Watership Down is one of those books that I read about every two years. I can come back to it again and again. In fact between me and my Dad we read his copy so much that it has pretty much fallen apart.
After reading it again this last month I thought I would share what makes this bunny book a classic epic:
- A very long journey – Odysseus travelled from Troy to Ithaca, Aeneas made his journey from Troy to the land that would be Rome, Frodo toiled on long roads from the Shire to Mount Doom, and back again! The foundation of the epic is a journey. Hazel and his companions may only travel a few miles in their quest for a new home but when you are living in rabbit scale this becomes a journey of huge risk and adventure.
- A resourceful hero – In epics the main hero is often not the strongest man or bravest warrior but the most resourceful leader. Bigwig is the strongest rabbit in the company but Hazel is the leader. Epic heroes value independence and winning through cleverness and daring. Hazel embodies all of these characteristics, he doesn’t fight his way out of problems, he thinks his way out. I think in books it is more satisfying to see a cunning plan executed than it is to read about a stronger man winning the fight.
- A talented crew – Hazel is the undisputed leader but each one of the rabbits in his group have their own role in the adventure. Fiver is the intuitive and prophetic guide, Bigwig is a warrior and secondary leader, Holly offers experience and wisdom, Dandelion is the storyteller lifting their spirits, Blackberry is the clever one working out mechanical tricks. Even little Pipkin’s observations and brave loyalty play their part. Each rabbit is needed, each rabbit contributes and when they combine their skills they are able to pull off amazing feats.
- A Background Mythology – The tales the rabbits tell of Frith and El-Ahrairah help build the rabbit world into a sophisticated culture. The mythology gives the rabbits inspiration to take on their challenges and lifts their spirits when on the brink of giving up.
All the world will 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 the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”
- Stories within stories – Speaking of the mythology of rabbits, the use of stories within stories is another common feature of epics. Richard Adams punctuates the adventure with short stories told by Dandelion, they change the pace of the story and remind us that in the end we are all stories, which Hazel realises as his own adventure becomes a myth told to the kittens in the end of the novel. The stories also foreshadow the supernatural elements of the adventure.
- Supernatural Intervention – An epic is hardly an epic without a touch of magic. When it is clumsily done the magic descends out of nowhere and fixes all the problems; a classic deus ex machina (Doctor Who episodes are notorious for doing this). But when it is done right, it is like a myth reaches a hand through the mist to lift our heroes just enough to help them out of the impossible but not so much as to render their own actions meaningless. Watership Down does it perfectly in the confrontations against General Woundwort. The supernatural is there in Fiver’s prophetic authority, in Hazel’s inspiration and in the storm that seems to be at Bigwig’s command, but these interventions empower our rabbits actions and natural talents, it doesn’t minimize them.
- A cowardly temptation – Being a hero is hard work and in a good epic a hero will be given a tempting offer to set aside the adventure and settle down. Whether they are lotus eating island dwellers or forest walking elves, there are always providing a place of rest. But there is also a price. Cowslip’s warren has good food, no predators and plenty of room for the ragamuffin wanderers but it is also littered with deadly snares. To stay would mean surrendering tricks and wiles and to accept death when it comes. Such an option is too cowardly and awful for the rabbits, and to live a life at the mercy and beneficiary of humans is disdainful to them.
- A fearsome adversary – A story is only as entertaining as the villain. Whilst mankind provides lots of danger to the story, it is Woundwort who is the most fearsome bad guy of the piece. He’s strong, well resourced, clever and a formidable enemy. On top of this he is also nuanced, he has his reasons and he is not wholly evil. In fact the moment when he almost considers a peace treaty is one of the most beautifully written glimpses in to the hearts of those who fail to take their last chance to be a good man (or rabbit). Woundwort is terrifying and his tyranny pushes our rabbits to use every inch of their strengths and cunning.
“At that moment, in the sunset on Watership Down, there was offered to General Woundwort the opportunity to show whether he was really the leader of vision and genius which he believed himself to be, or whether he was no more than a tyrant with the courage and cunning of a pirate. For one beat of his pulse the lame rabbit’s idea shone clearly before him. He grasped it and realized what it meant. The next, he had pushed it away from him.”
- A trip to the underworld – All epic heroes have to face death, many actually visit Death in his own realm! Even Harry Potter enters into a twilight after-world in the Deathly Hallows. A good hero makes sacrifices for the good of their followers and the ultimate sacrifice is death. Heroes who visit the underworld are showing their willingness to die for their people. Hazel’s journey is foreshadowed in the tale of the Black Rabbit and takes place when he is shot by the farmer. Luckily for us, an epic hero always returns from the underworld to carry on the adventure.
- A happy ending – The heroes win the battle, the bad guys are vanquished and often an epic ends at home; a good home with good people, and a good future. The rewards visible at the ending have to be wonderful – they justify the pain suffered and the price paid by heroes to create a safe place where children and children’s children may flourish. Nearly all epic journeys and battles are fought purely to bring us all back to the love and warmth of home.