Evaluation Piece: On the Down

[This was a paper I wrote for my Eng. 101 class Nov. 2013. We were asked to write an evaluation paper. I chose Watership Down by Richard Adams.]

Watership Down (1978) is an animated film about rabbits. Sounds like fun and games, right? Not so much; this film has traumatized many children with its violence. The movie was not actually released as a kids’ movie, though, and other than the animation and the fact that it is about rabbits, it is definitely not. The book, which the movie is faithful to, was not written for children either. Written by the British author Richard Adams and published in 1972, it tells the tale of a group of rabbits that tramp across the fields of Hampshire, England, escaping from the violent destruction of their warren, looking for a new place to call home, which they find in the eponymous Watership Down. The book is well-written, with great world-building, engaging characters, and an interesting and suspenseful story.

The settings for the book—Sandleford, Watership Down, Nuthanger Farm—are all real places, but the author created another smaller world that runs parallel, if under the groundcover: the lapine world. He created a simple language for the rabbits. Most of the words are simply in English, but a few words, like ‘feed’, ‘enemies’, and ‘car’ are almost always used with the rabbit variation—silflay, elil, and hrududu, respectively. The word inlé conveys the idea of darkness, fear, or death; in rabbit folklore, their “Grim Reaper” is called the Black Rabbit of Inlé.  All the words and names the rabbits use are silky-smooth and sound beautiful, like Thylali and Vilthuril.

Richard Adams also made a mythology for the rabbits, with the sun-god Frith, Prince Rainbow, and the hilarious tale of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog. El-ahrairah (literally, “enemies-thousand-prince”, or Prince of a Thousand Enemies) is the hero of these myths. The father of all rabbits, he is spoken of with awe, mostly by the storyteller Dandelion. El-ahrairah is the epitome of rabbit-hood; “cunning, and full of tricks” (pg. 43). The stories are always larger than life and very thrilling, with scenes ranging from El-ahrairah tricking the dog Rowsby Woof into running around his house to rid his master of a disease, to the brave rabbit losing his own ears in a game with the Black Rabbit of Inlé. An interesting development comes at the end of the book, when the main character Hazel overhears Vilthuril telling her children a story that he thinks sounds familiar . . . which the readers will recognize as an incident that happened at the start of the book, only with Hazel as El-ahrairah and Bigwig as his faithful friend, Rabscuttle.

Mr. Adams also incorporated the human world into his book, mentioning the ‘white sticks’ that humans use, which a reader will recognize as cigarettes. Also, something else that was interesting was the mention of the ‘white blindness’, a disease that the rabbits are terrified of. Turns out this is a disease called myxomatosis, which is still a problem among the wild rabbit popluation.

Watership Down has many engaging characters; a few of the main ones include Hazel, the principle character; his brother, Fiver; the big, strong rabbit, Bigwig; and the villain, Woundwort.  Hazel and Fiver are introduced at the very beginning of the book, when they go out to eat, or silflay, at sunset. When a few other rabbits dismiss Fiver’s constant anxiety, which is caused by psychic visions, Hazel makes sure that his brother feels wanted by suggesting they go find cowslips; since it’s not the time of year for them, if Fiver can’t find them, “no one can.” This sets the stage for Hazel’s leadership skills. He is the one who listens to his brother’s prophetic warnings and leads the group out of the Sandleford warren, then works to establish the burrow on Watership Down. Even Bigwig, who is big, strong, and quite clever in his own way, accepts Hazel as his Chief Rabbit, although in the Sandleford warren Hazel was just another rabbit and Bigwig was a member of the Owsla (the ruling clique). Hazel listens, another great quality in a leader. Several times during the book he listens to the advice of those who follow him (Fiver, Blackberry, and Bigwig, especially) and thus saves all their lives.

Bigwig is another interesting character. Originally one of the Sandleford Owsla, he rebels against his superiors and helps the others escape. Although for a time he is skeptical of Fiver’s visions, he starts to think that maybe there is something to them after Fiver realizes what is wrong at the first warren they come across in their journeys. Additionally, he is not sure he wants Hazel to be the leader, but grows to respect Hazel’s leadership and wits, and Hazel also begins to trust him: not just as a ‘bouncer’, but as a good voice to have on a council. It is Bigwig who is trusted to enter Efrafa and retrieve the female rabbits. It is Bigwig who defends the warren from General Woundwort, and, despite numerous wounds, does so until Hazel tells him otherwise.

