Life in the Undergrowth

Inspiration comes in different forms. It is a great influence on many of the most recognized literary titles out there. From his experiences staying at Swiss luxury hotels, American writer Amor Towles was inspired to write his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. For J.K. Rowling, it sprouted randomly. While on a delayed train from Manchester to London, she conceived the idea of a wizard who saved both the world of magic and of humans from the wicked designs of an evil wizard. As a result, readers were gifted with seven magical books and the “boy who lived”. Certainly, the inspiration for some of the most recognizable works in the world of literature was borne of the most random events in the writers’ lives. British writer Richard Adams’ career started with the British Civil Service. In his spare time, he wrote stories to entertain his children and grandchildren. But it was the story of rabbits he told his two daughters that altered his life forever. With his daughters’ prodding, he completed his debut novel, Watership Down.

Watership Down is set in southern England where the Sandleford warren led by their Chief Rabbit, Threarah, thrived. They had a generally peaceful existence, detached from the dangers of human atrocities. The peaceful and harmonious life at the warren was disrupted one day when Fiver, a rabbit seer, was seized by an ominous vision. He has foreseen the imminent destruction of the warren. Enlisting the aid of his friend, Hazel, they tried to convince the Chief Rabbit to leave their current home to search for a new and safer location. Threarah, however, was nonplussed and refused to acknowledge Fiver’s vision. Conceding that their case before the Chief Rabbit was a hopeless one, Fiver and Hazel then tried to convince their fellow rabbits to evacuate the Sandleford warren. They managed to convince nine of their peers, all of whom are bucks. Cognizant of the urgency of the situation, they immediately set out for the world beyond their former warren.

In search of a new home, the leaderless pack of rabbits found itself turning to Hazel for his judgment and leadership, a role that Hazel reluctantly accepted. Hazel’s group found itself in uncharted territories, where danger lurked at every corner, at every turn. However, the group was a well-balanced mix of strength, wisdom, and knowledge. The strongest members of the group, Bigwig and Silver, both former members of the Sandleford Owsla (the warren’s military caste), were in charge of ensuring the group’s protection and safety. Blackberry’s resourcefulness complimented Hazel’s wisdom and judgments. Together, they overcame the challenges and dangers that came their way until, after a couple of days after leaving their old warren, they reached a safe and elevated place that they can claim as their own. With Fiver’s stamp of approval, the group of eleven bucks finally started to settle down in what would be their new home.

“Rabbits (says Mr. Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now. A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass.”

~ Richard Adams, Watership Down

The titular Watership Down pertains to their new home. As days pass by, new challenges started to plague the group which has now officially recognized Hazel as their Chief Leader after he saw them through their journey to the “Down”. Questions of safety and sustenance started to surface. In order to thrive and survive in the wild, in the undergrowth, these are imperative. With Hazel’s capable leadership and with everyone’s cooperation, they managed to find solutions to these pressing concerns. Despite the differences in personalities, they managed to establish a peaceful and harmonious warren. They were able to solve every problem that they have encountered. With everyone settled, there was one concern that remained at the back of Hazel’s mind, and everyone’s as well. With eleven bucks and no does in the warren, they are now in a quandary as to how to ensure their longevity. Their lives, after all, are finite and death is inevitable.

Ever the reliable Chief Rabbit, Hazel was again at the top of this new challenge. With the aid of their new friend, Kehaar, a black-headed gull who got wounded while migrating with his group, Hazel was able to gain a perspective of their environs. Through Kehaar’s scouting, they learned of a large and thriving warren nearby called Efrafa. They also learned that it was overcrowded and is teeming with does. Hazel then formed and sent an embassy, led by Holly, to diplomatically present their case before the Chief Rabbit of Efrafa. Will the embassy successfully bring back the does that their group badly needs to ensure their survival? Or will this venture spell trouble for the Watership Down warren?

On the surface, Watership Down is simply the portrayal of the lives of wild rabbits. While their story was set in their natural environment, Adams rendered the rabbits human attributes and traits. The rabbits have their own culture, proverbs, and even their own poetry. Their story was also accented with mythology, epics, and stories. Looming large are the stories of El-ahrairah and his exploits. The stories of El-ahrairah’s heroic deeds also provided a respite from the novel’s main storyline without fully deviating from it. Among the rabbits, he is a legend, who has achieved the status of a folk hero. His prominent presence in nearly every rabbit story elevated him to mythological levels. He was also a role model who was revered and who possessed the traits every rabbit aspired to possess: devious and tricky but smart and loyal to the causes of his warren.

