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"Stunning, compulsive reading". That was the Sunday Times' verdict on Richard Adams' masterpiece, and it is not one I can quibble with. This extraordinary novel, Adams' first and by some distance his best, remains in print in both Penguin and Puffin editions after 30 years, and with ample justification.
A brief synopsis of the book reveals little of its depth and variety, but let's have one anyway. After a prophecy of doom from a visionary rabbit named Fiver, a small band of bucks leave their Sandleford warren one night to look for a new home. Along the way, they meet with triumph and disaster, but are unable to treat those two impostors just the same, as it slowly becomes clear that there is no future for the group without does. They discover a nearby warren, run on brutal military lines by the overbearing General Woundwort, and attempt to liberate its downtrodden residents. But this only results in even greater danger for the Sandleford band.
So far, so ordinary - but Watership Down is far from being an ordinary book. Adams' great achievement is that he manages to create rabbit characters which are both athropomorphised (in that they can speak - normally in English, though fragments of their "Lapine" language are dotted about the pages) and realistic. By "realistic", I mean that they, for the most part, follow the behavioural patterns of real rabbits in such things as feeding and fighting. This is, perhaps, the place to warn that the novel is not suitable for very young readers - Adams pulls no punches in his descriptions of the violence that is a very real part of rabbit life, and there are several passages which are genuinely frightening.
There are three rabbits who have a disproportionate influence on the band. The group's de facto leader is Hazel, a calm, sensible rabbit who doesn't have great personal charisma, but does, in time, earn respect from the others. It does take longer in some cases than in others, though, especially in the case of Bigwig, a "sergeant major" type of character who has something of a bluff and gruff manner, but who is honest enough to recognise good qualities in others. The last of the triumvirate is Fiver, the rabbit who foresaw the destruction of their home warren. He is physically small and weak, and has an almost sickly air about him (Richard Briers' portrayal of him in the film is spot on), but despite suspicion at first, his judgement proves itself worthy of trust.
The supporting cast are a varied bunch - they include Blackberry, the thinker; Dandelion, the runner and storyteller; Pipkin, a small, timid rabbit with an unshakable loyalty to Hazel; and Holly, who joins the band midway through the story, and confirms that Fiver was right in his original fears. On the "opposition bench", we have the dreaded General Woundwort, who runs Efrafa (his warren) with an iron paw, and his trusted lieutenant Campion, who though loyal to his commanding officer does have some sense of honour and propriety that is lacking in Woundwort.
Perhaps the most memorable character of all, though, is not a rabbit at all, and in fact does not appear until well into the book. I refer to Keehar the seagull - a wonderful invention, and one which provides the comic relief to lighten what might otherwise be a rather dry tale. Keehar's plain speaking and somewhat inflated opinion of himself make Fred Trueman seem introverted, and he tells the rabbits in no uncertain terms what they are doing wrong. Although the alliance between gull and rabbits is uneasy at first, Keehar is, in the end, the lynchpin of the struggle against Efrafan tyranny.
The book is a long one - not far short of 500 pages - and when the novel was published, many people thought that this would be too much for young readers. But Adams skilfully avoids this problem by interspersing the main narrative with rabbit fairy-tales, presented as stories told by Dandelion. These concern El-Ahrairah, the greatest rabbit hero (the name, we are told, is a corruption of "elil-hrair-rah", or "enemies-thousand-prince", ie "Prince with a Thousand Enemies"). El-Ahrairah is, as Adams says, roughly the equivalent of Robin Hood, and all his stories concern how he managed to get the better of some seemingly stronger foe by use of the rabbits' most respected skill, that of trickery.
Another positive factor resulting from the book's length is that the narrative does not feel rushed (unlike the otherwise good animated film) - there is plenty of time for other adventures, and for the characters to develop at a sensible pace. A lot of this development is done very subtly - the gradual acceptance of Hazel as Chief Rabbit by more and more of the group, for example - and you often find yourself thinking, "hang on a minute..." and checking back to see what important plot development was mentioned earlier on, almost in passing. It's almost like watching for clues in a whodunit, and I think it adds to the book's appeal.
It would be surprising if such an audacious work did not have its flaws, and indeed they exist. The most common complaint - that of sexism - can be answered simply and bluntly: this is how real rabbits behave. However, some of the language is rather unnecessarily old-fashioned, and there are often fairly lengthy chunks of speculation from Adams about other matters - the Crusades, for example - which don't have a great deal to do with the story. I happen to enjoy these flights of fancy, but others may become irritated with them.
That said, for me this is one of those rare novels for which the sheer enjoyment gained from its reading far outweighs any niggles. In its 50 chapters you can find excitement, humour, terror, joy, sadness... in fact, the whole range of human emotion has been successfully instilled into a group of rabbits, with the result that the book is at times intensely moving. And that, I feel, is Watership Down's great triumph.
==================================== Penguin, 1974. ISBN: 0-1403-0601-3. £5.99. ==========================================