Two square miles of English countryside become a zone of adventure, combat, and statecraft for a band of refugee rabbits.
My path to this book was via The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, where the author points to it as an example of the basic plot he calls The Quest (and Richard Adams is one of the people quoted in praise of Booker’s work on the back of his book). I was aware of Watership Down in the 1970s, when I enjoyed keeping tabs on the New York Times bestseller list, but since it was a story about rabbits I figured it must be a kids’ book, and I never became interested in reading it. Now, with Adams’s book mentioned not only as an example of The Quest plot, but as an especially good example, I happily borrowed a copy from the library and got reading.
I was immediately drawn in. My concerns about Beatrix Potter-style kiddie prose were dispelled right away, first of all by the author’s selection of four lines of Agamemnon by Aeschylus as his epigraph for chapter 1 (Cassandra’s warning that the house reeks of death), and then by the author’s unhurried and mature setting of the scene in the country. He sees it through appreciative and aesthetic adult eyes, and if he is narrating to children (Adams says that the story began as an oral tale for his young daughters on a long car trip), he is not talking down to them. The first sentence contained a term I was not familiar with: dog’s mercury, a kind of spurge (I read in Wikipedia) that is common in Europe. I would read the names of many other woodland herbs before I was done—not least because the rabbits of the story are mostly named after them—among other signs of the author’s knowledge and love of the natural world.
The epigraph from Aeschylus was well chosen, for not only does it emerge that the rabbit-warren whose setting is so lovingly described has a Cassandra of its own—a runty little fellow named Fiver—but also that the warren itself, despite that same remote and idyllic setting, is, like Troy, on the brink of destruction. In this case there will be no siege, for the destroyers are not of the same species as the rabbits; rather, they belong to the fearsome and destructive race known as men, who do not behave as other animals do, but instead put burning sticks in their mouths and operate great rumbling machines. Fiver has a premonition of terrible destruction, and tries to persuade his fellow rabbits that they must abandon their warren immediately and move away.
He is mostly unsuccessful. But a few rabbits do believe him, and decide that the risk of staying is greater than the risk of leaving. So a few bucks, under the tentative leadership of Hazel, a friend of Fiver, set out. The adventure begins. The rabbits need to find a new warren, a new home, but before they can get there, they must cross much unfamiliar country, with all its dangers.
According to Christopher Booker’s scheme, Watership Down is a Quest because it depicts a character—in this case, Hazel—seeking a prize of great value to him. And, as in the typical Quest plot, Hazel is joined by a team of supporting characters who exemplify different traits, thus making the group a symbol of potential psychic wholeness: Fiver is an intuitive visionary, Bigwig is a strongman, Blackberry is smarter than the average rabbit, Dandelion is a storyteller, and Bluebell is the poet-court jester. Hazel, for his part, as a leader, is humble, sensible, considerate, and inclusive. Indeed, it is only by a kind of default that he comes to realize that he is the leader. In the course of the adventure his mettle will be tested in many ways.
And it occurs to me that Watership Down is not only a Quest plot; it is an epic. For what is an epic? According to that excellent book, The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums, an epic is a story about the birth or transformation of a society. And that is what we have here. For a rabbit-warren is not simply a household of rabbits; it is a kind of state, at least as it is portrayed in this book. Their quest will take them into military-style campaigns and will raise keen political questions. From becoming the almost accidental leader of a ragtag bunch of lapine refugees, Hazel is forced to take on the qualities of a wily tactician like Odysseus and a wise statesman like Nestor. And yet he always stays true to himself: practical, considerate, and unassuming.
The author strikes a masterly balance in portraying his rabbits: for while they conduct their exchanges in a human-style language (Lapine), and seem to think and plan much like humans, they also remain true to their rabbitness in their sensitivity to the smells, sounds, and sights around them, and in their emotional responses and intellectual limitations. They have no idea what a paved road is or what it’s for; they just have to take it as it comes and cautiously make the best of it. Some of them cope with it better than others.
This is no Beatrix Potter outing. There is hunting, there is fighting, there is killing. This is nature. It’s beautiful and it’s pitiless. Indeed, this is what makes the stakes so high.
Altogether this book is exciting, imaginative, poetic, and significant. It is a wonderful and original work of art, one that I look forward to reading again, and spending some time and effort studying. That’s about as high praise as I can give.