Review – Watership Down: of rabbits and classics and cannon.

People tend to ask me what my favourite book is. Quite often, they do so expecting to hear me say “The Lord of the Rings”. After all, Tolkien is father to the genre of modern fantasy, is he not? However, even though professor Tolkien created a masterpiece with his trilogy, there is a book I come back to even more often. My favourite book. A book about rabbits.

Surprisingly sinister

In 1963 Richard Adams  wrote a book that would become incredibly succesful: in Watership Down we follow the adventures of a group of renegade rabbits, travelling across the British country side. Their troubles start when a rabbit named Fiver sees, in a vision, their home warren being destroyed by human developers. Fiver’s brother, a rabbit named Hazel and protagonist to the story, gathers all rabbits willing to rask a hazarduous exodus, against the chief rabbit’s will. From there on, they are rabbits on the run, fleeing from elil (predators) in their search for a new home.

At first glance, Watership Down may well appear a children’s book. But although Adams wrote his debut novel for children, the book’s prose and themes and intertextuality (more on this later) make Watership Down far more suitable for a more mature audience. Don’t mistake rabbits for cuteness: Adams’ long-eared protagonists face grim death on a daily basis, in the shape of sickness, hunger and predators (man being the most vicious of all).

Mythology and the Classics

Adams not only steeps his story in biological facts – detailing a rabbit’s tendency to ruminate (hraka), to freeze in danger (to go tharn) and even to let their unborn children wither in their wombs when there’s overpopulation in warrens – but also in mythology: the sun Frith, to rabbits, is god. He created all rabbits, but punished the prince of rabbits, El-Ahrairah, who would not control his ever-growing people. So he gave each of the rabbit’s enemies (previously mentioned elil) weapons and a desire to hunt and kill rabbits. Yet, he also gave rabbits a chance to outwit, outrun and outbreed their enemies. In doing so, Frith made rabbit life a continous struggle for survival. Those unable to escape their enemies, would meet the Black Rabbit of Inlé, the rabbit parallel to the Grim Reaper.

Aside from creating this rabbit mythology and lexicon, Adams drew inspiration from the great classics of antiquity: the exodus of a group of rabbits from a warren about to be destroyed, can be seen as a hypothetical exodus from Troy. What if Aeneas had left before Troy’s destruction, incited by Cassandra’s never-believed words of warning? Adams’ rabbits meeting with strange, resigned-to-fate hedonist rabbits (lotus-eaters?), their quest for a new warren ‘city’ (Rome?) and their raid on a nearby warren for does ( wijfjesroof plegen op een andere kolonie (Sabine women?) all strongly point to Adams using and adapting themes from the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid to fit his own epic story.

And here we hit a theme central to Watership Down: leadership and heroism. Whereas Homer imbues his heroes  with martial prowess (Achilles) or intelligence (Odysseus), and whereas Vergil’s Aeneas becomes a hero by facing dangers head first, Adams puts an entirely different quality central to leadership: Hazel becomes Hazel-rah (Chief rabbit Hazel) not by his own wits, speed, strength or even visions, but because he is the rabbit to recognise these qualities in others, and to put the right rabbit at the right task. Adams effectively makes a statement on what a modern “Homeric hero” should be, no matter the shape of his ears.

The Canon of Rabbits

Watership Down was turned down seven times before Collings took a chance on the manuscript. And despite its quaint premisse about a psychic rabbit, Watership Down quickly became succesful, winning multiple awards. Soon after, the novel took to the American market, before being translated first into Dutch, then into seventeen other languages.

That Watership Down was a classic in the making, becomes evident by its long history of cinematic reception: no less than three separate film adaptations have been brought to life over the course of the last fourty years. The first of these was a motion picture, adapted and directed by Martin Rosen in 1978. What stands out in most people’s memories, aside from the soundtrack to which Art Garfunkel lent a helping hand, is the impressive eeriness and visual horror brought to the screen in this wonderfully grim retelling. It must have traumatised quite some children expecting fluffy bunnies. An eight-year old at the time, I was in love with this film.

Martin Rosen didn’t stop there: from 1999 to 2001 a Watership Down cartoon series was aired, also made by Rosen, with many of the original voice actors (including John Hurt). This cartoon, however, was more sensitive to a children’s audience. And lacked the grimness that made the original film great.

Meanwhile, Watership Down was gaining ground across multiple media: in theater, radio and music, but also as a roleplaying game: Bunnies & Burrows, a critter-based variety on Dungeons & Dragons. And, finally, last year saw the arrival, almost five years after it was announced, of the BBC animated series Watership Down, aired on Netflix: a CG-spectacle in four one-hour parts, containing more of the source material than the original film ever did. Big Hollywood stars voiced main characters: James McAvoy, Ben Kingsley and, my favourite, John Boyega as proud, stubborn Bigwig. I watched this series over the holidays. I enjoyed it. As adaptations go, however, Rosen’s grim 1978 movie reigns supreme.

For now, Watership Down remains my number one book. It gripped me at eight, and at twenty-eight it stands undefeated. Don’t believe me? Go read the book 😉

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