Who knew bunnies could be so violent? In Adams' parable, Peter Cottontail's compatriots show their darker side as they struggle to escape the destruction of their warrens and find a new place to live and.....have more bunny babies. He doesn't endow them with human qualities (other than the capacity for speech and rational thought), but the story has serious human implications. Part cautionary tale about preserving local ecologies, part investigation of the will to live and the necessary conflicts that arise in a group striving for survival, part literary epic, Watership Down is adult fantasy of the first order.
Don't be fooled by the furry creatures on the cover—this isn't a kids' book, no Beatrix Potter or Redwall tale. This is gritty, dark and violent, often disturbing, sometimes horrific. When a particular warren in Southern England is threatened by human occupation, its inhabitants begin a migration toward Watership Down where there is rumored to be another dwelling free for the taking. Led by Fiver (a prophet/seer) and his older brother Hazel, the rabbits travel through rural England and its attendant dangers, a journey reminiscent of those in The Aeneid and The Odyssey. They fight bad rabbits, get shot at, find does with which to increase their tribe, and exchange mythic tales of the illustrious rabbit Prince El-ahrairah.
Adams' attention to the detail of the rabbits' culture and society has drawn comparisons to Tolkien's Middle Earth, but the analogy is somewhat misleading. For one thing, Adams simply collected and wrote down the stories he'd told his daughters, as opposed to consciously formulating a monolithic mythos with languages, histories and religions. Watership Down, while a serious novel with deep significance, is not the academically and philosophically grounded work that was Tolkien's creation. However, I believe Adams' novel surpasses The Lord of the Rings in one important and often overlooked regard.
Tolkien has significantly reordered the way most people think about mythology by presenting it as a construct, as an organized cultural product meant to tell us something universal as well as something about the people from which it originates. Real mythology is sloppier. It develops over decades, centuries, sometimes millennia, and is usually not as cohesive as retrospection indicates. Because most mythology is more pragmatic and psychological than specifically religious in its origins, it is often disjointed and even contradictory, just like the humans it attempts to shed light on. This is why the Greek pantheon is just humans on a grand scale—they provided a context for exploring and explaining human nature, and the gods represented not so much deities as human traits. In this way, the Greeks were the ultimate humanists, worshipping man's glory in place of God's.
By making the effervescent El-ahrairah a being to be remembered and imitated rather than a deity to be worshipped, Adams gets at the heart of mythology and its purpose, even the purpose of literature itself. The rabbits' folk beliefs are reflections of experience and existence, meant to help alleviate the often difficult burden of being in a dark and unhospitable world. This, of course, is the real purpose of literature—not specifically and systematically to order our beliefs, but to help us survive when survival seems most unlikely (and when does it not?). As tales of El-ahrairah thus serve the rabbits, so also does Watership Down serve us.
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