Review by Casimir Laski
This November marks the 50thanniversary of Richard Adams’ landmark xenofiction novel Watership Down, a story whose influence in the field of animal literature is comparable to the effect that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings had on modern fantasy. Curiously enough, while Adams was not the first author to write about fictional rabbit societies coming into conflict—that peculiar distinction falls to author Pat Murphy, whose extremely obscure 1948 novel The Wind Protect You serves as an interesting footnote in the genre’s history—Watership Down goes far beyond any of its predecessors in envisioning what the culture of a non-human species might look like. And so, to mark the occasion, I think it fitting not only to return to Adams’ lapine epic for a mid-century retrospective, but to journey through the depths of animal literature in order to properly establish just how visionary the esteemed English author’s debut truly was.
Stories told from the perspectives of nonhuman animals have seen their share of change in both popularity and substance since the genre’s inception in 1877, with the publication of Anna Sewell’s groundbreaking Black Beauty, a tale of a horse traded between owners of varying temperaments. In its infancy, animal xenofiction emerged as an extension of late-19thand early-20thCentury progressivism, and throughout its adolescence the genre remained definitively anthropocentric: while books like Sewell’s Black Beauty and Margaret Marshall Saunders’ Beautiful Joe are told from the perspectives of a horse and a dog, respectively, each remains heavily focused on contemporary socio-political (and therefore inherently human) issues such as temperance, suffrage, and the humane treatment of children and livestock. Literary figures as renowned as Rudyard Kipling (Thy Servant a Dog) and Virginia Woolf (Flush) would even dabble in the genre, but it was not until the tail end of the 1800s that those writing xenofiction would truly aim to explore the world through alien perspectives.
With the emergence of authors such as Ernest Thompson Seton and Jack London around the turn of the century, animal literature quickly shifted from its moralistic origins into more realistic, grounded stories that ventured beyond the issues of the day into broader philosophical exploration; the former’s Wild Animals I Have Known set the stage for this revolution, while the latter’s celebrated The Call of the Wild and White Fang remain household-name-level literary classics to this day. Though moralist works would continue to be published, by the time the first decade of the 20thCentury had drawn to a close, realism was decidedly in vogue among xenofiction authors, and would remain so for more than half a century.
While it may seem surprising to contemporary observers (and, might I add, personally enviable), at this time, animal xenofiction was quite possibly the most popular literary genre in North America: the now-largely forgotten “Nature Fakers” controversy, which involved disputes over accuracy in literary depictions of animal behavior, raged throughout newspapers and magazines across the continent for over half a decade, involving hundreds of authors, journalists, and naturalists, and even eliciting the involvement of the sitting president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. (As an aside, this bizarre episode of American cultural history seems to have foreshadowed the debates over movie and television show quality that rage endlessly on social media today).
As the world suffered through the carnage of the First World War and the subsequent turmoil of the Great Depression, the genre steadily waned in popularity, though it saw a minor resurgence beginning in the late 1960s at the hands of Daniel P. Mannix. The Fox and the Hound, the Pennsylvanian naturalist’s best-known work, a brutal, unsentimental, and methodically researched tale of a vendetta between a hunter and his hound and an elusive fox, arguably represents the highwater mark of strict realism in animal xenofiction. Mannix’s string of animal novels, the releases of which coincided with the infancy of the environmentalist movement, enjoyed modest success and were generally well received by critics, but by the start of the 1970s it appeared that animal stories would never again captivate audiences as they had near the turn of the 20thCentury.
A Bold New Direction
Then, in November of 1972, something rather extraordinary happened: Watership Down, an epic, semi-magical realist novel about rabbits living in the English countryside, written by a 52-year-old civil servant with no prior experience as a novelist and released through an obscure London publisher, took the literary world by storm. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic lauded its originality and charm, rocketing it to the top of the New York Times best sellers list, where it would remain for most of the following year.
