Richard Adams used to make up stories about little bunnies for his daughters during long car rides in the English country. One day, infuriated at a lousy children’s book he bought, he considered: “I can do better than that”. The result is one of England’s most beloved young reader’s novels.
The story of Watership Down, edited originally in 1972, starts when the rabbit Fiver begins to have visions showing a great catastrophe destroying his colony. “The field is full of blood”, he says. This trope is based on Cassandra’s myth, and much like the Greek prophetess, the little bunny’s visions are ignored by the leaders and only a small group decides to escape in search of a better place.
When my girlfriend asks her English friends about Watership Down their expression shows love and fear at the same time. Love because the animal characters actions and personalities are built in a very endearing way by the author. Fear because the little furry creature’s deaths are many and bloody. Like all good children’s literature, Watership Down does not insult the young reader’s intelligence with simplified messages.
The bunnies have anthropomorphic thoughts and can speak, but the book was built around real rabbit’s behavior, their organization, their ways of feeding, etc. It’s interesting how the author imagined how it would be a society of hunted creatures, instead of hunters like us. They are in a constant state of fear, always alert to any weird sound or noise.
Adams also created a sort bunny speak, called “Lapine”, that even without the depth of other literary created languages like those made by Tolkien, has consistent prefixes and endings to convey and exotic but realistic tone. The rabbits also have a rich mythology with several stories intertwined.
There is the solar god Fritz, the black rabbit Inlé (bringer of death), the primordial rabbit El-ahraiah and his many tales deceiving dogs or stealthily attacking gardens. The characters are very well constructed. Fiver is the prophet flirting with madness, Hazel the leader, Bigwig the warrior, Blackberry is pretty much the scientist, Dandelion is the bard, and entertains his friend with his tales. The book has a curious flavor, like a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean epic only with bunnies.
One of the best books I have ever read. The ambience makes the reader really imagine how life is a few centimeters from the ground and think about how frail life is. And also about the number of stories that are hidden everywhere.