Thursday, 29 November 2012

Literary Analysis: Watership Down

This piece is one I truly enjoyed working on because of the exquisite flavors in Richard Adam's novel.  Rabbits and regimes, warrens and wires, and yes, bucks and battles, join creating a wonderful story. I won't give an abstract...

An Insightful Message: Rabbits and a 20th Century Preoccupation with History and Politics

          “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 swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed” (Adams 29).  The story of a group of rabbits (led by one named Hazel) that leaves their Sandleford warren to embark on a journey to found their own, new, warren is none other than Richard Adams' Watership Down.  This is no tale of The Velveteen Rabbit: These rabbits had their share of enemies, and though the author claimed it to be only a child's story written about the British countryside that he loves, his novel displays certain weighty subjects of importance (Adams “My Brit”). The people of the Prince with a Thousand Enemies were rabbits in the center of southern England within a real world to illustrate the importance of running, fighting, and overcoming evil.  Placed in the world and not a fictional other-world, the rabbits possess their own vernacular as well as stories and tales passed down as proverbs.  Richard Adams' tale of lapine comrades was written and published in 1972, after the world recovered from World War Two, a recovery during which the world experienced another explosion: One of popular culture amidst the modernist movements in art, music, and literature, forms people use to express their individuality (Spielvogel 628).  During this time, authors explored new themes and ways to emphasize their messages, and one trend was to write free-form poetry (such as T.S. Eliot's “Prufrock”) or novels from either a futuristic mindset or nature's point of view while being “mediators of insight” in order to display themes of political conflicts (Tarka).  An example of modern literature with a futuristic mindset is George Orwell's 1984, while one with animals basking in the spotlight is Animal Farm, also written by Orwell, who skillfully combined political messages in a future context or in the context of a group of animals.  With Watership Down, however, although Adams’ 20th century novel may appear to be simply an imaginative tale about rabbits in order to elevate environmentalism, it clearly demonstrates the preoccupation 20th century literature possessed in relation to history and politics by using epigraphs, parallels to Greek literature, and themes of political and socialistic regimes.
          The novel may lend the impression that it supports every aspect of ecological care and consideration because the main character is taken by visions of trouble, prophesying that the warren will be destroyed because man has visited and doom of the warrens' destruction by man impends (Adams Watership 9).  To be certain, the description of the extermination of those who remained at the Sandleford Warren, which Captain Holly relates to Hazel's troupe, is not for the faint of heart, as big men with white sticks (cigarettes) in their mouths gas the rabbit runs, resulting in screaming, hallucinating rabbits (154). These devastating effects, written in such detail and expressed by the story teller so horrifically, seem to elicit the inspiration to protect the environment. However, it is not the cry to protect all rabbits; rather, it is a part of the story Adams employed to endear his characters to his readers.

