The name Richard Adams doesn’t generally come up in conversation unless you’re either 1) in Britain or British or 2) talking about Watership Down, a landmark novel released in 1972 that bears with it a similarly nadsat-esque language called lapine–communicated specifically between rabbits. That’s right, rabbits. Anthropomorphized for the sake of the book’s allegorical nature, Adams’ debut explores the notion of the meaning of the word “home”–how the search for it elsewhere can often prove frivolous and void of meaning. It’s kind of a pussy’s view on exploring the outside confines of one’s world, to be honest.
Taking some inspiration from the style of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Adams permitted his animal characters the ability to talk, but not the ability to do anything that any normal rabbit could not–thereby adding further poignancy and weightiness to their limited but human actions. R.M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit, a detailed study of the lives of rabbits, also served as source material for Watership Down. Adams’ first telling of the story was to his two daughters on a car trip, after which they suggested their father write the tale down.
And write it he did, facing numerous rejections before the book was accepted by Rex Collings Ltd. Though often classified as a children’s book, Watership Down has frequently been taught in high schools, much to the dismay of many a student. Beginning with Hazel and Fiver, the two primary rabbits of the narrative, the latter tells Hazel he feels something terrible is going to happen to their warren–a feeling confirmed when they come across an unreadable sign (to them) indicating a housing development about to be constructed atop their warren. With his sinking intuition unable to be shook, Fiver insists that they must speak to the Chief Rabbit, Threarah, who is protected by an outlying group of rabbits called the Owsla. Threarah, in typical leader fashion, not only ignores Fiver and Hazel’s warning, but gets irritated by it, thus beginning the many allegories these rabbits represent for the human world.
As moral and political issues arise relating to the fate of and absconding from the warren, it is said in earnest by Hazel, “A rabbit has two ears; a rabbit has two eyes, two nostrils. Our two warrens ought to be like that. They ought to be together—not fighting. We ought to make other warrens between us—start one between here and Efrafa, with rabbits from both sides. You wouldn’t lose by that, you’d gain.” It is telling of the fact that those in a position of authority rarely see the bigger picture or long-term effects of implementing a certain practice. Accordingly, Hazel’s suggestion to a rabbit of authority for the Efrafans–and ultimately a Christ-like figure–Woundwort, is denied.
Adams, quoting from Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess who could only tell the truth and yet was still never believed, begins the first chapter of Watership Down with the exchange between her and the proverbial Greek chorus from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon:
CHORUS: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
CASSANDRA: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.
CHORUS: How so? ‘Tis but the odor of the altar sacrifice.
CASSANDRA: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.
And so it goes that the crux of much of Watership Down pertains to following one’s instinct–never going against the gut feeling that rarely fails in telling us so much. In Adams’ estimation, the gut feeling is: no matter how much you think the stench of home is like “a breath from the tomb,” don’t take it for granted, especially if said new home doesn’t put you enough in touch with nature; you might just find that it’s far worse “out there” in that world filled with so many other animals out for blood.