Falling for Watership Down

By

I was maybe 12 when I first saw the movie on TV. It featured cartoon rabbits, but there was nothing cute about their story. They experienced danger—from man, predators, and other rabbits. They fought, bled, and died. It was unexpected and shocking, but also compelling. When I found out it was based on a book, I had to read it. And while the movie was good, I realized for the first time that movies often fall short of their source material. Watership Down was one of the most exciting and enjoyable books I had ever read.

Now that I have children, I’ve read it to my oldest son and daughter twice, the second time at their request. It’s one of our favorites. I rank it with Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. It’s that good. And I’m not alone—Jeffrey Overstreet gives the book similar praise;[1] Andrew Peterson named his home “The Warren” in honor of it.[2] Christian readers especially will enjoy its themes of story, community, leadership, and sacrifice.

You may be thinking, “An adventure about rabbits? No thanks.” So instead of saying, “Just trust me,” I’ll try to explain why I love this novel so much.

 

An Epic Adventure

Reviewers have compared Richard Adams’s Watership Down to Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. I’m not competent to evaluate that claim. But I can make my own assertion: Watership Down is an epic adventure. It’s a journey to find a home, a quest to overcome adversity, a struggle to form community, and a battle against tyranny.

A shadow falls on a peaceful rabbit warren when a small, nervous rabbit named Fiver, known for being something of a seer or prophet, senses imminent danger. He warns his brother Hazel that they all must leave before disaster strikes.

When the warren’s Chief Rabbit won’t listen, Hazel and Fiver convince as many others as possible to go with them to find what Fiver says they need: “High, lonely hills, where the wind and the sound carry.” That destination is Watership Down, a hill in the English county of Hampshire (where Adams had grown up). But reaching this peaceful place isn’t easy. The sojourners face predators, obstacles, their own weariness, and a strange warren of rabbits with something to hide.

And all of that is simply Part I. The book consists of four parts—each is its own adventure, inching toward the climax. It’s all here: beauty, humor, mystery, terror, action, and heroism. There are even maps.

 

Realism

The novel began as stories that Adams told to his young daughters on long road trips. To make his characters realistic, he borrowed ideas from R. M. Lockley’s nonfiction work, The Private Life of the Rabbit. Of course, Adams’s story is pure fantasy with talking, anthropomorphic rabbits. Nevertheless, it doesn’t describe an imaginary world; it’s our world.

Adams’s characters don’t walk on their hind legs, dwell in houses, and eat at tables. They hop and bolt, live in burrows, and feed on cowslip. Adams has even created a modest “Lapine” language (e.g., rabbit enemies are elil; when a rabbit becomes frozen with fear, it goes tharn). In other words, these aren’t fantasy characters that happen to be rabbits (but which could have been squirrels or groundhogs). First and foremost, they are rabbits. You get the feeling that this might actually be how rabbits behave. The realism is captivating.

 

Mythology, Story, and Community

Adams gives his rabbits their own mythology or folklore, expressed in stories they share. The sun is Frith, personified as a god. When Frith created the world, he made all of its creatures, including the prince of rabbits El-ahrairah. Because of El-ahrairah’s disobedience, Frith gave him enemies with a desire to hunt and kill rabbits. When the prince rabbit realized Frith was too clever for him, he hid in fear.

Still Frith loved El-ahrairah. So he blessed him with powerful legs and speed. Then Frith said,

El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.

This is the rabbits’ creation story, and El-ahrairah is their hero.

As their journey unfolds, the rabbits regularly gather together to hear stories of the tricky El-ahrairah and his adventures, told by Dandelion, the rabbits’ chief storyteller. These stories provide, in Overstreet’s words, “identity, purpose, and inspiration for troubled creatures.”[3] As Stanley Hauerwas observes, the rabbits are simply a group of individuals when their journey begins—“all they share in common is the stories” of El-ahrairah.[4] But through this shared narrative and their shared exploits, the rabbits form a genuine community—even as they sojourn toward their hoped-for home.

 

Leadership and Sacrifice

As their quest continues, Hazel emerges as the clear leader of the group. He isn’t the strongest or the smartest, but he becomes their Chief Rabbit because he knows, writes Hauerwas, “how to make the decisions that [make] best use of everyone’s talents.” Hazel isn’t threatened by the abilities of others. Rather, for the survival of the warren, he learns from and depends on others—even, at times, non-rabbits.

Though the rabbits reach the safety of the down, they have no does—a reality that everyone seems to overlook except Hazel. A warren of bucks without does clearly won’t survive. When an injured gull named Kehaar is temporarily stranded, Hazel inexplicably befriends it and instructs the others to care for it. His plan is to have the bird do what they cannot: search for a nearby warren so that they might find does willing to join them. Kehaar becomes a trusted ally.

