Bookworm Wednesday: Watership Down
“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”
— Lapine Mourning for the Dead, Richard Adams, Watership Down
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Last Friday, in my post about literary tattoos, I mentioned that I was thinking about getting a tattoo based on Richard Adam’s novel Watership Down, and it occurred to me that I’ve never written a blog about that book. Which is a travesty that must be rectified, as it is not only one of my favorite books but also an absolute classic.
Watership Down, by British author Richard Adams (1920–), tells the story of a group of rabbits who escape the destruction of their warren by a humans and must face a number of trials and dangers in order to find a safe place to live. The main characters are the rabbits Hazel and Fiver. Hazel is the leader of the group of rabbits who escape the warren, though he is not the biggest or strongest, he is loyal, brave, and clever. Fiver is Hazel’s brother and a runt; he is a seer who has visions of danger, is highly intelligent and intuitive. (Fiver is also my favorite character. I identify with him quite strongly.)
It is Fiver’s warning that allows the rabbits to escape the destruction of their warren at the beginning of the book, as well as several other dangers throughout their epic journey. Some of these dangers include hunters and dogs, but the largest threat is from another warren. The main antagonist of the novel is General Woundwort, the tyrannical leader of the Efrafa warren, who rules his warren with brutal efficiency, and kills any dissenters.
While the rabbits live in the wild (and Adams based much of their behavior on The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964), by British naturalist Ronald Lockley), they are obviously anthropomorphized. They have a system of government, language, poetry, proverbs, and religion. Their god is Frith (meaning ‘sun’ in Lapine); their mythical founder El-Ahrairah, The Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and their grim reaper is The Black Rabbit of Inle (Inle meaning either ‘moon’ or ‘darkness’ in Lapine).
The name of the novel comes from the place the rabbits are trying to reach, Watership Down (down as in hill) a real hill in the north of Hampshire, England, near where Adams grew up. In fact, several of the locations described in the novel, including the farm, are based upon real locations.
According to an audio interview with Richard Adams (found here), the novel began as a series of stories he told to his two daughters, based on some of the struggles he and his friends encountered in the Battle of Oosterbeek, Amhem, the Netherlands, in 1944. His daughters insisted her write the stories down, but the resultant novel was rejected 13 times before it was finally got picked up in 1972 by a small publisher who could not even afford to give Adams an advance.
Now, it has been made into a movie (1978) and a television show (1999-2001), and it is Penguin Books’ best-selling novel of all time.
Watership Down follows many of the tropes of classic epic storytelling, exploring themes of exile, survival, heroism, political responsibility, and the “making of a hero and a community.” Many critics have drawn comparisons between Watership Down and the Aeneid or the Odyssey. And many of the themes of the novel were, without a doubt, influenced by Adams’ reading of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
Watership Down is incredibly touching, suspenseful, intense, and beautiful. Adams ability to balance a wide range of main and secondary characters, a adventurous plot, and lyrical almost philosophical prose is downright magical. It is one of those novels that will never leave me, and I hope I may one day be able to read it to my children (or my friends’ children, which is more likely).
If you’ve only seen the movie, or if you’ve never even heard of it before now (though that’s probably unlikely), you definitely need to read this book. In my opinion, everyone over the age of 10 needs to read this book.
“El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. 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, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”
Richard Adams, Watership Down
If you have read it, please feel free to chime in! Favorite characters? Favorite scenes? Favorite lines? I’ll be honest, if you didn’t like the book, I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it. You might break my heart.