of talking, Holly, Hazel, Bigwig, and the rest are not stand-ins for any humans; within the conventions of the story, they remain true to the nature and ways of rabbits. George Orwell wrote his tale to make us think about men and politics; Richard Adams wants us to think about rabbits and nature.

Watership Down, which started as a tale to keep Mr. Adams’s daughters entertained during car drives to Stratford, was published in Britain last year as a straightforward children’s book. Like any good children’s book, it pleased a lot of adults too (Treasure Island had no keener reader than Mr. Gladstone). But the American publishers present it simply as “A Novel,” and by so doing may well encourage readers to go looking for the wrong things. For who would write a novel for adults about rabbits—unless the tale were a fable or a myth? I foresee an outbreak of symbol hunting in the burrows; mythic explications will drop like hraka on the grass. I think the publishers sniff a campus cult on the wind, and this underlies their proclaimed expectation that the book will be “one of the major literary and commercial successes of 1974.”

Certainly, it appears at a time when we are becoming increasingly skeptical of our species’ ability to live its life decently; there is an inclination to look, if only in fancy, for alternative models in other species, other worlds. I don’t think that Watership Down has much to tell us of how to set about transforming ourselves and our institutions, or how to find a short cut to the promised land. In as much as Mr. Adams has a message for his readers, I’d say it is to make them more sensitive to the complex balance of nature, more aware of the needs and ways of other species (and the effect of human actions on them), more mindful that we are creatures too, and must live in harmony with the others who share our world.

The tale ends with Hazel, who has risked himself to save the warren, being captured by a little girl from the near-by farm. Advised by the kindly Dr. Adams (whose name can be no coincidence) Lucy lets the rabbit free on the down—far enough away to do no harm to the farmer. Man and rabbit can coexist; there is hope of a peaceable kingdom. (Would this work with Australian readers?)

Several times—in reading, for instance, of the old warren’s destruction so that men might have homes—I thought of Thomas Hardy’s “The Field of Waterloo”:

Yea, the coneys are scared by the thud of hoofs,
And their white scuts flash at their vanishing heels,
And swallows abandon the hamlet-roofs.

The mole’s tunnelled chambers are crushed by wheels,
The lark’s eggs scattered, their owners fled;
And the hedgehog’s household the sapper unseals….

It is this sensibility that informs Watership Down. But if Hazel and Bigwig are to succeed Gandalf and Frodo as heroes of a cult, then a good book will have been demeaned and misunderstood.