Why You Should Read 'Watership Down'
Richard Adams' modern classic is wonderfully interlaced with folklore and a deep mythology.
Richard Adams’ Watership Down tells the story of Hazel and Fiver, two rabbit brothers who are convinced that an imminent danger is about to sweep over their home in Sandleford Warren. Together with a motley crew of rabbits who would dare to heed their cryptic warnings, they set out on a journey into the unknown.
Thus begins the modern epic which is worthy of recognition among the classics of western literature. Watership Down is wonderfully interlaced with folklore and a deep mythology, not to mention a healthy dose of wise commentary. It is a shining example of why animal-fiction can be so useful a tool in the communication of very human ideas.
There is a certain level of mysticism which is thread throughout the book, and obedience to this unknown can be handsomely rewarded, often in high stakes circumstances. Perhaps this was Adams’ commentary on animal instinct in general, in which case you could call it a creative depiction of some of the unfathomed mysteries of the natural order.
In another classic of animal fiction, The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame portrayed instinct as a divine melody carried by the breeze over the grass. But Adams does an excellent job in expressing that unspoken instinct in a completely fresh way. And in doing so, he makes it all the more relevant to the human experience.
“Before such people can act together, a kind of telepathic feeling has to flow through them and ripen to the point when they all know that they are ready to begin. Anyone who has seen the martins and swallows in September, assembling on the telephone wires, twittering, making short flights singly and in groups over the open, stubbly fields, returning to form longer and even longer lines above the yellowing verges of the lanes-the hundreds of individual birds merging and blending, in a mounting excitement, into swarms, and these swarms coming loosely and untidily together to create a great, unorganized flock, thick at the centre and ragged at the edges, which breaks and re-forms continually like clouds or waves-until that moment when the greater part (but not all) of them know that the time has come: they are off, and have begun once more that great southward flight which many will not survive; anyone seeing this has seen at the work the current that flows (among creatures who think of themselves primarily as part of a group and only secondarily, if at all, as individuals) to fuse them together and impel them into action without conscious thought or will: has seen at work the angel which drove the First Crusade into Antioch and drives the lemmings into the sea.”
― Richard Adams, Watership Down
Along their journey, the rabbits find themselves in all manners of danger. Perhaps one of their most intriguing adventures is within the eerie paradise of Cowslip Warren. As if each critter were endowed with a measure of this mysterious instinct, each of the Sandleford rabbits are immediately aware of the sickness that is in the air in these pristine meadows. But finding hospitality from the harsh elements in dry and spacious burrows, the rabbits allow themselves to be lulled by comforts, and too quickly they abandon the very instincts which had served them so well.
But it is Fiver’s uncommon fidelity to his sensitivities which had set their little rabbit feet upon this journey in the first place, and it is again Fiver who will not succumb to the deceit of a comfortable lifestyle. And while Fiver cannot verbalize precisely why, his innocence is alarmed that something is terribly wrong with this place.
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Interestingly, it is in hearing this warren’s famed poet, Silverweed, that Fiver’s dread is authenticated. For a symptom of a sick society is meaningless artistic expression. And the nihilistic verse told in the comfortable burrows is all the verification Fiver needs to simply run away, no matter the risk.
By contrast, the mythology from which Hazel and Fiver’s companions subscribe is rich beyond any of the empty expressions of a people too comfortable and compromised. The stories of El-ahrairah (who is comparable to a religious retelling of Robin Hood) are full of life and seek to elementally explain a rabbit’s lived experience. And so the further the reader goes down the proverbial rabbit hole (if you will allow me a cheep pun), the more he is rewarded with a robust understanding of the rabbit mindset, and what makes them tick.
But for all the wonder that is to be had in the legends of El-ahrairah; for all the mystery of Fiver’s visions; and for all the daring adventure upon which these rabbits do embark, perhaps it is the making of a true leader which offers the deepest payoff for the readers investment of time. Yes, the growth of Hazel-rah, as he becomes respectfully known by his companions, is masterfully unfolded and truly satisfying.