Richard Adams

Richard Adams, who died in December aged 96, wrote a surprisingly large number of books. I have only read one of them, Watership Down, which was published in 1972. As everyone knows, it’s a book about rabbits.

There are books about animals, and most of them are for children. And most of the animals are not really animals. Beatrix Potter’s characters look like rabbits, pigs, ducks and so on, but behave like people. Peter Rabbit, for example, is a naughty boy who trespasses in order to steal tasty food. He wears clothes and is put to bed with camomile tea. But because he’s also a rabbit, if Mr McGregor catches him, he won’t just be told off or smacked, he’ll be put in a pie. The fun (or the horror) comes from the sudden intrusion of animal into a story that is not only for, but about, a child. Mrs Tittlemouse is a flustered housewife; Jeremy Fisher is an idle aristocrat; Mrs Tiggywinkle is a professional laundress; and so on. And we happen to notice that they are also a mouse, a frog and a hedgehog.

In The Wind in the Willows, Toad famously can drive a car, be sent to prison for stealing it, and escape disguised as a washerwoman. But when his disguise is thrown off, he is reviled by the bargewoman as “a nasty slimy toad.” Rat, Mole and Badger, unlike Toad, live in holes in the ground. But they are comic people with fur.

Before Watership Down, there were other books that told realistic stories from the animals’ point of view, such as The Story of a Red Deer, and of course there have always been more (or less) realistic animal fables. But surely nothing as complex as Watership Down, a lengthy quest for a safe home, with many different kinds of danger, a battle at the end, and beautifully delineated individual characters.

Following on, there were other mammal-view tales, of which the most famous is probably William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, about moles, and its several sequels. But reading Duncton Wood years ago, I wondered why the author had chosen this particular species. The moles seemed to be largely concerned with overthrowing tyranny, falling in love and developing their spiritual lives, rather than, you know, finding food and avoiding predators. People seemed almost completely absent.

Watership Down is different. Watership Down is really about rabbits.

Not quite. These rabbits also have to fight a tyrannic regime, General Woundwort’s warren of Efrafa, and it’s also true that we can see the characters as people (rather old-fashioned people, who use expressions like “I think it was a damned shame”). Each chapter is headed with a quote from older human literature, following what is now a very outdated tradition, and the purpose of this is presumably to relate humans to rabbits. “The chapter “Bigwig Stands His Ground”, containing a heroic fight, is introduced with a quote from the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. Now and again their simpler attitude is compared by the author to pre-industrial humans, as when they react with deep emotion to the terrible news of the destruction of their former home, but rapidly recover. The well-read author refers here to Odysseus’ behaviour in Homer. But primarily they are rabbits.

They eat grass, dig burrows, and try to survive. They do not understand abstract thought, machines, or romance. Occasionally Adams pauses to compare the differences between his hero Hazel’s viewpoint and that of a human (when discussing travelling uphill, or enduring winter, for instance.) One would think that this would distance the reader from the characters, and yet it does not. We empathise fully with Hazel, Fiver and the others; yet we never forget that they’re not human. Blackberry, the clever one, invents and later reuses the concept of a boat, and we fully appreciate the enormous mental leap.

The only time, I think, where the animal reality is dropped for story purposes is at the end, when the author says “The wise Mr Locksley [genuine rabbit expert] has told us that wild rabbits live for two or three years… but all the same, Hazel lived longer than that.” Awww. The description of death that follows is perhaps the most comforting in fiction.

The rabbits have their own culture, with its language and stories. We are given the meanings of a few words, just enough for the reader to be able to translate for him- or herself Bigwig’s response to Woundwort near the climax – silflay hraka, u embleer rah. And just as well the reader does the translation, as it’s probably too obscene for a children’s book in 1972. The stories vary from pseudo-creation myth to complicated animal-trickster fables, some of which plainly refer to modern items like cars, and eventually touch on darker issues of sacrifice, redemption and death. And many of them have relevance in the wider plot, although it was several readings before I understood the full significance of “Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wog-dog.”

From the above I hope it can be seen that the book is not only exciting and moving, but also frequently very funny; and its evocative descriptions of the English countryside have been praised by many.

It’s about rabbits… but not just any rabbits. I think its originality is that these rabbits are not pretending to be people; but nor are they rabbits wild and free, in a purely natural world. This is a story emphatically about rabbits living in a human-dominated world, one might almost say rabbits whose country is under occupation. (Adams fought in the Second World War.)

This may seem an odd comment, since the story is very rural, and people hardly appear at all. (A single chapter, significantly entitled “Dea ex Machina”, is told from the point of view of a farmer’s daughter, Lucy.) But almost every single plot development is driven by human action – the destruction of the original warren, the boat, the cat, the dog, the tame rabbits, the railway, even the unnatural strength of Woundwort who was raised by humans.

Rabbits live in a world full of enemies, and the most terrible enemy is the Human, partly because human motivations, to the rabbits, are so incomprehensible.

How should rabbits respond to this world? Our heroes are tempted to respond either by collaborating with this enemy (as with the first warren they come to on their journey), or by paranoia. The way General Woundwort has imposed a ruthless regime in Efrafa is by exploiting fear that men will infect them with myxamatosis (“the white blindness”), and arguing that therefore secrecy is everything, worth giving up all freedom for.

(Of course both Efrafa and Cowslip’s warren are too neatly organised to be believable, but they are not physically unbelievable. The cunning farmer bribes with carrots not cigarettes; Woundwort and his gang punish with teeth not whips.)

Hazel and his companions react in a third way. They live kindly with each other. Hazel even extends kindness to other (non-rabbit-eating) creatures with spectacular rewards. They have some discipline but not too much. “I’m going to sleep now, Hazel, and Frith help you if you say I’m not” is not the way most people address their boss.  And they live out the vision given them by their God, Frith (the sun), in their creation-myth: to be tricksters, to outwit their enemies, and live by speed and cunning. Their spiritual ancestor is Brer Rabbit, but without his meanness.

Women readers may grumble that female characters are thin on the ground (for plot reasons) and when they do appear they are of the “physically-weak-but-wise” type, and have bizarre names. It is easier to empathise with someone called Hazel than with someone called Hyzenthlay, we are not allowed inside her mind, and we have to be told how to pronounce her name.

But that’s a quibble. It’s a lovely book, with something to say about the natural world, and about how to resist evil.

Can anyone tell me anything about Adams’ other works?

  • Clint Redwood

    20th January 2017 at 6:01 pm Reply

    I was thinking I should read this anyway and now I’m convinced.

    • Penelope Wallace

      20th January 2017 at 10:13 pm Reply

      Maybe I should get a job in advertising?

  • Matthew Perry

    21st January 2017 at 9:12 am Reply

    Nice review; you point out things that I did not notice (or certainly do not remember).
    I read Shardik once, not long after reading Watership Down. I found it quite hard going, the story is much more complex and sophisticated about a revolution that fails. Shardik is a great bear but unlike Watership Down the story is mainly about people, though set in a fantasy world, something less common then. I think it may have been too sophisticated for teenage me to fully appreciate.

  • Judith Renton

    21st January 2017 at 12:37 pm Reply

    I can’t tell you about Adam’s other books, but I can mention another by William Horwod – Skallagrigg – which has to be the most moving, memorable and at times profoundly distressing book I have ever read. It is also one of my favourite books, even though it looks at some of the worst thing people can do to others it also is heart warming and full of courage. Read it!

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