Five Things I Love about… Watership Down

I wrote my first full-length fantasy novel when I was eleven years old. I was no prodigy, and the book was as dreadful as you might imagine; I’m quite glad no one outside my immediate family and our circle of friends in those days will ever read a word of it. It was called Budgie Town, and it concerned a community of parakeets. I’ve forgotten most of it, though I seem to recall they had their own words for heaven and hell and their own value system, and they had to deal with a family of trouble-making boa constrictors. What I remember most clearly, however, is that this first ill-advised foray into epic adventure territory was inspired by my favorite book at the time, Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

Adams’ book was not the first animal fantasy to capture my interest. Prior to reading it, I’d been taken with Kipling’s The Jungle Book (and initially disappointed with the Disney film for taking such liberties with great source material), as well as Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. But Watership Down moved me on a deeper level, though at eleven I could not have explained why. Despite its occasional references to the actual world, Adams’ novel immerses itself so deeply in the culture and predicaments of its rabbit characters that it reads like a detailed second-world fantasy.

Five things I love about Watership Down:

Nonhuman characters intrigue me. They just do.

I may be partial these days to dragons, giants, gryphons, wer-creatures, and the like, but my fascination with the nonhuman started with animals. Adams’ novel has a cast of characters with clearly defined personalities, three standing out: Hazel, whose clear-headed common sense fits him for a leadership role to which he could never have aspired in a traditional warren, where the biggest and strongest always rule; Fiver, the tremulous runt whose prophetic visions set the plot in motion and also constitute the only supernatural aspect of the novel; and Bigwig, the officer, large, brash, outspoken, and a greater hero in the end than the reader could have expected in the beginning. These are the three through whose eyes we see, and while they may display such human attributes as love, loyalty, courage, and grief, they are clearly and cleverly not human. We’re drawn to their difference as well as their likeness.

The book is better than the movie.

As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I saw the movie first, and when I found out it was based on a book, of course I had to read it. I still like the animated film, and I have to give director Martin Rosen credit for including as much of the story as he could fit into an hour and a half running time and not downplaying its more brutal aspects. (The movie version of General Woundwort, the story’s villain, is genuinely terrifying.) But the book swept me into a much larger, richer tale than the movie could have told.

The rabbits have their own culture.

One of the most crucial elements of the book that the movie largely omits is the rabbits’ mythology (though it does make an appearance in the movie’s opening sequence). Rabbis have an oral tradition, and storytellers are highly regarded. At several points in the novel, we hear tales of the exploits of El-ahrairah, the rabbit trickster folk hero, whose legendary cunning and resourcefulness inspire the rabbit heroes when they need it most. The rabbits also have their own language, which adds to the story’s second-world fantasy feel. There’s a great moment at the climax when Bigwig tells the invading General Woundwort to eat excrement, in the Lapine language of course. The moment wouldn’t work half as brilliantly in standard English.

Right triumphs over Might.

I think I can say this without going too far into Spoiler territory, for after all, the heroes are rabbits — prey animals, and, by the very laws of nature, the ultimate underdogs. When they meet head-on every obstacle their perilous journey can throw at them, it’s suspenseful (“how are they going to get out of this one?”) and satisfying.

Hyzenthlay.

The novel isn’t perfect, and I’m not about to claim it is. One of the most frequent charges leveled against it is that of sexism, both because females are invisible for the novel’s first two-thirds and because the rabbit culture has strict gender roles. At eleven I wasn’t politically aware enough to pick up on the latter, but I felt the former keenly, and I satisfied my need for a heroine by imagining Fiver as female. (It worked just fine in my head, okay?) On my last couple of re-reads, however, I’ve paid closer attention to the most important female character Adams actually wrote. Trapped in an overly regulated warren run by the tyrant Woundwort, Hyzenthlay rebels, and even when her efforts come to naught, she keeps the rebellion alive in her heart. She might seem beaten down when Bigwig first meets her, yet her verses move even his un-poetical heart, and she becomes his most useful ally. In the climax, when the bucks are engaged in combat, Hyzenthlay keeps order by assuming the storyteller’s mantle. No mere distressed damsel, she, but a wise, brave figure whom Adams himself liked well enough to give a prominent role in the regrettably less awesome sequel, Tales of Watership Down.

Anyone who has read and enjoyed Adams’ novel knows that fantasies centering on animal characters can be first-rate entertainment for readers of any age. Here are a few more that I’ve enjoyed:

David Clement-Davies, The Sight. The lead characters are wolves, predators rather than prey, yet they are still sympathetic and relate-able. The story centers on Larka, a female savior-prophet, and her antagonist is female as well, so this story should satisfy readers who find Watership Down too male-heavy.

Dorothy Hearst, The Promise of the Wolves. Here’s another wolf-centric story with a female lead. This one has a sequel, Secrets of the Wolves, that I’ve yet to read.

Robin Hawdon, A Rustle in the Grass. This epic military struggle centers on ants. It’s a compelling read with some strong characters, including a storyteller and a wise, quick-thinking military leader, but be warned: the ant society is more sexist than Adams’ rabbit society ever thought of being, and it should most please readers who think Watership Down isn’t grim enough.

William Horwood, The Stonor Eagles. Horwood’s fantasy saga involving moles, Duncton Wood, is better known, and a good read, but I prefer this novel, in which an artist’s coming-of-age and a tale of struggle and triumph among sea eagles run parallel. The main characters in the eagles’ story are Cuillin, a female far from home, and her daughter, Mourne, so again, readers who like a significant female presence in their animal fantasy should appreciate this one.

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