Rabbits do not name the stars, but nevertheless Hazel was familiar with the sight of Capella rising; and he watched it now until it stood gold and bright in the dark northeastern horizon to the right of the farm.
Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down is about rabbits. It’s about rabbits the way War and Peace is about Russia.
In spite of character names like Hazel, Strawberry, Dandelion, Bigwig and Blackberry, this novel does not suffer from a case of cuteness. In fact, it’s been on numerous banned book lists because of the violence in a story that appears to be aimed at children.
In reading Adams’ introduction, he indicates that, while his intention was to have rabbits that would talk and think, he purposely didn’t make them do anything physically that actual wild rabbits couldn’t do. I have nothing against stories with anthropomorphic animals, but I found Adams careful attention to the natural details of rabbit life intriguing and they fit the purposes of his story remarkably well.
Adams uses nature as a major theme but not just as in the “natural” world although that plays an important role, too. The individual nature of the rabbits comes out loud and clear usually when they need to go against their nature. In the end, the rabbits discuss the evil General Woundwort as not being natural which results in his viciousness. At the same time, the rabbits on their journey to a new home find they need to react differently than they might be inclined to react. For example, when the rabbits are in a group as danger approaches, their instinct is to scatter. Hazel, the leader of the the group, has to come up with a way to keep them all together.
Adams emphasizes the rabbit’s bravery as they must move away from their natural instinct of fear in order to set up a new warren (home) on Watership Down. This concept of home becomes beautifully realized as Adams uses imagery of female rabbits with their young nestled well into the earth. This idea of safety, warmth, belonging all go hand in hand with Adam’s adventurous tale.
Throughout the travels, during times of rest, it was common for the rabbits to ask for a story from Dandelion and Dandelion usually gave them another tale of El-ahrairah, who might be considered a folk hero or perhaps even a religious figure to the rabbits. Of these stories, my favorite involved the Black Rabbit of Inle:
“Now, as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off.”
The novel asks some interesting questions. Does setting up a community of freedom involve conquering fear or living with it? Does a totalitarian government begin with fear and end with attempts to extinquish it at all costs?
This story reminded me of a line from one of Bruce Springsteen’s more recent songs – “Fear can take a God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust”. The gods and devils in Watership Down turn out an awesome story.