Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Watership Down

Watership Down was originally published by Rex Collins in 1972. The story is a tale about rabbits, however not in the simple sense that humans commonly view them.

It started as a story Richard Adams made up to entertain his children Juliet and Rosamond, during the five hour drive to Stratford-on-Avon. The original story was much different than the version that made it to print, including the rabbits being much more anthropomorphic. Adams in fact wrote the story in its current form only at the insistence of his daughters. Richard Adams intended the novel to be a "children's story that adults could enjoy."

These rabbits are complex creatures with emotions, logic, religion and a social structure. When their home is threatened, a small band of renegades goes against the orders of their chief rabbit in order to start a new life. Richard Adams was inspired by Agamemnon, a Greek tragedy, to give Fiver the line

    "The hills are covered with blood."

The warrens of the rabbits in Watership Down vary greatly. Each one is society set apart with its own form of government and beliefs among its inhabitants.

    "They lived, comfortable and secure, in the best of worlds. Until one of them had a vision; he saw the hillside that was their home covered with blood. Prophesying imminent destruction to all who remained there, he and his brother appealed to their chief. They were dismissed routinely. Obedience - and death - faced them. Or rebellion - and survival, maybe."

My first experience with the novel Watership Down was while in college. It was surprising that to find the book completely engrossing. First as a sort of epic fairy tale, then after a second and third reading as a study of societies and religion.

The lapine creation story is perhaps the most important story within the rabbit world (paraphrased)--

    Before the world existed, there existed Frith. Frith created the world and the stars with his droppings, and upon the world he created the rivers, mountains, plants and animals. At the time of their creation, all animals were the same. Both kestrel and sparrow ate flies and seeds, and the fox and rabbit were friends and ate grass together. The first of the rabbits was named El-ahrairah and he had wives without number. Because of El-ahrairah and his many wives, the earth soon grew so densely populated in rabbits that they ate all the grass, leaving the other animals hungry, and so the animals began to complain to Frith. Frith went to El-ahrairah and warned him that he must keep his people under control, but El-ahrairah said that he multiplied so to show his love of Frith and his people did the same. Frith was angered by El-ahrairah's impudent remark, but decided that the world needed cunning and jest, so instead of killing El-ahrairah, he chose to play a trick on him. So Frith called forth all of the animals one by one in order to bestow upon them a gift, making sure El-ahrairah would arrive last. When the fox and stoat and weasel came, Frith gave them sharp teeth and claws and the desire to hunt and kill all of El-ahrairah's children. When El-ahrairah caught wind of his new enemies, he started to dig a burrow in which to hide, and so when Frith came to him, El-ahrairah was only half out of the ground. Frith asked El-ahrairah to come out so he may bless the rabbit, but El-ahrairah refused so he may keep digging for his life.

    Encouraged by the rabbit's determination even in the face of trial, Frith gave to El-ahrairah strong legs with which to run, and a tail that shone like a star to warn other rabbits as he took flight.

Frith also made this promise to El-ahrairah: And by this, El-ahrairah knew that although Frith would not be mocked, he was still the friend of rabbitkind.

    "...All the world shall 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 a swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed."

This is the tale that all rabbits have heard. Much like Jehovah's promise to the Jewish people, this is the rabbit's promise that regardless of the trials and hardships that they may face, as long as they remain faithful to Frith, they will never be destroyed completely.

    "As for the moral courage, it's extremely rarely found, until two hours after midnight."

    -- Translation from French citation before Chapter 7

Sources:

Adams, Richard. Watership Down. Avon, Reissue edition (August 1989).

Holy Bible (NIV)

Peuha, Esa. Richard Adams's Watership Down
Accessed August 22, 2003

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