Wednesday Book Club: Watership Down

Wednesday, 25 February 2009 — 8:28pm | Book Club, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

This week’s selection: Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams.

In brief: An impressive adventure story from head to tail, Adams’ bunny-rabbit odyssey truly shines as a demonstration of how myth-making and nation-building go hand in hand—or in this case, paw in paw. The history, legends, and language of rabbit society show off a depth of imagination that stops just short of overwhelming the tale on the surface. Here is a novel unashamed of its bid to be a classic, and has the mettle to pull it off.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Watership Down, keep reading below.)

Richard Adams is the Walter Scott of rabbits.

Never mind the overt allusion to Robin Hood as the human analogue of the rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah, the Prince of a Thousand Enemies. In stylistic considerations alone, Watership Down is a self-aware high romance in the tradition of Ivanhoe, a book where every chapter opens with an epigraph that appeals to everyone from Shakespeare to the Duke of Wellington as if calling to the Muses in a Homeric, yet quintessentially English invocation. Narrow escapes, daring rescues, sieges in the dead of night—this, dear readers, is High Adventure.

Walter Scott, if you’ll remember, reminded me of J.R.R. Tolkien; so by the transitive property, Adams reminds me of Tolkien too. Not so much the Tolkien of The Lord of the Rings, but the Tolkien of The Hobbit (although, one must admit, Watership Down is a catchier title than, say, The Rabbit). If you haven’t read Watership Down—and you really must—The Hobbit is a decent point of reference for the style of novel to expect. Perhaps the likeness comes from the serial structure of the adventure plot, which dashes from one escapade to the next in a domino-chain of cause and effect, or the author’s unrestrained love for the English countryside and concern for its preservation.

What readers will notice right away, from page one, is Adams’ mastery of English letters at their elegant, unironic best. Apart from the sparse appearance of automobiles and signboards of urban development, one could easily mistake Watership Down for a novel written and set in the nineteenth century.

But the most Tolkienian facet of the book is the consistent integrity, and thus plausibility, of the made-up language sprinkled throughout the text. We only see Lapine in scattered crumbs of words, phrases, and names—almost all of the communication and nomenclature in the novel is sensibly anglicized—but there is a stunning plausibility to it that implies a whole unwritten history of etymological growth. From what I gather, Lapine has a Gaelic lilt, but with a noticeable flavour of Arabic on top. This befits the cabbage-patch legends of the rabbits, which are less reminiscent of the Robin Hood stories than they are of the Arabian Nights.

Remarkably, Adams weaves all of these elements into a good story while taking very few liberties with how rabbits actually behave. Apart from the gift of language, a propensity for storytelling, and a highly developed consciousness of political organization, the characters in Watership Down have few human traits. The novel tells of a band of rabbits who flee from a warren threatened by modern real estate and build themselves a new home. Never do we lose sight of their common drive: the base instinct of survival—to go forth and multiply.

Indeed, a few of our protagonists’ actions could never pass muster were humans conducting them instead. This is, remember, a novel about buck rabbits who build a warren, settle down, suddenly realize they have no mates, and set out on a journey to rob farms and neighbouring rabbit settlements of their does. It thankfully makes little sense to apply feminist critiques of political correction to Adams’ unabashed depiction of female rabbits as breeding machines, when that’s how rabbits behave.

Thus far, I have spoken of the rabbits in the novel in a strictly communal sense, but one of the endearing qualities of Watership Down is the individuation of the leading characters. There are so many characters to go around that by and large, they do not have what we might call “depth”—but they have a uniqueness of identity. Like the epic heroes of myth, they are defined by their superlative abilities: Hazel is the wise and reluctant leader; Bigwig, the great warrior; Fiver, the prophet of doom. (My personal favourites should come as a surprise to nobody: Blackberry, the clever problem-solver, and Dandelion, the master storyteller.)

Adams hardly needs to acknowledge and enumerate these traits, although he does so on the odd occasion: they emerge from the story itself. We don’t need to be told that Hazel is a model of leadership; his decisions make it obvious. And even when he falters, even when he does something reckless to put himself in unwarranted danger, the trust the other rabbits place in him quickly reminds him of his responsibilities as the captain of the ship.

