Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Watership Down - Richard Adams

Cover from the first edition.
 Hop hop!! Ah the bunny novel to beat all bunny novels!! To all who have read it you will know why it is one the most beloved animal novels ever written. It is of course English, and the English do anthropomorphised novels like no-one else. Wind in the Willows,  C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels, Kipling's Jungle Book, Charlotte's Web, Barbar the Elephant, Paddington Bear, Puss in Boots, Rupert Bear, Winnie the Pooh, etc, etc, etc. All absolute classics and quintessentially English in character and charm. I have read them all and remember them fondly from childhood. I like the Jungle Book so much I named my cat Mowgli several years ago, and boy does it suit him!!

( For you who don't know what anthropomorphised means it is the giving of human characteristics to other living creatures, animals, plants, events, or even toys ).

 As a novel Watership Down has gathered the reputation of being a children's book. Many of the titles mentioned above are unquestionably in that category but I dispute Watership Down's.  Many people associate animal books with children, talking animals doesn't necessarily have to be the domain of children alone. Many such novels are, but I call Watership down more a fantasy novel, and more for adults than children. This is for several reasons. Firstly the text is extremely small and I remember as a youngster looking at my parents copy and being unable to read such small text, or even having the will too. Look at genuine kids books and you'll see they have big bold lettering so the kids can read it within their abilities. I personally doubt any child could read this novel because as a child I  myself was a more than competent reader but couldn't have tackled this.

 Wikipedia also calls it a fantasy novel rather than a children's book. Throughout Richard Adams touches on many topics kids just wouldn't be aware of let alone understand. The novel has themes of exile, survival, heroism, politics, tyranny, and the makings of community. Sound like kids stuff to you? Me neither! So much of this mis-conception is bred from Adams saying the idea for the novel came from him telling stories to his children on long trips in the family car. He improvised them off of the top of his head and obviously got enough material together in his own mind in which to write a book.

 Incredibly after finishing writing the book it was rejected by no less than thirteen publishers!! How they must rue that mistake now as it has become Penguin Books biggest selling novel of all time!!

 What I like most about Watership Down is how Adams has gone much further than any anthropomorphised novel before or since. He himself acknowledges the debt he owes to Ronald Cockley's, The Private Life of Rabbits, which is a non-fictional work on the rabbits in the wild. It shows right throughout Adams novel as he fuses Cockley's knowledge with his own vision to show the world from a rabbit's perspective. He shows how rabbits make their warrens, and why they are dug a particular way to keep them warm and dry. Also rabbits are quite clean animals and don't foul up their warrens with poo, etc, they go outside and never eat from that area. It is all interesting stuff, and I was surprised at how much I was able to learn from it.

 Richard Adams  uses many inventive terms for some of the rabbits habits and way of life. For instance 'silflay' is the act of leaving the burrow at certain times of the day to feed. 'Owsla' is a term to denote a military type cast of rabbit that is used to keep law and order and to protect the whole warren. There are others for defecating etc, as well. He even has names for human inventions the rabbits encounter like cars, train tracks, shot guns, etc. Adams vividly describes them from the rabbit's perspective so well the reader knows what each thing is without it actually being named. It is so skillfully written as the reader is drawn into seeing the world through a rabbit's eyes.

 The cast is superbly anthropomorphised as each character has their own personality. My favorite character wasn't a rabbit at all but the cantankerous sea gull Kehaar!! He is a fantastic character who brought a humorous touch to an otherwise quite serious novel. He speaks in pidgin English with a guttural accent, and uses unusual phrases that initially baffle the rabbits who help and be-friend him. He is impatient with the rabbits in-ability to understand him and their lack of worldly knowledge. For instance when Hazel is shot with a shot gun Kehaar asks them if they have pulled out the pellets. The rabbits wonder what he is on about so Kehaar himself pecks them out saying it is the only way Hazel would live.

