Richard Adams – Watership Down (1972)
Growing up I can distinctly remember a VHS my mother had with Shillingbury Tales on followed closely by Watership Down’s first broadcast on British television. It’s a film I have watched many times and when I reached my teens and began reading as many books as I could, I decided to tackle Richard Adams’ classic novel, first published in 1972. Martin Rosen’s film adaptation from 1978 was excellent but due to its length was forced to omit many elements of the novel. I would recommend both the film and the novel but if it came to a choice I would have to pick the book.
Watership Down is set in the Hampshire countryside that Richard Adams has walked many times in his life. The story focuses on a warren of rabbits where a runt, Fiver, informs his brother, Hazel, that danger is coming and they must head elsewhere for safety. Though many in the warren, including the Chief Rabbit, dismiss Fiver’s concerns, Hazel believes his every word as Fiver has a sixth sense that has previously predicted threats to the warren. Hazel gathers a small group of rabbits together and they set out across the perilous English countryside in search of a new haven. This sanctuary is Watership Down, a steep but lonely hill with a single tree on the precipice and burrows beneath its roots. No sooner have the rabbits reached Watership Down than they are faced with the problem of finding does to ensure the future of their warren. Their wanderings lead them to Efrafa, the rabbit equivalent of a fascist state, ruled by the fearsome General Woundwort.
Those who have seen the film will find many elements of Watership Down are just the same, though there are some additional characters. While Martin Rosen’s film depicted the stunning English countryside, Richard Adams’ description of the surroundings is detailed but never enough to make the story monotonous. What particularly stands out for me is that the opening line to the novel speaks of the primroses being over while the last line talks of them just coming into bloom, almost as if we’ve been through a seasonal circle though many years have passed by the time we reach the poignant ending. Adams’ detailed research of rabbits is beautifully conveyed in the novel but he has added many fascinating elements, not least the mythology of the world’s creation involving Frith, the creator, and the greatest of all rabbits, El-ahrairah who is known as “the prince with a thousand enemies” following his defiance of Frith which led to rabbits having many threats to their lives.
The characters in Watership Down are a fantastic group to join on their epic journey. Hazel is a born leader though he was of no significance in his previous warren and is more intelligent and quick-witted than strong. Bigwig is a former member of Owsla, the equivalent of the rabbit police force, whose superior strength would normally see him an ideal candidate for Chief Rabbit, but Hazel’s group does not abide by the same rules as typical warrens. Though Hazel does lead the group through their many struggles I often feel the hierarchy is more akin to a junta or council of rulers rather than a Chief. This does change, of course, by the end but when the rabbits are most in danger they always band together and get through some truly testing encounters. The other notable characters are Hazel’s delicate brother, Fiver, the seagull, Kehaar, that helps the rabbits in their search for does, and General Woundwort, a born survivor who was shaped by his difficult early life into the dictatorial ruler of Efrafa.
Watership Down is more than just a tale of rabbits, it is a harsh reminder of the stranglehold mankind has on the environment. The rabbits are forced to leave their warren due to men encroaching on the land, they have to negotiate roads, face farmers’ guns and even a particularly difficult moment with a snare! The many stories told of El-ahrairah throughout the book convey the dangerous life that rabbits must lead. El-ahrairah is the epitome of cunning that each of the rabbits strives to be but even he learns many difficult lessons.
Watership Down is a must read, a powerful tale of the struggle for survival in nature made all the more challenging by the interloping of mankind and technological advancements. The rabbits Hazel leads to Watership Down have very few demands – they desire only to live in a safe environment and to have stability for future generations. Amazingly, Richard Adams’ novel was rejected many times before finally being published in 1972. Though his later novel Plague Dogs (1977) was another gripping read, this debut will always be Adams’ undoubted masterpiece.
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