The seemingly puerile premise of the novel belied the weight of the subjects it has grappled with. While it purported to be a work of children’s fiction, Watership Down is a book that is suited for adults as well. Among the subjects that the book dealt with, survivalism was one of the most prevalent, a leitmotif that manifested in nearly every situation that the rabbits of Watership Down had to deal with. From the onset, when they evacuated their old warren to establishing their own, survival was imperative. It dictated their every action. Survival, after all, was also imperative in the wild. Those who are cunning and resourceful always tend to outwit and outsmart the physically strong. These were just some of the qualities that were seminal in the survival of the rabbits of Watership Down.

“This was their way of honoring the dead. The story over, the demands of their own hard, rough lives began to reassert themselves in their hearts, in their nerves, their blood and appetites. Would that the dead were not dead! But there is grass that must be eaten, pellets that must be chewed, hraka that must be passed, holes that must be dug, sleep that must be slept. Odysseus brings not one man to shore with him. Yet he sleeps sound beside Calypso and when he wakes thinks only of Penelope.”

~ Richard Adams, Watership Down

The adventures made the heft of the novel. It was one of the elements that made Watership Down flourish. The thrill of adventure was prevalent from the onset of the story which resonated with elements of popular Greek epics, such as  Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Some of the roadblocks that the group of rabbits encountered on their way to Watership Down were akin to the challenges that Odysseus encountered on his way home from the Trojan War. Even sans the parallels between these Greek epics, adventure abounded in the story. Diplomacy and conquest were also subtly underlined in the story.

One of the most basic subjects underscored by Watership Down was the sense and the definitions of home. With the constant threats of development, the natural habitat of wildlife has become vulnerable to destruction, such as the fate that has befallen the Sandleford warren. This forces wildlife in a constant struggle to find new homes where they can breed and settle. The threats of humans, unfortunately, extend beyond development. They hunt down for and sometimes breed animals for their own consumption. This was projected through Cowslip’s warren which was owned by a farmer. The rabbits in this warren have become dependent on the farmer. The same was portrayed through the rabbits locked up in a hutch in the Nuthanger Farm. They were kept as pets until they were rescued by Hazel in a daring raid. Their liberation, however, came with a price. Sacrificing comfort and convenience for freedom, these domesticated rabbits must now adapt to their new environment. The change can be drastic; one of the rescued does was stressed she had problems conceiving while some experienced anxieties.

The quality of leadership that Hazel demonstrated was instrumental in the triumph of the warren. Back at the Sandleford warren, he was a nondescript character who was overlooked by everyone, including the rabbits who joined him and Fiver in their quest for a new home. In the midst of pressures, he started to exhibit qualities that made the others put their faith in him. His judgments were precise and he had a keen sense of what needed to be done. There existed a semblance of democracy in Watership Down. Everyone can voice their concerns while Hazel listens to them and addresses them as necessary. He also involves his fellow rabbits, listening to their counsel and their thoughts, when deciding on matters that affect the entire warren. Everything was deliberated with an openness that echoed the democratic process.

The Efrafan warren, on the other hand, was the antithesis of Watership Down. The Chief Rabbit of Efrafa was General Woundwort. Formerly a domesticated rabbit, he escaped from his owners and founded Efrafa. Building the warren from the ground up, he took on a despotic role, keeping everyone under his thumb. Tyranny was prevalent in the warren and all forms of dissent were immediately shut down. Slowly, General Woundwort turned Efrafa into an authoritarian state, and while it freely accepted everyone who wanted to join the warren, the leadership refused to let anyone leave should they choose to. This was despite the overcrowding that has become the warren’s biggest concern. To ensure that no one escapes from the warren, General Woundwort has trained captains. They also man the primary defense of Efrafa, scouting the area adjacent to the warren for any threats.

“When Marco Polo came at last to Cathay, seven hundred years ago, did he not feel – and did his heart not falter as he realized – that this great and splendid capital of an empire had had its being all the years of his life and far longer, and that he had been ignorant of it? That it was in need of nothing from him, from Venice, from Europe? That it was full of wonders beyond his understanding? That his arrival was a matter of no importance whatever? We know that he felt these things, and so has many a traveler in foreign parts who did not know what he was going to find. There is nothing that cuts you down to size like coming to some strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.”

~ Richard Adams, Watership Down

In writing Watership Down, Adams was aided by R.M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964); Adams and Lockley would eventually forge a friendship. Adams complimented his research with his personal touches, such as the incorporation of a fictitious rabbit language called the “Lapine”. Lapine was derived from the French word for rabbit. The speech accented the novel and was interspersed in some of the dialogues. This rendered the novel a more authentic atmosphere.

