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Watership Down by Richard Adams
Penguin 1978 (1972)
480 pages
Classics

I loved this movie as a kid, and still do, though I no longer have a copy (it’s on my list). When I was little – about 5 or 6 I’d say, going by my lovely handwriting (that stage when you’ve learnt how to write your name so you write it on everything you can find), my mum gave me a jigsaw puzzle of Watership Down. I still have it, it was the only puzzle (I love them!) I didn’t get rid of when I left Melbourne last January. It has 6 stills from the movie, separated by vines and plants and field flowers. My imagination used to run wild with this puzzle, as it was some years before I saw the movie again and, though it all flooded back when I did finally watch it again, the scenes on this puzzle became larger than life for me.

One is of Fiver, looking out over the field at dusk, that he sees as covered with blood. A scary, powerful image, one that has stuck with me ever since.

Several years ago I found a copy of the book at Salamanca, or at a secondhand bookshop, somewhere like that. Has that lovely soft feeling old paperbacks get, the pages discoloured and thin. That lovely book smell.

Watership Down is a stirring book written almost exclusively from the point of view of a small collection of rabbits who, motivated by little Fiver who gets premonitions (or, as Bigwig says in a fit of bad temper, “a funny feeling in my toe”!) that something very bad is going to happen to the warren, set out to find a safe place.

The heros of this tale are Hazel – who becomes the new Chief Rabbit, not because he’s big, which he isn’t, but because he’s level-headed, smart, kind and kept them all together and alive – Fiver, Bigwig – who was in the old warren’s Owsla, is big and brave – Dandelion – the fastest rabbit and an excellent storyteller – Blackberry – who is very clever and figures out all sorts of things – and Holly – once the Captain of the Owsla in the old warren. There are other characters in the group, but these ones figure the most prominently.

The group of rabbits traverse a great distance, falling in with an almost empty warren which gets vegetable from the farmer, who sets snares all around – hence the small number of rabbits, and Bigwig’s near-death experience. It’s an eery place, led mostly by a rabbit called Cowslip – who, in the movie, is drawn and voiced so well, his character comes aross immediately. I really felt like I already knew him, and all the others, when I was reading this book.

After they escape from Cowslip’s warren, they reach Watership Down, a high, dry hill where they dig a warren under a tree. Soon Hazel broaches a topic they haven’t really considered: they have no does (females) with them. With the help of a gull, Kehaar, who they befriend, they find out that there’s a big warren called Efrafa about 3 miles away. They approach the warren, which is overcrowded, and ask to take away with them any does who want to come. Efrafa, ruled by a military dictator called General Woundwort, is an extremely scary place. Their request refused, the “emissaries” are also not allowed to leave. They escape, and despite the almost insurmountable obstacles and difficulties, Hazel, Blackberry and Bigwig hatch a clever plan to rescue as many does as they can.

There are many moments in this story that are quite scary. It’s not really a children’s book, the language is not that accessible, though that doesn’t mean children wouldn’t or shouldn’t enjoy it if they want to tackle it. The movie is quite scary in places too – and reading this book made me really appreciate and admire the adaptation, which is supurb – and I’m not just saying that because it’s one of my favourite movies and I’m very attached to it.

Like Animal Farm, but in a less deliberate way perhaps, Watership Down uses animals – rabbits – in an analogy of our own political and religious ideologies. Cowslip’s warren, where their numbers are small and the farmer keeps “elil” (animals that prey on rabbits) away, the rabbits of this warren have lost their cautious edge, will never talk of “where” anything comes from, and have become artists and philosophers and poets – in the most depressing way. In Efrafa, the rabbits are repressed, organised into “marks”, guarded by sentries more to stop anyone running away than to protect them from elil, and punished for infractions.

Watership Down becomes a beacon of hope, freedom and peace, though – and this is what saves it from becoming corny or propagandist – there’s no particular ideology at all at work there. They simply live as rabbits, clever rabbits to be sure, but do not in turn force their own ideas down other rabbits’ throats. (Terry Goodkind could learn a lot from reading Watership Down!!)

This is a great book, though it does make me want to get hold of the movie again! If you haven’t seen it, I’d actually recommend watching it before you read the book. The movie is so well written and animated and voiced, the characters in the book are so completely fleshed out, a truly remarkable (I think) achievement for an animated film. Hazel and Fiver and the others, are like childhood friends. I’m happy I finally read the book, and feel like I know them even better now.

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