There is a long and proud tradition in fantasy of anthropomorphically presented animals having epic adventures that are usually reserved for more standard (human) archetypes, like warriors and wizards. Whilst Watership Down is perhaps the most famous example of this fantasy sub-genre, Richard Adams’ novel is by no means on its own. Greatly influenced by Adams’ work was William Horwood’s equally epic Duncton Chronicles, the story of a mole kingdom almost as detailed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as well as a number of lesser known works like A R Lloyd’s Kine Saga, a heroic fantasy trilogy which charts the life and struggles of a weasel named Kine. Despite its many qualities, a lot of fantasy readers tend to be put off even by the thought of reading Richard Adams’ bunny-centric epic, perhaps imagining that any book that involves talking rabbits must be for children. However, Watership Down rarely fails to win the love and respect of readers, regardless of age, because like most great novels, it is a rich story that can be read (and re-read) on many different levels. The book is often praised for its many thought-provoking themes but also it’s equally praiseworthy as just a corking good adventure.
The story follows a small group of rabbits fleeing the destruction of their home by a land developer. Although the rabbits are depicted as living in their natural environment, they are anthropomorphised, possessing their own culture, language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry, and mythology. Evoking epic themes, the novel recounts the rabbits’ odyssey as they escape the destruction of their warren to seek a place in which to establish a new home, encountering perils and temptations along the way. Watership Down is full of stirring descriptions of the English countryside from an author who clearly knows his subject. This is unsurprising because the novel takes its name from the rabbits’ destination, Watership Down, a real hill in the north of Hampshire, England, near the area where Adams grew up. The real Watership Down is well worth a visit for anyone who enjoys walking and great views, although it requires some effort to find. There are no signposts or guide boards on the Down itself, and there is no official guide or visitor information. This is partly because much of the area is privately owned (by none other than the famous composer Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber). It was not always so inaccessible, however, and the story of Watership Down is based on a collection of tales that Adams told to his children to pass the time on trips there when they were young.
If Watership Down was simply a tale of ‘cute talking rabbits’, as it is so often derided, then there would be nothing to distinguish its writer from Beatrix Potter. The reason that this is not a fair comparison is because Adams draws on classical heroic and quest themes from Homer and Virgil, among others, to create a story with epic motifs. The hero’s journey into a realm of terrors to bring back some boon to save himself and his people is a powerful element in Adams’ tale. This theme derives from the author’s exposure to the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell, especially his study of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was also to be a major influence on George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy. This epic myth-making is allied with some moving touches: inventive rabbit/folk stories of that arch-imp, the demi-god El-ahrairah, poetry with echoes from Grahame, a gull with a French-Canadian accent, a mouse chittering in organ-grinder Italian, and anagram titles from rabbit law and tradition. By the end of the book the individual rabbits, each carefully drawn as characters in their own right, seem like old acquaintances – the main protagonist Hazel, his brother Fiver (whose seer-like powers bring to mind Virgil’s Cassandra), the heroic Bigwig and of course the villain of the piece, the cruel and ruthless General Woundwort.
On a final note the tale of Watership Down‘s publication should bring hope to all aspiring authors. After it was rejected by 13 publishers, Adams almost gave up hope of his novel ever seeing the light of day. Eventually it was accepted by Rex Collings Ltd and since then Watership Down has never been out of print. It has also been the recipient of several prestigious awards and has been adapted into an acclaimed classic animated film as well as a television series. The film featured the song Bright Eyes, sung by Art Garfunkel, which was released as a single and became a UK number one hit. It is also Penguin Books’ best-selling novel of all time – not bad for a book about cute talking rabbits!