 The rabbits are horrified when Kehaar is helped by them with his damaged wing because he isn't as fastidious as them. He poos in his burrow and eats in the same place. He is slovenly and the complete opposite to the way the rabbits live. For all his impatience and faults though he repays them his debt and grows a soft spot for them, especially Hazel, who he rates very highly as a leader. Adams has actually managed well to keep the amount of animals out of the novel. He has only included those in which rabbits would encounter in the wild such as dogs, a mouse, humans in the shape of farmers, and a cat who Adams quite succinctly shows, as all cats are, as nothing but a vain bully!

 The whole cast is good and Adams canvases so many personalities that any viewer will recognise. From the initial warren's head rabbit, who is getting senile and dismisses Fiver's warning out of hand, to the bullying and yet caring Big-wig, the intuition and anxiety of Fiver, the timid Pipkin, Hazel who listens to his brothers advice, and even though not a fighter, is a natural born leader and diplomat, and then through to the dictatorial Wound-wort. For me Adams has shown the gift of so many quality writers in being able to express the 'human condition' in expounding so many differing traits and characteristics. This, mixed with the themes previously alluded to, lift Watership Down well out of the children's book category.

 Adams also mirrored Tolkien somewhat in not only telling a wonderful tale but by inventing a raft of cultures, languages ( lapine for the rabbits ), proverbs and mythology. Fiver is a great story teller and the rabbits all clamour to hear him tell stories of El-ahrairah, and Frith, the rabbit god. Many critics have mis-understood this mythology as Adams being either being anti-religious or just simple religious symbolism. He himself has repeatedly refuted this. I at no time felt it had a religious under tone and recognised the rabbits as having their own mythology and tales of old. All Adams has done is replicate human ways into the rabbits.

 Also the novel has been criticised as being heavily sexist!!!!!!!!! Throughout the novel no female rabbit has a leading role, and critics have savaged Adams for the rabbits only wanting does for re-procreation!! I think this is taking things too far as Adams is showing how community is made and the spirit needed to do so. I don't think it is a sexist novel in any way at all. I wonder where these critics get their ideas from as it just seems like nit picking. Why not just sit back, read the novel, and enjoy it without trying to find things that aren't there??

 For me Watership Down is the greatest anthropomorphised novel ever written. The English do them so extremely well and this is the best example of its type. It is certainly not a kids book in the strictest sense, and yet I believe it can be read TO kids, and they will enjoy it. I can't see most kids reading it for themselves unless they are reading at an adult level! As a novel it has a good plot and is amazingly written in showing the reader what the world possibly looks like to rabbits from their point of view. In all it is a real charmer, an enchanting read, and oh so ever English!! You can almost smell the Hampshire countryside as Adams takes us on a journey much like Tolkien took us on over a certain ring, but with rabbits!

 A lovely book, and such a neat story you can not but love it and sing to yourself  'Bright Eyes'!!!

Click here for more at wikipedia:

Click here for a dictionarial look at the word 'anthropomorphised:


Richard Adam's setting for Watership Down in the Hampshire contryside


  1. Absolutely fantastic write up.

    I mentioned this on facebook the other day - this is one of my absolute favourite books. I read it at least once a year!

  2. ThanksII This was absolute agony to write. I had several attempts at it before ending up with this. Like I say, I'm not trained to critique lierature and am finding it quite difficult.

  3. I needed a fresh book for the bus ride to work so Watership Down is now getting its yearly read.

    I wouldn't worry about finding critiquing this novel difficult as you got it completely spot on :-)


  4. That was a good read; thanks. If you can find Ronald Lockley's book, it's worth seeing, though a bit grim in the chapters describing myxomatosis in detail.

    I read WD at the age of 12, and it's long been published here (the UK) in both Penguin and the children's imprint Puffin, so I'm not sure it's the case that only adults read it. As for females, what about Hyzenthlay? I've always felt she was a little underrated.

  5. I felt it was a difficult book to read for kids. I certainly couldn't read it way back then. But each of us is different. I just dispute how it is targeted solely as JUST a kids book because I don't think it is. I read Harry Potter and they are more kids books even though adults read them.
    Like I say just because it is an animal story it seems an obligation to put it into the kids genre.
    As for the females, I'm quoting the critsims I have read else where on the book. Read wikipedia's link!