General Woundwort, the villain of the piece, is quite the fascinating character. His hatred of humans (who caused the death of his mother, among others) leads him to create the warren that is called Efrafa. It is a strictly regimented place, like a prison, and he rules with an iron fist, Owslafa (which is what he calls his Owsla) at his back. He is described as like the elil, because “he actually felt safer fighting than running” (pg. 473). Brutal, hard-hearted, and close-minded, he is also courageous, driven, and incredibly clever. There is a reason why the huge warren of Efrafa is under his command, despite the small Owslafa; his personality forbids rebellion. Bigwig, not the kind of rabbit to be intimidated by anyone, almost has a nervous breakdown after being questioned by Woundwort. His methods are restricting and hard, but they definitely work. It is very heavily hinted that he survived being attacked by a guard dog at the end; his body is never found.

Fiver drives the plot. The runt of the litter, he is ignored and ridiculed in the warren, especially when he starts having visions, but it is these visions—horrible dreams of the Sandleford warren being destroyed—that lead the small group of rabbits to seek shelter elsewhere. When the first warren they come across turns out to be a “cursed” warren that is fed and policed by humans, he is the one who figures it out and warns the others. It is Fiver who gives Hazel the idea of getting the dog to chase General Woundwort and his attacking rabbits away. Although small, Fiver has his own ways of protecting himself: when Vervain, Woundwort’s second-in-command, comes to kill him, he completely unnerves the tough rabbit by apologizing for his early death, which is indirectly Fiver’s fault.

The story in Watership Down is of the ‘tried-and-true’ variety: the underdog who becomes the leader, the scared runt who saves everyone, the band of misfits, the villain who is just trying to keep everyone safe, the search for home, and the fight for survival. Mr. Adams uses several strategies to keep the reader engaged: he keeps the plot moving along, he includes several moments of emotional distress, and he adds in interesting folktales. There is always something happening in this book: the rabbits go from leaving the warren to finding the “cursed” warren, to reaching Watership Down and having to find a way to settle in, to meeting Kehaar the seagull, etc., etc. While there is “downtime,” mostly there is movement. There are gripping emotional moments, such as Holly’s story of what happened in the Sandleford warren, or when Hazel is shot by the farmer. Something else that makes the story interesting is the rabbit folklore; the book is divided into four parts, and every part has at least one chapter devoted to telling the story of El-ahrairah. All in all, it is very interesting and keeps the reader moving forward.

A problem readers might have with the book could obviously be the rabbits’ behavior. Artistic liberties were taken—there probably would have been less of a story if they had acted completely like rabbits—but Mr. Adams made an effort to add as much truth in as he could. He cites a book at the start, The Private Life of a Rabbit by R.M. Lockley, saying that it gave him much of his information about lapine life. Blackberry displays human intelligence, making him invaluable to the group, but there are clues that these rabbits are something completely different from human. For instance, consider this passage:

“Then [Cowslip] laughed. The phenomenon of laughter is unknown to animals; though it is possible that dogs and elephants may have some inkling of it. The effect on Hazel and Blackberry was overwhelming. Hazel’s first idea was that Cowslip was showing the symptom of some kind of disease. Blackberry clearly thought that he might be going to attack them and backed away. Cowslip said nothing, but his eerie laughter continued.” (pg. 93)

Wild rabbits are not, as most people believe, simply timid cowards. “Born and bred in a briar patch, Brer Fox” (pg. 466), as the famous saying goes. They are timid creatures, but will fight with their sharp claws to defend themselves. They thump their back feet and bolt when in danger. Their usual feeding times are early morning and late evening. Mr. Adams put a lot of effort into making the rabbits rabbit-like, while still maintaining a good story–not an easy task.

Another problem someone might have is with the lack of female characters. All the rabbits that leave the Sandleford warren are male (or bucks), and this fact actually drives the plot later on, since they realize they must find mates or become extinct. In this day and age, that would definitely be seen as sexist, but of course the book was written in the 1970s, and the main characters are rabbits, not humans with feminist ideas. The females (or does) that do show up, though, like Hyzenthlay and Vilthuril, are different characters that are not any less than the bucks. Mr. Adams tried to maintain what he thought would the real feelings of bucks towards does: i.e., the does are precious, but the bucks are saving them not out of love, but because of the mating instinct and for the survival of their bloodlines. All in all, this shouldn’t be something the book is faulted for.

In conclusion, Richard Adams created a hidden but complex world underneath the feet of men, with the “fluffy little bunnies” shown for what they really are–fierce creatures that feel and live, while adding in an interesting story to hold the reader. The book has its flaws–nothing is perfect–but it is a good read. Though not something that small children need to be considering quite yet, Watership Down is so very interesting, as it talks of the world beyond the fences and out on the downs, where the primroses are just beginning to bloom.

featured image from Unsplash.

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