Watership Down was originally told during car journeys to Stratford-upon-Avon, his audience were his wife and two daughters. Of course, Watership Down automatically triggers certain reactions in people, but I am hoping that these should be dispelled by reading the novel itself. Art Garfunkel ringing in my ears I began on a for hundred and seventy five page journey with Hazel-rah: the lapine protagonist and chief rabbit of what will become the Watership Down warren. It is difficult to critique a character of a rabbit, but Adam’s immersive writing sometimes leaves you forgetting you are actually reading about rabbits. Silflay, hraka, inlé are among some of the rabbit language words (and are some of the easiest to pronounce, in opposition to El-ahrairah and Thethunninang). The inclusion of this insight into the rabbit tongue draws you in fantastically. The rabbits develop their own words for their own use and our human perspective needs to understand these words to feel included in their society. The characters seem almost human in quality, and ironically, the humans in the novel are portrayed as uncouth and clumsy.
This is where Adams’ skill shines through. The story is wonderfully crafted, involving the extremely complex systems of rabbit politics, the thrill of the constant danger the rabbits find themselves in all add to the immersion in the rabbit universe. The book is of course the sort of book which forces you to hate humanity. Yes, we can imagine people we know as the builders who at the offset destroy an entire warren with gas. No, it doesn’t feel great. But in terms of its eco-centric writing, it is a real eye opener with a clean moral compass and a good message to tell. The rabbit is a creature with a thousand enemies – man is portrayed as one, killing because he can rather than for survival.
Watership Down is published by Puffin, the children’s literature sector of Penguin. But I have to ask, is the book which is full of graphic and gory descriptions of violence, complicated political situations including shapshots of communism and fascism, difficult and very advanced language (both in style and vocabulary) and each chapter being headed with quotations from works of literature, including some from Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Robert Browning and Thomas Hardy, really a children’s book? It is difficult to place it, but is the fact that it is a classic animal story so much that these situations count for the stuff we give to children? If Hazel was an eight year old girl and was shot and wounded, attacked by a cat, almost drowned in multiple rivers and forced to go to war with her neighbouring community would it be okay? Certainly not, but somehow animal stories can get away with this. Truth be told, Watership Down is terrifying. The film is even more so. But I would regardless recommend it. However, to be brutally honest, I would have to recommend it to an adult reader, or at least a child with a very strong stomach. Watership down is far from the cute animal story which is probably expected from it, and in my opinion, this is the greatest strength of the book.