“The May sunset was red in the clouds, and there was still half an hour to twilight. The dry slope was dotted with rabbits-some nibbling at the thin grass near their holes, others pushing further down to look for dandelions or perhaps a cowslip that the rest had missed.” (Watership Down, Richard Adams)
On the surface, Watership Down is not particularly interesting: some people seek a new place to live because their old home was overcrowded; they struggle against nature and their own species to succeed. In fact, its positively hum-drum. Sure, the fact that the main characters are Rabbits adds some spice, and the supernatural prophet element helps too, but in essence, it’s a simple adventure story with broad, sweeping, none too meaningful themes.
I think where Adams digs a little deeper is when he creates a shared mythology for his world. Rabbits share the stories of their ancestors, and those stories affect who they are and how they act in the present. Our particular rabbits come into contact with many different rabbit societies; each society knows the stories and how they tell the myths discloses who they are. Our main characters tell the stories simply, honestly, and well – so we know that we can trust them, that they are good rabbits. But if a society has a tenuous connection with traditions and the past, they are suspect, and perhaps devoid of morals. This interaction between the rabbits and their mythology is just fascinating – how they are inspired by the stories, how they judge others by their interpretations of them, how the stories inform their ideas about what a rabbit should be. Its the most true and honest part of Watership Down, and I’m sure someone already has written a fine paper about how Adams reveals our own relationship with our traditional, human, myths and legends.
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Incidental Learning: Rabbit eating and mating habits
Further Reading: I’m having a hard time thinking of more books where characters interact so strongly with stories. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell certainly has myths and legends that affect the future. The Wheel of Time series, maybe.