“El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” – Lord Frith to El-ahrairah
If you proposed to someone that they read a 478-page book about rabbits, they would probably either look at you sideways like you were utterly insane or shout out in joyous recognition “Watership Down!”. Richard Adams first published his utterly compelling tale of adventurous rabbitry in 1972 and the tale remains to this day one of the most creative and enjoyable pieces of children’s literature ever set to paper.
Adams tells the story of a small band of rabbits that, aided by a prescient seer named Fiver, sets forth on a harrowing journey across the English countryside, escaping from their doomed warren (destroyed by land developers) to seek a safe home high on the Downs. The rabbits’ odyssey take them through numerous fateful encounters, both treacherous and inspiring until, tempered by their adversity, they find themselves forced to face their most difficult challenge of all, using all their guile, skills and bravery against the repressive and dictatorial warren of Efrafa and its leader, the malevolent and powerful General Woundwort.
Adams prose vividly describes and awakens the English countryside in the mind of the reader, from a rabbit’s point of view. You can almost feel the grass under your toes. Indeed, one of the few things I readily wished for while reading Watership Down, was a version abridged with sketches or pictures of all the damn plants (fleabane, purple loosestrife, pink butterbur, figwort, yellow mullein…the list goes on. I suspect one needs a certain grounding in botany to truly appreciate Adams understanding of the English countryside.). The other side of the coin is the strength of the various characters – Hazel, the decisive, intelligent leader; Fiver the precognitive runt whose intelligence and visions see the rabbits through diverse sets of danger; Bigwig, the rough-and-tumble fighter who refuses to give in – ever, and Woundwort himself as the battle-scarred and vicious, intelligent and obsessive rabbit that rules Efrafa with an iron paw.
Rich with political allegory and echoing with the touchstones of epic journeys, Watership Down is a book that, if you have not yet read it, will surprise you with its ability to pull you into the Lapin world. It remains a terrific piece of literature.
Of particular note within the book are the various tales of El-ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits, interspersed within the story. El-ahrairah is a trickster, filled with cunning strategems who foils his enemies, infiltrates every lettuce patch and, in general, fulfills a legendary role within rabbit folklore. Of particular note is the recently published Tales from Watership Down, which collects a number of El-ahrairah’s adventures (including several new ones) into a single volume. It is well worth a read.
For a look at the real Watership Down, Nuthanger Farm and the Crixa (they are all real places), check out this site.
Interested in a plot review and notes on Watership Down – you can find them here.
Finally, at least one blogger seems to know and appreciate the lore of Watership Down – check out the excellent Silflay Hraka. Read the book to find out what Silflay Hraka means….
If you can’t bring yourself to read the book, there is a very good animated feature (done in 1978) which, barring an unfortunately syrupy theme song by Art Garfunkel (Bright Eyes), is true to the book in almost every way. It is now available on DVD and I highly recommend it (although it might be a little bit bloody for the wee tots…).
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