Interestingly enough, what gave Adams’ novel such broad appeal and generated such strong interest appears to have been the reasons for which it was rejected by seven different agents and publishers before being taken on, with great hesitancy, by Rex Collings (who, it should be noted, wrote to an associate half-jokingly asking if he was mad for having taken the risk). Rather than try to portray his rabbit characters in a strictly realistic manner, Adams took the radical approach of constructing for them a thoroughly realized culture, attempting to envision how one might have organically formed within the constraints of their pre-technology existence near the bottom of the food chain.
Adams’ rabbits don’t merely live in communal warrens, they exist within class structures whose strictness can vary wildly between communities: individual chiefs (or, in some cases, councils) command “Owslas,” castes which serve their leaders as guards, advisors, and military and police forces, while in warrens with sizable populations, “outskirters” are forced to dwell and forage on the fringes of the community. The rabbits possess their own language, “lapine,” which we see bits and pieces of throughout the narrative when appropriate—for instance, the term for “going above ground to feed,” something we as humans don’t require a single word for, is simply rendered as “silflay”—while being able to communicate with other woodland creatures in a sort of rough pidgin. Rabbits play games of “bobstones” to pass the time, distinguish between carnivorous birds and their non-threatening counterparts as “hawks” and “not-hawks,” and label any quantity above five as “hrair” (literally “many”), being unable to count higher.
And, perhaps most importantly, the rabbits of Watership Down share a complex cycle of folklore and religious beliefs: their worship of the life-giving sun as the benevolent-yet-stern Frith feels immanently appropriate for an herbivorous species, while the Black Rabbit of Inlé is tasked with shepherding the souls of the departed to the mysterious land of moonrise. The trickster hero El-Ahrairah, the Prince With a Thousand Enemies, is held up as the shining ideal of rabbit-kind: a sort of cross between Adam, Abraham, Robin Hood, and Reynard the Fox, at once the father of their people, a wartime leader, the source of their plight, and an unabashed rogue who never shies from using the most underhanded means of trickery to escape danger, outwit his foes, and benefit his own kin.
Throughout the course of Watership Down, Adams mixes the tales of El-Ahrairah and his companions into the narrative, with the group sharing stories that often parallel, and in some cases are drastically juxtaposed against, their own experiences. Certain rabbits, such as Fiver, the younger brother of the protagonist Hazel, are even blessed (or cursed) with mystical sight, able to sense things beyond natural perception and catch glimpses of the future—which, in the case of the novel, is what sets our heroes on their journey away from the doomed warren of Sandleford in southern England, the community condemned to destruction to make way for a human housing development. All of these highly inventive decisions serve to imbue Watership Down with a sense of authenticity that reaches beyond mere verisimilitude; upon first reading the book, I was struck by the impression that, rather than having simply written a novel, Adams had discovered and then managed to translate some great work from a preexisting culture that humanity had only recently become aware of. Indeed, his sparing use of footnotes to explain certain cultural quirks or translate the occasional lapine word or phrase only heightens this sense of anthropological (or would it be lapinological?) authenticity.
Classical Influences in the Modern Age
Born into an upper-middle-class family in 1920, as Europe was only just beginning to recover from the devastation wrought by the First World War, Richard Adams attended an English boarding school as part of his upbringing. There, he received an extensive education in Greco-Roman classics, his appreciation for which is easily identifiable in his debut. This culturally-rich schooling aided greatly in his efforts to transpose the mythic nature and timeless appeal of the works he so loved into a contemporary story told though the eyes of such an unassuming species. His prose evokes at once the grace of Wordsworth and the stoicism of Homer, and yet retains a rustic, folksy charm complimented by a sly, almost irreverent undercurrent; encountering certain lines, I can practically picture a grandfatherly Adams winking at his audience as he reads before a gathered crowd, the pages lit by a flickering fireplace.
