Tales from Watership Down
by Richard Adams
Avon Books, March 1998
[Challenge # 39: A book with a non-human (animal or fantastic creature) main character]
I don’t think any talking-animal story has ever come close to what Richard Adams accomplished with Watership Down, an epic tale of rabbits who flee their doomed warren. It had the perfect mix of myth, adventure, naturalism, and irony… irony in that world-changing or mysterious events in the rabbits’ world are actually mundane ones for human beings. An escaped dog decides the outcome of a war. A punt on a stream is alien technology, and a freight train a rampaging Godzilla. Adams’ rabbits handle these elements with a very British matter-of-factness, as if they were fighting in the trenches of Verdun.
But they are not without humor and charm, especially in their tales of El-Ahrairah, a rabbit trickster deity who supports his people with smarts and sass. This rabbit, or lapine as Adams puts it, mythology is a good part of why the book has become and remains a classic. Not only that, the world they inhabit is itself a mythology, a rural English countryside without motorways, radios, air traffic, or tourists, where cows are milked by hand and children never watch TV. Cars, trains, and electrical pylons make appearances, but that’s it. It’s a mythic twist within a twist.
I first read Watership Down at the age of 13 and enjoyed it immensely. It’s one of those books that are a perfect bridge for young teens into more adult reading. I even remember how I got it: from a bookstore in Philadelphia, on a day trip there with my widowed mother, who had pulled me out of school to enjoy the autumn weather. And like many other budding writers, I created my own language from the lapine glossary that Adams provided at the end of the book, a language that ranks as a conlang classic. (Adams utilized “soft sounds” like th, f, and hr and short verbs to create something that rabbits might speak, if they could.)
For the “talking animal” selection of this year’s Author Water Cooler challenge I chose Tales from Watership Down, billed as a sequel even though it’s more of a coda/appendix. Half was more rabbit mythology tales, and half short stories of what happened in the new Watership Down warren after the defeat of General Woundwart. I don’t think any of this could have been read on its own; one would have to have read and enjoyed the previous book. The stories are a lot like the multiple appendixes J. R. R. Tolkien provided after the “official” ending of Return of the King (“Well, I’m back,” he said.) Material that enhances what you just read, but is not really necessary.
That said, I did enjoy my re-visit with Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, and their companions. The further history of the warren unfolded logically in a series of small events that added more to the world, teasing us almost of what might have been if the author decided to create a series. If there was a theme to it, it was the importance of even-handed, inclusive, yet decisive, leadership. Adams even managed to right some wrongs in the original story, in that the female rabbits received more of a voice, and he hints that the does are in fact responsible for cultural transmission in rabbit society. It’s an intriguing idea of a free-floating stream of ESP that acts as a collective unconscious, in the Jungian sense, for the rabbits. It nicely explains how distant warrens can have the same language and societies, though I am not sure the author intended it as such.
Thumbs-up for readers who have the original book.