In honor of Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, who died on Christmas Eve, 2016.
“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”
Good stories are true. Real characters, real world, real tension. It doesn’t matter if the characters are space-faring octopuses, or if the world exists only in the mind of a British professor with an overactive imagination. The story has to be true. If it is, it will have something honest to say. It won’t feel like a coup — a lame attempt to conceal the didactic within fiction. It will feel like the truth, even if it comes from the mouth of a donkey.
Watership Down is as true as they come. It’s an adventure story: the struggle of rabbits in exile, seeking a new homeland. Some of them are cranky. Some are brave. They wound each other and risk their lives for one another. They laugh and love and tell stories. They’re living, breathing characters, and inside of their crucible they have plenty of honest things to say. The plot is exciting, but it breathes, and therefore it doesn’t move at lightspeed. Settle in, stay awhile. Let the rabbits sniff around and strategize a bit before they march off to war. There’s a rhythm to good adventure stories: Shelter, then storm. Fireside, then dragons. Internal tension, then external. This has that same beat —it builds and delivers.
This is not a gentle story. Sure, it takes place in the bucolic English countryside, and it’s about rabbits, and rabbits are cute. Until they’re digging their claws into one another, or screaming as they’re carried away in the mouth of a fox, or oppressing other creatures with Machiavellian tyranny. These rabbits live in a world subject to violence, and the violent bear them away with all manner of claws, teeth and bullets. Rabbits have enemies. A Thousand of them, to be precise.
One of the best things about Watership Down is its fully-realized world. The rabbits have their own language called Lapine (generously translated into English, with a few fun exceptions). They have a mythology filled with wonderful tales about the first rabbit, El-ahrairah, the trickiest of them all. Their actions and behavior are true to life: Adams relied on The Private Life of the Rabbit to make sure his characters were authentic. It doesn’t feel like you’re peering down into the rabbit world: it feels like you’re living in it. A cat slinks around a corner, and the rabbits are gone Tharn, frozen with terror, and it feels as though you’re the one staring at death.
All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.
At this point I should mention that the previous quote was (partially) used for an Under Armor commercial featuring Cam Newton. Someone in their marketing department must love this story as much as I do.
And I do love it. Watership Down is a truly great book that deserves to stay in publication for a long, long time. Future generations need to feel the whimsy and dry fear. The “wonderful strangeness,” as someone noted. It’s equal parts thrilling, moving, and verisimilitudinous-- worth reading more than once. Have at it.
(And once you’re done with the book, check out the 1978 animated film that’s been terrifying children for decades--you’ll love it)