Those tempted to dismiss Adams’ novel as merely “a retelling of The Odyssey with rabbits” miss several key aspects that serve to distinguish his lapine epic from its influences. While Watership Down certainly does draw on the works of Homer, it is far from a simple retread of any one classical work: the journey of Hazel’s band through the English countryside naturally evokes the adventurous tone of The Odyssey, but their flight from the doomed warren at Sandleford has a much clearer parallel to Aeneas and his companions’ escape from Troy at the beginning of The Aeneid, and the Efrafan siege of Watership Down itself mirrors the climax of The Iliad, only to feature the defenders snatching victory from the jaws of certain defeat. Even the epigram to the first chapter of Adams’ novel, “The Notice Board,” features an ominous excerpt from Aeschylus’ tragic play Agamemnon, in which the king’s concubine Cassandra, the archetypal foundation for the character of Fiver, prophecies destruction: “The house reeks of death and dripping blood… the stench is like a breath from the tomb.”
Additionally, by telling his story from the perspective of rabbits living in then-present-day England, Adams focuses the attention of readers on their own domineering position within the natural world: the roles of the gods and monsters that toy with and torment Odysseus and his men on their journey home are filled here by ordinary humans, automobiles and roadways, domestic dogs and common machinery. In this way, the familiar, tame environment known to most of us is inverted into a terrifying wilderness fraught with danger, a rugged frontier overlapping the tranquil countryside our own eyes see. And the use of the rabbit, an animal nearly universally preyed upon by the predatory species whose habitat it shares, whose surest methods of fighting back are not ferocity or strength but cunning and agility, only serves to elevate the mortality-centered philosophy that infuses the entire novel.
Richly Layered Commentary
But despite its classical influences and romantic trappings, Watership Down is a distinctly modernist novel, condemning the destructive tendencies of humanity as a species, skeptical of narratives that equate civilization’s advance with unambiguous progress, possessing deep reverence for the natural world, and interested in exploring differing societal systems. After all, the novel’s inciting incident stems from a callous decision by humans to clear more land for yet another housing development, showing no regard for the “lesser” species with whom they share the world—a narrative choice that undoubtedly connected with environmentalist concerns of the time.
However, rather than commenting directly on contemporary sociopolitical issues, Adams appears to have wisely followed in the footsteps of Tolkien, preferring loose applicability to rigid allegory—yet another aspect of his magnificent debut that has likely contributed to its significant cultural staying power. One of the most prominent examples involves the various rabbit societies depicted in the novel, which have elicited critical interpretations almost as varied as they are numerous.
The Sandleford Warren, where the story begins, exists as a sort of aristocratic monarchy, ruled by a chief and dominated by powerful bloodlines, whose competing interests, only briefly glimpsed in the first chapter, are implied to sustain a system of informal checks and balances on their monarch’s power. Finding this environment too stifling, Hazel’s band flee Sandleford, quickly coming across a warren in which the rabbits claim to all be equals, having abolished their hierarchies of rule and turned their backs on tradition. Here, the rabbit Cowslip acts as a sort of “first among equals,” attempting to coax his guests into complacency, but the newcomers cannot shake the sense that something is wrong: individual rabbits disappear without explanation while the community as a whole pretends that they live in paradise, and the inhabitants of the warren engage in peculiar, unnatural customs while viewing the tales of El-Ahrairah and his trickery, elsewhere universally esteemed by their kind, with an amused disinterest verging on contempt.
The truth of this society—the Warren of the Shining Wire—is soon revealed: the warren lies on the property of a local human farmer, who allows the rabbits to live in a semi-natural state in order to produce more desirable meat, providing them with bountiful food to fatten them while routinely laying small numbers of snares about. Cowslip and his compatriots have chosen to abandon their independent heritage in the hopes of an easy life, deluding themselves into accepting their home as utopia and luring in others to offset the chances that they themselves will be taken.
Later on, the group comes into contact with Efrafa, a hyper-militaristic society commanded by the ruthless General Woundwort, a tyrant who suffers neither weakness nor dissent in his efforts to conceal his warren from humanity. Having personally witnessed the death of his mother at a young age, only to later narrowly survive an attempt by humans to eradicate his colony with myxomatosis, a devastating fungal infection occasionally used in controlling rabbit populations, the dictator of Efrafa goes to extreme lengths to hide his society from mankind’s eyes. He demands unquestioning obedience from his officers, regulates every aspect of the lives of his subjects, rules his kingdom on strict social Darwinist principles in order to weed out weakness, and forcibly assimilates any other warrens that his scouts discover in the vicinity.