Watership Down, England

          The chapter in which Captain Holly explains the events of the annihilation of the Sandleford rabbits begins with an epigraph from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.  The function of an epigraph is a form of literary strategy in which the author selects passages, quotations, or colloquialisms to set a stage or mood for the section following the epigraph.  The epigraph Adams used for this particular passage appeals to a reader’s sense of emotional sensitivity, for when a Russian states that man should love the animals and not cause them unnecessary harm for the sole reason that they are gifts from God, it is an impressive imperative that causes the reader to discover how and in what way the epigraph will tie into the following events in the story.
          Epigraphs were common during the Romantic era (of poetry especially), and employed most often. In 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge used a Latin passage to preface “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and even years later, T. S. Eliot used an epigraph from Dante's Inferno to further his point in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (Greenblatt 443, 2524).  When Adams inserted epigraphs for his novel, he did so not only to set a stage for the readers' imagination, but also to tie the context of his modern tale in with those of the literature preceding his novel, illustrating how 20th century literature was occupied with somehow combining a political or historical theme into a work.  Adams did both, and, in a sense, this act (incorporating epigraphs) is also a symbol of appreciation for pieces written before his novel, as he is giving them honor and recognition.
          The multiple ways the world has developed owes much to the Greek leaders, historians, and philosophers, and again, Adams gives honor to the preceding (or ancient) literature in that he employs parallels between his characters and those in Virgil's Aeneid, in which a young man, Aeneas, returns from the Trojan War and is determined to found the city of Rome.  Like Aeneas (the main character in the Aeneid) the rabbits break away from what they have been used to for years in order to create a new warren and are constantly met with numerous obstacles, some of which (such as Cowslip's warren and the lotus eaters) mirror the obstacles encountered in the Aeneid.  In doing this, Richard Adams creates a story that is looked upon as a great epic because it possesses the themes of this famous Greek poem (Anderson).
          Themes of the Aeneid include those of fighting for freedom and founding a new city, avoiding obstructions or obstacles that deter from the goal, and lastly, enduring anything that came across the traveler's path whether it was a challenge or the loss of a friend.  Aeneas, like the rabbits in Watership Down, had to fight to found and maintain Rome.  A similar obstruction the rabbits and Aeneas encounter are seemingly seductive areas, that is, places that have allure but are actually full of danger and death, such as the lotus eaters and Cowslip's warren (Anderson).
          Enduring hardships and bearing grief is also a theme in both tales: In the Aeneid, when Aeneas relates the horrors of the Trojan war, he is heartbroken as he tells of the woeful events of the war while Bluebell and Captain Holly (two rabbits who had remained at Sandleford) speak of the dreadful events of the extermination and utter destruction of the Sandleford warren.  While Aeneas moaned that none could retell the woes to give them justice, Captain Holly “looked sad and dark” after he related that his tale would “strike frost into the heart of every rabbit that hears it” (Adams 148).  The “death agony” Aeneas recalls the women mourning over in courthouses synchronizes with the instance in which the men gassed the Sandleford warren runs and the does screamed in agony over their death and the death of their kittens (Adams 154, Anderson).   Another parallel to the Aeneid that Adams adopted is that of the prophetic rabbit, Fiver, and the Aeneid’s Princess Cassandra, a young priestess who foretold the unfortunate fortune of Troy if the Trojans were to accept the horse left by the Greeks.  Like Cassandra, Fiver has physical fits and is captured in an other-worldly trance when he foresees the destruction of Sandleford after observing the signpost (Adams 7).
          Though the signpost set in Sandleford's warren signified the coming of men and the destruction of the warren, each warren in the novel signifies three political regimes.  When the rabbits followed Hazel and stopped at an eery warren (seemingly managed by a distant, detached, character named Cowslip) on their journey, the Sandleford escapees sensed a danger that persisted even when all seemed safe. True, Cowslip's community possessed the same vernacular, as well as poetry, proverbs and tales, but it was eery.  Fiver felt the entire aura of the place unnatural, as if death was hanging over the warren like a mist. When a native rabbit finished reciting a poem, Fiver absorbed it with absolute horror, and, stricken with fear, he came to his senses and realized what the mist was (Adams 103).  The oppressive mist Fiver sensed was the fact that Cowslip's warren was not free, it was run by fear of death.  The apparent leader, Cowslip, treated everyone as equal, and because he did not view himself as a spokesperson or even true leader, the warren suffered because of its socialistic regime. Adams' lapine characters knew that socialism was not what they had left Sandleford for, but by inserting the element of a regime that the rabbits fled from in order to establish their own, Adams suggests countries should flee socialism and found governments that encourage independence.
          When the independent rabbits continued their journey, they found a beautiful down to claim as their own, but there was one problem: There were no does, and no does meant no continuation of the new warren.  When this problem was addressed, the second political regime entered the stage.  Several rabbits from Hazel's warren made a trek to Efrafa, a militaristic, suppressed, not to mention depressed community of rabbits.  Efrafa is the supreme dictatorship. The leader, General Woundwort, is bent on system, control, schedules, obedience from his Council, and that every rabbit coming in to Efrafa “will find [them] perfectly friendly and helpful to rabbits who understand what's expected of them” (Adams 238).  Citizens are given no free choice of when to silflay (eat) or even when to pass hraka, because man may come and inflict harm or cause disease: “You can't call your life your own, and in return you have safety” (233).  In this dictatorship, the Efrafan council police “demonstrated the power to ferret out and punish every individual...engaged in or...suspected of political opposition” (Hallagan).  Adams’ colorful picture of a disgusting way of life in which citizens were limited in so many areas of life is a powerful one that makes readers appreciate freedom, because freedom to be able to live, eat, sleep breath, mate, and love is the most important of all.  In the end, the dictatorship crumbled for many reasons, but Adams' intention was not to allow this warren to prosper because it was a dictatorship that did not allow citizens to truly live.
          Adams' novel ends with a solid, peaceful, and well established order of rabbits who not only have room to breath, but room to live.  With Hazel, Fiver, and the singular character of Bigwig, the rabbits were able to be represented.  Watership Down and the rabbits therein were content; they had escaped certain death more than once and were now upon a down with leaders they could not be more grateful for, leaders who had led them through the dark mist, away from predators, and out of reach of the Efrafan clutches.  By ending on the note of a warren in the hands of a healthy democracy, Adams gives a subliminal message that democracy leads to peace and a secure, satisfactory homeland.
          Creating a phenomenal conglomeration of themes, morals, and characters, Adams chose rabbits with a peculiar vernacular, history, and mythology of their own to write a story that warns against the evils of supreme control.  The 20th century novel certainly displays the era's slight engrossment with history and politics, but Richard Adams wrote a story with insight.  More than an environmental promoter, the novel's epigraphs set and influence moods.  Profound comparisons and parallels to the Aeneid, Virgil's epic, give the book a flavor that is not reproducible, and the examination of political and socialistic regimes proves this book to be more than a tale of fluffy rabbits. These rabbits had to fight for their freedom, even when seductive warrens, predators, and other obstacles stubbornly stood in their way.    All the world was promised to be their enemy, and whenever they were caught, they were promised to be killed. “But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, Prince with swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed” (Adams 29).  While the novel, like others during the 20th century, is most definitely preoccupied with history, politics, and other interesting themes, Adams' insightful message to remain free from political and relational evils rings true:  Because of their bravery and endurance, the people of the Prince of a Thousand Enemies consistently came out as the victors no matter how dark the tunnel or how suffocating the run.

