Wednesday, 8 May 2002

Richard Adams: Watership Down (1972)

Edition: Puffin, 1974 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1088

There are very few animal stories which have become classics. The examples I can think of are all books originally aimed at children: Beatrix Potter, Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, and Watership Down. These are a much loved part of many childhoods, and are frequently still treasured by adults. Even within this small collection, though, Watership Down is unique.

The novel is the story of a small group of rabbits, who leave an established South Downs warren because of a prophecy that it will be destroyed. They set out to create a new warren, for which they need a suitable location and some does to supplement their all male group, but while they travel they face constant danger. These dangers do not all come from human beings or the many predators which think of a rabbit as a good meal. There is the strange warren which has a culture alien to that of most of the species, where a kind of art is developing in response to unusual pressures on the rabbits, kept safe from most dangers and well fed but culled by the local farmer. Then there is the military dictatorship of Efrafa, antagonistic to the idea of the emigration of some of its does despite overcrowding.

Compared to the other stories I've mentioned, Watership Down is aimed at older readers and is now published as a novel for adults rather than children. There is a lot more depth to it than the others; their animals are generally furry human beings, with little attention paid to their actual lifestyles. (Black Beauty is perhaps the next most realistic in these terms, though its picture of the life of the carriage horse is rather romanticised.) Clearly, this kind of novel would be impossible without some kind of anthropomorphism, but Adams weaves this in brilliantly with a lapine culture derived from careful research and enriched by the stories about El-ahrairah, the rabbit folk hero he invented. More blatant anthropomorphisms - the art of Cowslip's warren, the fascist dictatorship of Efrafa - are condemned by the central characters as unnatural.

A common link between these classic animal stories is their celebration of the English countryside. The downs are a beautiful part of southern England, and Adams shows a different side to them as they are depicted on a rabbit sized scale and with occasional reminders that the senses of the animals are of differing sensitivities to our own.

The background is less important than the characterisation, and in this respect Adams is more like Kenneth Grahame than the authors of the other books. He makes the rabbits individuals, particularly Hazel, Bigwig and Fiver. As an adventure story it would be a classic, but adding the resonances of the rabbits' adventures to human culture - making the reader think about the origins of art, or the reasons why totalitarian regimes are accepted - is is one of the great novels of the twentieth century.

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