Lastly, of course, is the warren from which the novel’s title is derived: the community built atop the heights of Watership Down, its elevation a natural defense against both predators and rival rabbits, its remoteness to human settlements ensuring that it will not suffer the same fate as Sandleford. Here, the community envisioned by Fiver and secured by his brother and compatriots flourishes as a free society built on voluntary association and mutual respect, a place in which rabbits from all of the other warrens encountered throughout the story are able to come together to build a new home.
From a certain viewpoint, the successive warrens portrayed in the novel seem to chart the course of Europe’s own turbulent political history: Sandleford as the post-feudal kingdom, stable and yet stifling to those not blessed by circumstances of birth; the Warren of the Shining Wire as a revolutionary state, casting off the constraints of tradition in pursuit of utopia only to collapse into carnage; Efrafa as the militant reaction, prizing brutal strength and the survival of the species above any concern for individual welfare; and lastly Watership Down itself as the society based on liberty and consent of the governed, where all willing to abide by their creed are free to join. This line of interpretation appears to be supported in the fates of the respective systems: Sandleford is destroyed in catastrophe after refusing to accept any measure of change, the Warren of the Shining Wire left forgotten on the ash heap of history; fascist Efrafa strikes out with the intention of implementing its vision over all competitors through violent force, only to fail when faced with the individualistic resolve of the free Down. Additionally, the ever-lingering threat of human-wrought annihilation captures Cold War-era fears of nuclear holocaust, while the fact that Woundwort’s death is never confirmed after his army’s defeat implies that tyranny can only be truly kept at bay through constant vigilance.
Despite lacking the overt focus on “racial purity” common to so many strains of fascism, Efrafa cannot help but evoke images of Nazi Germany and its imperialist allies and puppet states, while the Warren of the Shining Wire possesses a bit more room for interpretation. Its role as a temptation for Hazel’s band naturally mirrors that of The Odyssey’s isle of the lotus-eaters, and though the warren’s traits have led critics to frequently identify it with the early Soviet Union and other communist states—erasure of ties to history, supposed abolition of class distinctions, thin veneer of utopia, constant fear of family or friends disappearing—significant parallels can also be drawn with modern western society: a superficially prosperous, decadent, atomistic culture of rationalism that has abandoned the values and beliefs upon which it was erected, disdainfully treating its own founding myths as nothing more than amusing peculiarities, morbidly reveling in death as the only means of coping with its inevitability. Adams undoubtedly knew what he was doing in having the community’s celebrated poet Silverweed—who is heavily implied to share Fiver’s burden of mystic sight—deliver a fatalistic poem that takes a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s landmark work “The Waste Land,” describing a nihilistic longing for death as “the heart of light, the silence.”
However, it is with Efrafa that Adams takes time to more thoroughly explore the pathologies of totalitarianism: the fear and trauma that can drive ordinary people to become, or support, a figure like Woundwort, who offers stability and security in an often-terrifying world. Where the rabbits of Cowslip’s Warren willingly place themselves at the mercy of mankind—abandoning both heritage and legacy in the pursuit of personal fulfilment, and only managing to prolong their stagnating society’s survival by luring in newcomers to share their fate—the Efrafans veer to the opposite extreme, doing their utmost to avoid humanity, exerting as much control over the world and each other as they possibly can, never bothering to consider if a life lived in this manner is even worth the heavy toll.
The Shadow of Death
Above all else, Watership Down is a novel deeply concerned with death, something that Richard Adams himself was no stranger to. Growing up in the melancholic wake of the Great War, where so many of his neighbors had lost fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands in the killing fields of western Europe, his adolescence would be spent gradually watching the continent slip back into shadow as nation after nation was swept up in the rising tide of fascism. At the age of 19, his own university education was interrupted by Hitler’s war, and after enlisting in the British Royal Army Service Corps, he would be selected for the Airborne Company. Serving all across the globe, from the southern shore of England during the Battle of Britain to the Middle East, Italy, Northern Europe, and even the Pacific Theater, Adams remained fortunate enough to never see direct combat himself, but though he encountered his share of suffering and destruction abroad, it was his homecoming that was to prove most traumatic.