 Works Cited:
Adams, Richard. "My Bit of Britain." In Britain 4.1 (1994): 53. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web. 19    Nov. 2012.
---.Watership Down. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.
Anderson, Celia Catlett. "Troy, Carthage, and Watership Down." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8.1 (1983): 12-13. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.                                                                                                           
Hallagan, William. "Corruption in Dictatorships." Economics of Governance 11.1 (2010): 27-49. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.
Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization: A Brief History. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011.        Print.
"Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, Watership Down." World Literature Today 82.6 (2008): 4. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.


  1. Hi, I'm in a writing literary criticism class in which I have too choose a book to compare with Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." I've chosen to compare "Watership Down," and based on you knowledge of the book, I'd like to get your insights. I'm thinking about taking a biographical approach between Adams and Carroll and see if similarities between their lives contribute in any way to similar themes that run through their works. I'm just kicking around ideas, and I'd appreciate any feedback you may have on another interesting angle I might be able to take for this topic.

    Thanks so much.

  2. Hi; thanks for reading!
    First off, good literature choices! I'd look at the similarities each author had in their ideas, storytelling, etc. Carroll told stories about Alice to an Alice and her siblings, and Watership Down is a written collection of stories Adams made up for his girls in the car, on the way to school.
    Depending on how long/detailed/massive your paper is, think of a few major points. Both authors have epigraphs (reference to other literature) at either the beginning of each chapter or the book. I know Adams (1920 - p) served in the British Army for six years during World War Two, Carroll (1832-98) never joined the army but lost both parents at a moderately young age.
    If you're going to compare these two grand works, I'd discuss the themes. Throw in the biological perspective for added interest, because it is intriguing. I believe many of the fearsome themes in Watership are due to the elements Adams fought against during WWII, totalitarianism and other such deplorable dynamics. Also, think of anthropomorphism, bestowing human characteristics upon animals; there is a definite correlation between both works there. You could also contrast the Queen of Hearts and her type of rule to General Woundwort and his. Stick with the biographical approach if you can dig up enough interesting facts about each author. If not, choose themes that run together. Does that help? I can answer more questions if need be. Have fun!

    1. Thanks so much, that's perfect! There are a lot of good insights there I had no idea about. I think I can incorporate a lot of those elements into my paper. Thanks for you time.

    2. Any time! Just make sure you correctly site sources. Would you be interested in guest posting your comparison?

    3. I'd love to share it. I just finished it. It may a little lenghthy for a blog, but I can send it to you and you can decide if you'd like to post part or all of it.