Richard Adams' classic novel Watership Down isn't just about rabbits. Tackling the big ideas, including the importance of storytelling to society, Adams weaves an adult tale of human struggle cloaked as a book about bunnies.
When I was at college, a fellow student told me that I had to read Watership Down. When I asked what the book was about, I remember him telling me “rabbits on the move trying to find a new home.”
My eyes started to glaze over. He started to summarize the story, but all I recall was that the main rabbit was named Hazel, and that there were some other rabbits named Bigwig, Dandelion, Fiver and Pipkin. The glazing process was complete – the rest of the pitch came across as blah, blah, blah blah.
This year, as I had decided to read and write about books involving travel , “rabbits on the move” came immediately to mind and I added it to my to-read list for KC Unbound. And I must say that this book has probably been the biggest pleasant surprise I’ve had in reading in the past decade.
The book turned out to be so much more than “bunnies on a trip,” or even “bunnies on an exodus of survival.” If I had to categorize the book, I’d probably group it with epics of travel. Some reviewers compared it to Homer’s Odyssey, but I think Virgil’s Aeneid would be a more apt comparison, because of the emphasis on personal responsibility to the group.
Richard Adams  says that the story began as a series of stories he told his little girls as they traveled on long drives in the English countryside. That may be, though these stories, at least as presented in the completed novel, are not for kids. And parents, who may be thinking of checking out the animated film of Watership Down for your kids – watch it first yourself. The film should have gotten a PG-13 rating (what would have been a GP at the time of release) instead of G, in my opinion – there’s a fair amount of violent action, and the mood of most of the narrative is rather unsettling.
With rabbits on the cover, Watership might seem to be a children’s book, but its themes and presentation are much too complex for that.
This is a book that has a lot that would traumatize a youngster, especially if s/he were expecting something more along the line of Max and Ruby . Older audiences can handle the tough subject matter (loss, terror, and death) and appreciate what is mainly a tale about the importance of community, the importance of story in fostering community, and the value of a brave heart in a dangerous world.
One of the peculiarities of the book is that certain words are given in lapine, the language Adams imagines for the rabbits. This is somewhat similar to what Anthony Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange, where the narrator, Alex De Farge, uses the teen slang of his day, Nadsat, to tell his story. The difference is that where Alex’ whole narration is done in this Slavic-rich slang, Adams uses only a relatively few lapine words sprinkled through the text.
My favorite of these is hrududu, the rabbits’ word for any motorized conveyance (because of the sound). I can imagine Adams’ daughters giggling every time he has a rabbit refer to a hrududu. Adams also suggests that other animals (mice and birds are singled out) have their own languages, distinct from lapine, though the animals can communicate with one another using some kind of pigeon or Creole – strangely enough, Adams gives the mice a French accent, but gives Kehaar, the gull who gets the closest to the rabbits, a Scandinavian accent.
Of course, animals don’t “speak” with one another in a way that humans do – there is no evidence that animals have a real sense of “past,” or that they narrate stories, whereas human knowledge of the world is very much affected by our being the animals who tell (and listen to) stories. Other than the use of language, Adams chose not to change the behavior of the rabbits – in other words, his rabbits do not act like the animals in Aesop’s Fables, or like cartoon animals, like humans in animal form – consider the bipedal Bugs Bunny. Adams based his rabbits’ behavior on that of real rabbits from his own observation and from reading books such as R.M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit .
Adams places, however, a great focus on story, something that rabbits don’t, so far as we know, have. But story permeates this work. When the going gets tough and the rabbits with Hazel need reassuring, their own storyteller, Dandelion, tells stories about El-ahrairah (“the prince with a thousand enemies” – the mythical trickster rabbit).
Not only do they have stories about the mythical El-ahrairah, but, by the end of the novel, it is clear that in their own world, the adventures of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Dandelion and the like are already in the process of becoming stories that rabbit parents tell their kittens, and that will be part of rabbit lore for future generations.
The chief villain in the book, a very violent rabbit called General Woundwort, himself becomes a figure of story – a boogey rabbit that rabbit parents use to keep their kittens from misbehaving.
In what, for me, was the strangest and scariest part of the story, Hazel and his followers, who have escaped their warren just in time to avoid the disaster that destroyed it, have come to a place that appears perfect for their needs – it is spacious, the rabbits living there are all well fed, and they appear ready to welcome the exiles. Their even temper, which approaches apathy, seems odd, and Fiver, a rabbit with second sight, is panicked by this unusual behavior.
This group of rabbits has become accustomed to a local farmer putting out farm waste for them to eat. Wire traps have been set up about the field, though, which catch and kill rabbits, which then become food for the farmer. The rabbits in this peculiar warren have grown accustomed to this arrangement.
They have lost the wariness that helps rabbits survive in the wild; they have no chief rabbit to lead them (for no leader can defend against the random death of the wire traps); and they never speak of rabbits who have gone missing. Once a rabbit has “gone,” all act as if s/he never existed. When Hazel and company gather together with these rabbits to hear their teller, Silverweed, they are puzzled.
There are no stories of El-ahrairah, or other rabbit heroes. Instead, Silverweed sings songs full of vague statements about the evanescence of life, and encouraging acceptance of a world in which rabbits can disappear like leaves blowing in the wind.
Adams does not give us Aesop’s Fables (a book about humans cast in animal form), nor does he give us a book about rabbits as rabbits. If you want that, there are plenty of books available about rabbits. Rather we get some strange mix – a book in which a clear human consciousness, with the human love of, and need for, stories front and center, is grafted onto rabbits behaving like rabbits, but which speaks to much larger questions of bravery, honor, purpose and identity.
And if you can get past the strange part – rabbits with human consciousness and stories – you’ll be amazed at the job Adams does with those big questions.
There is an audiobook  of the novel, very well read by Ralph Cosham. And the animated film , with the voices of John Hurt, Ralph Richardson and Zero Mostel, is quite a nice adaptation, but not for kids.