What Kehaar discovers is a totalitarian warren called Efrafa run by a tyrant—a powerful Chief Rabbit named General Woundwort. His cruel officers maintain Efrafa’s discipline and safety at the expense of freedom and happiness. So Hazel decides they must help some does escape Efrafa. But he knows he must depend on the clever Blackberry to come up with an escape plan and the courageous Bigwig to infiltrate Efrafa and lead the does out.

If any member of the group is a possible rival to Hazel as Chief Rabbit, it’s surely Bigwig. A former officer in their home warren, Bigwig is powerful and bold. Yet, in time, he’s won over by Hazel’s leadership—so much so that he is unwilling to back down when Woundwort attacks the Watership Down warren. “My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run,” a severely wounded Bigwig declares, “and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.” Hearing this, Woundwort is thunderstruck. He had assumed a strong rabbit like Bigwig was the Chief Rabbit. But if not, what kind of rabbit must Bigwig’s chief be? Woundwort can’t comprehend leadership that isn’t dependent on brute strength.

Yet, the reason the others, like Bigwig, are prepared to sacrifice for Hazel is because he is prepared to sacrifice for them. When weaker rabbits are unable to cross a river to flee from an approaching dog, Hazel refuses to leave them. When the warren’s salvation calls for an extreme plan, Hazel himself leads two others on the deadly mission. This sacrificial leadership is evident to all the rabbits. Again Hauerwas is right: “Hazel’s primary gift is his willingness to accept responsibility for making the decision when it is not clear what it is that should be done” and being “willing to pay the price.”[5]

One of the stories Dandelion tells describes El-ahrairah’s love for his people and his willingness to suffer and give his life in exchange for theirs. Hazel proves to be a worthy descendant of the Prince of Rabbits.

 

Trembling Pleasure

Beyond all of this, though, Watership Down is simply a fantastic story. After the book’s publication in 1972, the reviewer from The London Times wrote, “I announce with trembling pleasure, the appearance of a great story.” That’s exactly what the book gives me: trembling pleasure.

I love the characters: Fiver’s eerie premonitions, Kehaar’s comical impatience, Bigwig’s defiant courage, and Hazel’s hopeful perseverance. Woundwort is a terrifying antagonist. Who knew a rabbit could be so frightening? When I read the book aloud to my kids (both times), I frequently had a chill down my spine or a lump in my throat.

In the latter chapters, the tension that builds as the plot unfolds is nearly unbearable. When asked by a young reader why he made it so scary, Adams responded, “Good stories ought to be exciting and if they are exciting they are inevitably scary in parts!”[6] In a later interview, he said, “Readers like to be upset, excited and bowled over.”[7] They do. And Adams delivered.

Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve last year at age 96. This year Netflix and BBC will release a four-part, animated Watership Down miniseries, featuring the voices of James McAvoy, John Boyega, and Ben Kingsley.[8] I hope it turns out well. Regardless, a film can never replace what only a book can do. As the rabbits know, real stories are meant to be told.

 


 

[1] Jeffrey Overstreet, “Remembering the Eucatastrophe of Richard Adams’ Watership Down.” https://thinkchristian.reframemedia.com/remembering-the-eucatastrophe-of-richard-adams-watership-down

[2] Andrew Peterson, “What in the World is a Hutchmoot?” http://wingfeathersaga.com/what-in-the-world-is-a-hutchmoot

[3] Overstreet, “Remembering the Eucatastrophe.”

[4] Stanley Hauerwas, “A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on Watership Down,” in A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (University of Notre Dame, 1991), 13.

[5] Hauerwas, “A Story-Formed Community,” 29.

[6] “11 Fascinating Facts about Watership Down.” http://mentalfloss.com/article/63054/11-fascinating-facts-about-watership-down

[7] Alison Flood, “Watership Down author Richard Adams: I just can’t do humans,” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/04/richard-adams-watership-down-interview

[8] John Plunkett, “BBC and Netflix team up for new Watership Down production,” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/apr/28/bbc-and-netflix-team-up-for-new-watership-down-production.

Chris Cowan serves as an editor for Bibles and reference books at B&H Publishing of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville. He has a Ph.D. in New Testament from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a proud native of West Virginia. Chris and his wife Dawn have four children, two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve. Follow him on Twitter at @Chris_Cowan.


5 Comments

  1. Scott Barry

    I read Watership Down a few summers ago for the first time. Before I was fully through the book, I already knew it would be among my favorites. It is excellent!

  2. Sheri Cornett

    I am a middle school Reading teacher.  One of my favorite moments from my first year of teaching 13-years-ago was when I had an unmotivated 8th grade boy in the library and he asked “What should I read?”  I handed him Watership Down and said something like, “It’s about crazy, psycho bunny rabbits.”  He checked it out because the bell was about to ring.  He came back after the weekend and ran up to my desk, exclaiming, “It’s about crazy, psycho bunny rabbits!”

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