By far the best thing about Watership Down, however, is the occasional interlude where Dandelion tells the stories of El-ahrairah. These are exquisite tales that beg to be read aloud, even in the privacy of your own study (and here, I must admit that this is exactly what I did). The El-ahrairah tales are trickster capers, origin stories that explain how rabbit-kind came to be. Rabbits, we are told, were put in the unenviable position of being hunted by virtually every predator imaginable as a punishment, but given a talent for stealing vegetables as a compensatory gift.

Like most stories with aspirations to myth, there is a temptation to read them allegorically. I can’t decide if the sombre tale of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, which ends on a note of unappreciated self-sacrifice, is a figuration of El-ahrairah as a Christ-figure or as a returned military veteran. It closes with this conversation between El-ahrairah and the sun god Frith:

“‘Are you angry, El-ahrairah?” asked Lord Frith.”

“‘No, my lord,” replied El-ahrairah, “I am not angry. But I have learned that with creatures one loves, suffering is not the only thing for which one may pity them. A rabbit who does not know when a gift has made him safe is poorer than a slug, even though he may think otherwise himself.”

The passage above is by any account the most overtly Christian gesture in the book. Whether it is that way by design is a different matter: El-ahrairah gets along just fine not as a displacement of other myths, but an original myth to be displaced. As the surface story of Hazel’s rabbits emerges, we receive the distinct impression that it’s best not to think of El-ahrairah as an allegory for anything, but of all of Watership Down as an allegory for El-ahrairah.

This is an essentially Tolkienian attitude to mythic literature, and the source of the novel’s charm.

I made a similar argument about the nature of fairy tales in my review of J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, and it applies well enough here that I’ll repeat it verbatim:

The magic of fairy tales has never been in their straightforwardness. Fairy tales draw much of their lasting power from their ability to say a lot more, in very little space, than any individual explication. It is therefore easy to get the sense that the imposition of any single reading takes away from the conceptual space of possibility opened by the deceptively simple architecture for which fairy tales are known.

Adams goes one step beyond using an invented mythos to buttress an imagined community: he does it in a way that lays a cultural foundation for a particular kind of society that is already familiar to us on this earth. By the end of the novel, we see that the adventures of Hazel and company have played their own part in permuting the next iteration of the El-ahrairah legend.

Curiously, we never get a strong sense of what distinguishes the rabbits on Watership Down as a model of Good Governance, although Adams is more than happy to present us with contrasting communities that represent Bad Governance. The distinguishing mark of Hazel’s warren on the down is the presence of a storytelling chamber for the rabbits to congregate. Apart from that, the ethical position of our protagonists—that is, the factor that makes their society a positive one—is founded on little else other than an unrelenting dedication to survival and self-sufficiency, and a structure of leadership that relies on respect instead of fear.

Oddly enough, the warrens that Adams presents in contradistinction to Watership Down—the models of Bad Governance—are classical Hellenic extremes. Hazel, Bigwig, and the gang spend the second half of the book scuffling with the rival warren of Efrafa, a police state of Spartan warrior rabbits, to liberate their does—the justification being that Efrafa was so overpopulated, so literally spartan, that the does were miscarrying their litters anyhow.

But at the opposite pole is the warren the heroes encounter along their initial escape—a well-fed society of effete, cultivated poets on the verge of discovering representational art. These rabbits, the Athens to Efrafa’s Sparta, are the height of civilization as we know it. You can tell by their mournful, unrhymed poetry, a sample of which follows below:

The wind is blowing, blowing over the grass.
It shakes the willow catkins; the leaves shine silver.
Where are you going, wind? Far, far away
Over the hills, over the edge of the world.
Take me with you, wind, high over the sky.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-wind,
Into the sky, the feathery sky and the rabbit.

We soon discover that, in their complacency, these rabbits have shed their survival instinct entirely and become resigned to their fate as a declining species of prey. They have cast El-ahrairah aside as a thing of the past, a country legend for country folk.

To that end, the value that Watership Down cherishes the most—the principle for which Adams most strongly advocates—is the enduring relevance of the folk-hero. The distinguishing mark that separates the folk tale from religion or modern art is that it exists neither to provide teleological assurances nor to express a state of being, but to whip a society into taking charge of its own destiny. Folk legends are by nature nationalistic—and it is all the more exciting when we learn that from a nation of rabbits.

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