Shortly after resuming his studies at Worcester College, he learned that of more than a dozen close friends who had gone off to war, he was one of the only to have returned. Reflecting on this nearly half a century later in his memoir, The Day Gone By, Adams described it as “the worst experience of my life, and one which has altered my outlook of the world from that time to this.” With this knowledge, it is easy to see the demons of the author’s past resurfacing throughout his bibliography, from the morbid existentialism of lapine culture presented in his debut to the more overt confrontation with the problem of evil and the suffering of innocents in The Plague Dogs.
In the framing of their own mythology, the rabbits of Watership Down know that they exist to feed much of creation, attributing this to the arrogance of their beloved folk hero El-Ahrairah. While they lament their plight, it is simultaneously accepted as the divinely willed state of the world; rabbits have as much right to escape “Elil” (their term for predators) as their foes have to hunt them, a balance embodied in their god Frith’s exhortation, “Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed." In a sense, this promise acts as a twisted echo of the Abrahamic God’s commandment from Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”—rabbits, unlike humans, view themselves not as conquerors of nature but as outlaws within it. When a rabbit dies, its companions gather around to utter a short, prayerlike incantation: “My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today.” Similarly, the concluding lines of their creation myth, passed down over generations through oral tradition, promise not salvation but a constant challenge: “All the world will be your enemy… and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you…” All rabbits know and accept that death will inevitably come for them, and the only hope for survival as a species lies in speed, cunning, and the propagation of their people.
Though Richard Adams remained adamant that Watership Down was never intended to be “about” anything other than a group of rabbits trying to find a new home, he openly drew on his own wartime experiences, and the real-world inspirations for several of the animal characters have been explicitly identified by the author: Hazel, the young rabbit thrust into leadership of a band of exiles, was modeled after his own commanding officer, whom Adams described in his memoir as initially unassuming and yet highly competent, always able to convince others to follow in his footsteps. Bigwig, the rough-and-tumble brawler, was based on a platoon sergeant who later died fending off a German advance during Operation Market Garden while his wounded squad-mates retreated to safety, while the ill-mannered-yet-stalwart gull Keehar was inspired by a Norwegian resistance fighter. These wartime inspirations serve to imbue the comradery between Hazel’s ragtag band of outcasts with an authentic sense of esprit de corps,which maps rather effectively onto the classical motifs of journeying into the unknown to find, secure, and then defend a new home.
A Monumental Legacy
With these myriad strengths, it is not difficult to see how the novel became an instant classic: within days of publication, the initial printing of 2,500 copies sold out; within a decade it was being taught in schools on both sides of the Atlantic, and had received an excellent animated film adaptation at the hands of Nepenthe Productions, complete with a star-studded cast of talented British film and stage actors. In time it would become Penguin’s highest-selling paperback ever, and by 2015 total sales would surpass 50 million copies, making it one of the most successful novels of all time. But perhaps most importantly, Adams breathed new life into a genre which had, in many ways, exhausted much of the potential of its prior confines.
The impact of Watership Down on the genre of xenofiction is so monumental as to be almost impossible to overstate: the title itself has effectively become a byword for the subgenre it birthed, and nearly all animal stories written after its publication continue to dwell in its long shadow. Adams’ debut sparked a veritable renaissance of animal literature, beginning in 1980, with the publication of William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, told from the perspective of moles rather than rabbits. Horwood and fellow Englishmen Garry Kilworth and David Clement-Davies would become some of the most prominent authors to follow in the mythic tradition begun by Adams. Stories blending naturalism and cultural anthropomorphizing have since featured species as diverse as foxes, wolves, eagles, corvids, deer, bears, cats, badgers, owls, squirrels, bats, elephants, and more. As would be expected, these successors of Watership Down vary wildly in both quality and inventiveness: Clement-Davies’ 1999 debut Fire Bringer, praised by Adams himself, sticks quite closely to the story beats of its predecessor and somewhat suffers for it, while Brian Carter’s magnificent 1981 novel A Black Fox Running, one of the earliest works to invoke Watership Down’s legacy, launches in a radically new direction; Kilworth’s 1989 book Hunter’s Moon, quite strong in its own right, treads a comfortable middle ground. Horwood’s Duncton Wood garnered enough success to spawn five sequels, and lead the author to explore stories with other species, including wolves (The Wolves of Time) and eagles (Callanish, The Stonor Eagles).
