Thursday, July 14, 2016

Watership Down by Richard Adams (1975)

Rabbit Trio by Martin Ridley.
"I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable.  It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car."  So says Richard Adams in his introduction to Watership Down, and I believe him. But I can't help but to think that at least some of his novel can be used as a caution for humankind to watch our Ps and Qs, particularly about our forms of government, our care (or really, lack of care) for the environment, and war and peace.

I've been listening to more audio books lately, and Watership Down was an excellent example. The narrator, Ralph Cosham, was incredible.  His very male, very English voice was perfect for what is really a very male, very English novel.  His performance of General Woundwort in particular was incredible - he uses a dispassionate, gruff, very old school British military type of voice that captures the tough old general; you can imagine this rabbit sending boys to their death over the trenches in World War II.

A Fox Chasing a Rabbit by Mackeprang
Government.  I thought about this a lot as I listened to the audiobook; if Adams wasn't writing an Watership Down. First is that of the Sandleford Warren, under the governance of the Threarah.  This is a (mostly) benevolent dictatorship, with the Threarah in a kind of boss role; I guess some sort of 1970s African or Central American dictatorship would be the be a human equivalent, with a strong leader who does some good things (protection, order) but also corrupt (the Threarah and his cronies get all the lettuce, for example); it's a conservative dictatorship, afraid of change, which at the end leads to its downfall.  Second is Cowslip's Warren; this seems to be a perfect society, but at it's core is rotten.
allegory or parable - and I believe him - he at the very least was commenting on how human people can and do (and should) lead themselves.  There are five kinds of government in
Rabbits by Dick Twinney
The Cowslipians have everything they want or need, but because a dark secret lies at the heart of their world, they've given up their freedom - and in this case their very lives - for comfort and security.  "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety" writes Benjamin Franklin; that's essentially what Hazel and his warren discover about the Cowslipians.  Thirdly, the Efrafans.  This is a military dictatorship of the worst kind, and the one that Adams most hardly criticizes.  You are supposed to compare and contrast the reletaively free society of Hazel and the Watership Down warren with the brutality of General Woundwort and his Council.  Everything in Efrafa is run on military lines; there are several kinds of police, the people have no freedom of movement or freedom of speech; no one is allowed to question authority, and rebellions, even small ones are brutally dealt with.  Finally, of course, Hazel and the rabbits of Watership Down, are the ideal type of government.  Unlike the Threarah's government, they aren't corrupt; rabbits can share in the wealth of the warren, and the very fact of moving away proves their progressive attitudes.  They won't sacrifice their values and freedom for security - they did not stay with Cowslip's warren, nor did they stay with Efrara.  Finally, Hazel as a leader allows his rabbits to question him; in fact, this questioning makes him a stronger leader, as he is always given various types of advice and is able to choose the best course - unlike General Woundwort, whose lieutenants are afraid to give him true advice, ultimately leading to his downfall.    Another example of this was the digging of runs and burrows - the Efrarans comment on this when they invade Watership Down.

War and Peace.  I think Adams is also commenting on war, and peace.  The rabbits of Watership Down go out of their way not to fight; they use trickery and cunning to get what they want, but only fight when forced to do so.  Adams casts a harsh light on rabbit version of the military industrial complex that makes up Efrara; in the end, for all General Woundwort's warlike ways, war doesn't pay off for the Efrarans; in fact, it destroys their society.

Environmentalism.  I don't think you can read Watership Down without thinking that Adams has some idea of humanity's care-taking of the planet and how it's gone awry.  The novel wouldn't exist without the destruction - by humans - of the Sandleford Warren to build a housing development; this in the mid-1970s, and we know it's gotten worse.  Adams attention to natural detail is astounding; he clearly loves nature.  I also think he's not the type of environmentalist that hates mankind though; men are destructive, but it's also a man (and a girl) who save Hazel at the end (in a scene that reminds me so much of Rabbit Hill that I kept getting the two confused).

Watership DownWatership Down by Richard Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been listening to more audio books lately, and this was an excellent example. The narrator, Ralph Cosham, was incredible. His very male, very English voice was perfect for what is really a very male, very English novel.

I've read Watership Down several times over the years; I come away each time as enthralled as the first time. Adams attention to natural detail is incredible; his rabbits are real creatures, in the natural way, and also as fully developed and interesting characters. He's also a fantastic storyteller; listening to it (rather than reading it), I was on the edge of my seat, and even though I knew exactly how it would end, the sense of tension was amazing (and enjoyable). Adams hasn't written an allegory or parable (he says as much in his introduction) but he does have some lessons for humanity on war and peace, the environment, and the nature of government, freedoms and even civil liberties. A story about bunnies wouldn't necessarily seem to be so deep, but that's the genius of Watership Down, and explains its publishing longevity. This is the same world that Bambi inhabits; close by (but not next door) you may find The Wind in the Willows; I'm also reminded of Rabbit Hill (although Rabbit Hill has a cutsier feel).


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