All of these elements were capably woven together by Richard Adams with his engrossing storytelling. In his debut novel, Adams’s descriptive prose made the undergrowth come alive, capturing the minutiae of life in the warren and of the wild. His work was warmly and critically received, winning both the Carnegie Medal in Literature and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the two most prestigious literary awards for children’s fiction in Great Britain.

Despite their anthropomorphization, the rabbits of Watership Down still behaved like they would in the wild. Fighting and survival were two primary concerns in the daily lives of the rabbits: “Animals don’t behave like men. If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.” One of the novel’s more controversial facets was its portrayal of gender roles and copulation, an element that was seminal in the survival of the warren. There was an imbalance in the portrayal of males and females, with the female voice barely audible in the undergrowth. Their roles were reduced to reproduction.

Its blemishes weighed down on the story but Adams did many elements well. In the guise of a story about rabbits, the novel dealt with a vast territory of subjects such as survivalism, tyranny, heroism, leadership, and the various definitions of home. Having rabbits as the primary characters belied the weight of the subjects it has grappled with. Originally envisioned to be a children’s story to entertain Adams’s children, the subjects Watership Down explored made it a story that adult readers can appreciate. Parts-adventure, parts-fantasy, parts-conquest, Watership Down was a well-crafted story that deserved all the accolades it has received.

Ratings

92%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
26%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%

My first encounter with Richard Adams’ Watership Down was quite memorable for all the wrong reasons. I first encountered it through must-read lists. However, I kept on ignoring and dismissing the book. I thought that the book was about the war. The title somehow gave me the same impression as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Imagine my surprise when I learned that my initial impression of the book was all wrong, totally wrong! I was mortified, especially when I learned that the main characters of the novel are RABBITS. I felt ridiculous for thinking that the book was about the war. To redress this, I immediately purchased the first copy of the book I came across and even included it in my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. I must say, Watership Down was an experience. The “rabbits” in the synopsis belie a story that applies both to children and adults, alike. Adams, with his story of a warren striving for survival after separating from its main group, made the undergrowth come alive with his descriptive and vivid storytelling. The story also abounded with an interesting and memorable set of characters, from Hazel to Fiver to Bigwig to General Woundwort. It was a lush story about leadership, survival, loyalty, and resourcefulness.

Book Specs

Author: Richard Adams
Publisher: Perennial Classics
Publishing Date: 2001
Number of Pages: 476
Genre: Fantasy Fiction, Adventure

Synopsis

First published in 1972, Richard Adams’s extraordinary bestseller Watership Down takes us to a world we have never truly seen: to the remarkable life that teems in the fields, forests, and riverbanks, far beyond our cities and towns. It is a powerful saga of courage, leadership, and survival; an epic tale of a hardy band of Berkshire rabbits forced to flee the destruction of their fragile community and their trials and triumphs in the face of extraordinary adversity as they pursue a glorious dream called “home.”

About the Author

Richard George Adams was born on May 9, 1920, in Wash Common, near Newbury, Berkshire, England. Adams attended Horris Hill School from 1926 to 1933, then at Bradfield College from 1933 to 1938. He enrolled at Worcester College in 1938 but his studies were postponed due to the advent of the Second World War. In 1940, he joined the war efforts by enlisting in the Royal Army Service Corps as part of an airborne company. Post-war, Adams resumed his studies and completed a bachelor’s degree in modern history at Oxford in 1948. He completed his Masters of Arts in 1953.

Prior to pursuing a career as a writer, Adams joined the British Civil Service, rising to the rank of Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the precursor to the Department of the Environment in 1968. To entertain his children and grandchildren, Adams wrote stories during his spare time. In 1966, he began writing what would eventually be his first published work, Watership Down, after receiving encouragement from his daughters. It took two years to complete and was turned down by several publishers before a small independent publisher, Rex Collings, agreed to publish his work. Finally published in 1972, Watership Down gained international recognition, rising to bestseller lists across the globe. In winning the two most prestigious British children’s book awards – the Carnegie Medal (1972) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (1973)- Adams earned the distinction as one of six authors to do so.

Following the publication of Adams’s second novel, Shardik in 1974, he quit his post at the British Civil Service and dedicate his time to writing. Despite his belated start in literature, he managed to have a prolific career that includes novels such as Nature Through Seasons (1975), The Plague Dogs (1977), The Girl in a Swing (1980), and Maia (1984). He also published works of nonfiction such as Nature Through the Seasons (1975) and Nature Day and Night (1978). He also published an autobiography, The Day Gone By, in 1990. Some of his works were also adapted into films. In 1975, Adams was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He also served as writer-in-residence at the University of Florida and at Hollins University in Virginia. In 2015, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Winchester. Adams also served as the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) from 1980 to 1982.

Adams passed away on December 24, 2016, in Oxford, England.