Watership Down

Monday, November 30, 2009


Watership Down
Richard Adams, 1972

I first read Watership Down in tenth grade, I think.  We had to read one extra book per term that had some scholarly merit, and everyone seemed surprised that I was jumping at the chance to lug around the giant hard cover edition of this book.  At the time, it was one of the longer books I'd read (hadn't started in on Tad Williams at the time).

It has some of the most wonderful world-building I've ever read.  As a society of non-humans, it is clear and complete.  The adventures of Hazel and the others seem plausible, their behavior not too out of line for real rabbits.  Both the greatness, and the weaknesses, come from how rooted in reality the story feels.

The trouble I had on this read-through was with occasional bits of the narrative voice.  Adams presents his book as if it were translated from the rabbit language, and so, especially at the beginning, there are needless asides explaining this and that from a human perspective.  It depends on my mood how distracting or charming I find this, but I always cringe when he compares their instincts to “primitive people”.  Dated, check.
Rabbits, of course, have no idea of precise time or punctuality.  In this respect they are much the same as primitive people, who often take several days over assembling for some purpose and then several more to get started.  Before such people can act together, a kind of telepathic feeling has to flow through them and ripen to the point that they all know that they are ready to begin.  Anyone who has seen the martins and swallows in September, assembling on the telephone wires,....has seen at work the current that flows...to fuse them together and impel them into action without conscious thought or will...
Many of the asides do serve to ground the work firmly in rabbit behavior, as observed in Lockely's The Private Life of the Rabbit, which Adams used as his primary research and inspiration.

I understand some of the feminist criticism of the work, many of the does are shallow characters, and the whole second half of the book concerns solving the problem of a lack of females.  Also it's short-sighted at best to impose human assumptions regarding relative strength and societal gender roles on other species.  Again, some aspects are dated.  This didn't bother me while reading, though.  In defense of the book, the bucks complain when asked to dig (primarily a female activity for rabbits), and several does we see more of are courageous and clever.

Furthermore, it never bothered me that the bucks' primary concern when it comes to does is the future of the warren.  They're rabbits.  They enjoy the company of and bond emotionally with the does, but the final truth is that without children, their community will soon die out.  I actually respect it for being so biologically honest, not giving me some sentimental human reasoning for why they need to bring does to the warren.

It's a grand adventure story at heart, a riff on Exodus and The Odyssey.  The rabbit society is so fully realized, with traditions, proverbs, myths, all bound up with the truth that it's a dangerous and frightening world for rabbits, even among their own kind.  It's one of those books that I think everyone should read, a great story, a group of varied heroes, fearsome villains, and the simple goal of a new home.

First night out for eleven rabbits:
Pipkin sat trembling under a fern, his ears drooping on either side of his head.  He held one paw forward in an awkward, unnatural way and kept licking it miserably.  Fiver was little better off.  He sill looked cheerful, but very weary.  Hazel realized that until they were rested they would all be safer where they were than stumbling along in the open...But if they lay brooding, unable to feed or go underground, all their troubles would come crowding into their hearts...He had an idea. 
“Yes, all right, we'll rest here,” he said.  “Let's go in among this fern.  Come on, Dandelion, tell us a story.  I know you're handy that way.  Pipkin here can't wait to hear it.” 
Dandelion looked at Pipkin and realized what it was Hazel was asking him to do.  Choking back his own fear...he began.
5 Stars - An Awesome Book


Animal Society Rundown:

Overall: Species-specific society
Rabbits keep to themselves, although they befriend specific members of other species.

Size: Real Size

Law and Order:  Each community polices its area differently
Each warren has its own governing rabbit(s), and organization.  The Sandleford Warren, which the characters set out from at the beginning, is presented as average.  It has a strong hierarchy based on size, family connections and physical strength, but the rabbits do look out for each other.  The other warrens they run across in the course of the tale are different in various ways, due to their situation and/or leadership.  The eventual home warren of the group is established to be more egalitarian than any of them, someplace where different talents are all valued, while pulling useful techniques and ideas from the various warrens they've seen.

Own language:  Yes
Adams calls the rabbits' language Lapine, and presents the dialogue as partially translated.  Some words are left untranslated, some switch back and forth, and some are given with translation notes.  For example, in the first chapter, Fiver's name is only 'Fiver' in English, as explained in a footnote:
Rabbits can count up to four.  Any number above four is hrair - “a lot” or “a thousand”....There were probably more than five rabbits in the litter when Fiver was born, but his name, Hrairoo, means “Little Thousand”-i.e., the little one of a lot or... “the runt.”
There is a dictionary in the back.  The rabbits can also speak to and be more or less understood by some other species, using a sort of common pidgin.

Own religion:
Yes, Yes, this book is why I put this category in, Yes.
The rabbits acknowledge the sun as a creator-god, and have an elaborate series of stories (reminiscent of Just So Stories or Brer Rabbit) of when the world was young.  They have a mythic hero who features in most of these stories as the first prince of all rabbitkind.  This hero is implied to be immortal, and somewhat present as a protector of rabbits.  Early on it's mentioned that some believe he controls the weather, “because the wind, the damp and the dew are friends and instruments to rabbits against their enemies.”  There is a dark mythic figure associated with the moon who is death to rabbits, but also said to be death to any predators who take rabbits before their appointed time. 

Some rabbits have a limited gift of clairvoyance, but this is not Redwall, where you have explicit instructions from obviously real ghosts.  A lot of what is great about the book is the creation of their culture, their stories and beliefs, which don't necessarily impact on the plot at hand. 

Other Notes:
One warren that the main characters run across has more “civilized” rabbits, they sing, make art, make up rituals for themselves.  It is revealed that they are like this because they do not have to live like normal rabbits, and these odd behaviors are a symptom of a deeper problem with their situation.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Very Low
Really the big leap Adams asks of the reader is that of language, and the corollary, logical thought.  I know, that's a very big leap, but they don't have belongings, or clothes, or human concerns for the most part.  The rabbits in Watership Down have adventures that seem perfectly possible for wild rabbits.  And if they had language and a simple oral history, how would we know?

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