Thoughts on a rabbit epic
Watership Down review
I’m trying to find universal treasures among children’s literature. I am also writing these reviews in Spanish, as to acquaint a Spanish-speaking audience with books that are not part of our pop culture.
This time, I chose to write about Watership Down.
Watership Down is one of the few children’s books I’ve read I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, absolutely anyone.
It’s the tale about a group of rabbits that escape their warren due to a mysterious menace, and the adventures they have in their quest for a new warren. This may sound plain enough, but the story is well sustained by different layers that add complexity. For example, the behavior of the rabbits is based on a real book called “The Private Life of the Rabbit”, which frankly, I’m delighted it exists. Also, the story is in the tradition of an epic, but it brings us entirely into the world of the rabbits. Because of this, man-made artifacts are foreign, and there are no animals wearing clothes, like in The Wind in the Willows. In another example of this, rabbits don’t understand the concept of a boat, because they have no need for it. They have their own language, Lapine, and the concepts that are more deeply intertwined to rabbit life are written in Lapine in the text. The rabbits also have myths and folk stories, that, like in any other culture, evolved representing the Rabbit spirit. These stories were particularly charming. They have captivating characters, like a trickster hero called El-Ahrairah, and the eerie Black Rabbit of Inlé, who personifies death and disease, and is both feared and understood as having a natural part in the order of things. His description is beautifully written:
“Now, as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inlé is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off. You all know how some rabbits seem just to throw their lives away between two jokes and a theft: but the truth is that their foolishness comes from the Black Rabbit, for it is by his will that they do not smell the dog or see the gun. The Black Rabbit brings sickness, too. Or again, he will come in the night and call a rabbit by name: and then that rabbit must go out to him, even though he may be young and strong to save himself from any other danger. He goes with the Black Rabbit and leaves no trace behind.”
All the characters have distinctive personalities, and they’re all endearing. The pacing of the story is really good, and I was always excited. Each time a new risk emerged, I felt dread for my favorite rabbits: please, that no one gets hurt. I really liked Fiver, the seer rabbit, a small, nervous, mystic and sensitive creature, that among all the upheavals, is curious enough to make poetic musings about the waking world and the world of dreams.
I like that it builds a very vivid Rabbit spirit: it’s resourceful, bold, and mischievous, and rabbits that act contrary to this nature spoil their very selves.
In the story, there are hardships, death and disaster. There are heroes and follies. The disastrous warrens they find in their path are representative of human weaknesses. The first one of these is a luxurious, comfortable warren of beautiful but sad rabbits. We find out their horrible secret: they have a steady supply of food that humans leave nearby the warren, but in exchange they are ensnared and killed, one by one. All shall die, but they do not know when. They fatten up as they see their friends die one by one, and so the price they pay for security is a broken spirit and desolation. They have eschewed the common light-hearted folklore of rabbits in place of a ritualistic religion for the damned and hopeless. They are victims of their own comfort and denial. This part of the story was particularly severe (look out for the haunting poem from the local rabbit-poet with fantasies of escapism).
The second disastrous warren is Efrafa, a crushing dictatorship. A smart, cautious system of protection developed into a strict government headed by a military ruler. I’ll say nothing more because it’s key to the story, but the insights from these encounters are universal and they are one of the reasons why I would recommend this book to anyone.
All in all, it’s a charming, smart, and original story. The prose is agile and clean, and many times poetic. I also liked the solemnity added by the ominous quotes from great works of literature at the beginning of each chapter. When I finished reading the last page of the book (crying, of course) I knew I had really liked it, but as time goes by I keep thinking about it and remembering certain parts that still move me. I found myself recommending the book more enthusiastically than I had expected. I am sure you’ll enjoy the rabbit world: rabbit culture, rabbit virtues and rabbit-sized fears, rabbit hopes, and rabbit life. It’s pure adventure, with the firm structure of an epic: interesting characters, a fantastic trip with a message, dangers and classic heroism.