Though the surging wave of xenofiction generated by Adam’s epic would eventually subside in the mid-2000s, interest in mythic animal stories has never fully waned. Sustained by the steady growth of the furry fandom (where anthropomorphic stories naturally found an eager audience), and bolstered by increasing demand for speculative fiction among mainstream audiences across all forms of media, mythic xenofiction remains a fertile literary frontier, its vast potential—of species, cultures, and themes—far from exhausted. Even in realist animal fiction, which was rapidly eclipsed in popularity by the new subgenre, contemporary works commonly take on certain mythic aspects: Adams’ later novel The Plague Dogs features splashes of canine mythology and vulpine folklore, Henrietta Branford’s beautifully written Fire, Bed, & Bone incorporates mystic visions, and Rosanne Parry’s elegant adventure tale A Wolf Called Wander, otherwise rather lacking in cultural anthropomorphizing, imbues her wolves with religious reverence for the stars of the night sky.
Fifty Years Later
In writing Watership Down, Richard Adams crafted a novel that is both distinctly English and yet possessed of near-universal cross-cultural appeal, undoubtedly a product of its environment and yet remarkably timeless. In this, I cannot help but return to the comparisons between him and his fellow English author of speculative fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien: both saw their idyllic rural adolescences end in cataclysm—Tolkien’s with the First World War, where he would fight in the Somme, one of the deadliest battles in human history, and Adams’ with the Second, serving across the globe in the fight against Nazi tyranny—leaving them to homecomings made bitter by the loss of so many close friends. Both would launch from comfortable middle-class obscurity into international literary stardom, redefining the genres they worked within. And both, despite the suffering they endured, would remain steadfast in their faith, with Tolkien’s Catholicism and Adams’ Orthodox Christianity substantially influencing their respective magna opera without reducing either to the limitations of more explicitly religious works.
The first and final lines of Watership Down close the circle on Adams’ epic quite nicely: the opening chapter begins with the flowering primroses common to the English countryside losing their petals with the advent of summer, while the epilogue concludes with an elderly Hazel being shepherded off into death by the Black Rabbit, awarded an esteemed place within the latter’s Owsla, as the first primroses begin to bloom with a new spring. While the threat of total destruction—be it from warfare, disease, starvation, or ecological catastrophe—is never truly vanquished, Adams’ ending is undeniably a happy one: Hazel and his companions live long and prosperous lives, and their celebrated leader meets his inevitable end not in violence or fear but peaceful contentment, departing from this world knowing that his legacy is secure. As the Black Rabbit says when a reluctant Hazel gives a final wistful look to his community, “They’ll be all right, and thousands more like them.”
Richard Adams had seen and suffered much before even reaching his mid-20s, and later wrote in an era of economic vulnerability, sociopolitical upheaval, and environmental uncertainty, at a time when his own nation had only recently begun to come to terms with the failings of their past and present—all of which seem rather frighteningly familiar today. However, as bleak as the world may have then seemed to many, as deep as the scars of his own youthful experiences cut, and as grim as the tale itself gets, Watership Down is nonetheless infused with an aspirational and heroic optimism that still rings true half a century later. None of us can truly know what the next 50 years may bring, but if lovers of animal literature are treated to even a single novel whose inventiveness and grandeur matches that of Adams’ glorious debut, I dare say we will be able to count ourselves fortunate in at least one regard.