“Bright eyes, burning like fire…” O sorry, where were we? I was lost in contemplation of the ugly film animation of this story – I don’t think that the term “bright eyes” appears at all in the classic children’s book. And these rabbits wouldn’t like the fire simile at all.
The rabbits of Sandleford Warren have got to get out of there. Led by intrepid Hazel and little Fiver (a seer, no less) a small but feisty party sets off for a new home which is way way too far off, across too many hazards. On the way we learn that pet rabbits become lazy and dull, that to ignore danger in exchange for an easy (if short) life is to lose your sanity, and that militarism will dehumanize you. Yes, I say dehumanize, because apart from the licking of their friends’ injuries and their eating of their own undigested faeces, these rabbits might as well be people. The anthropomorphism is a bit patchy – when Adams is annoyed by the rabbits’ incapacities, he gets them to learn how to use tools, to stay calm and also to co-operate with other species, thus advancing the plot and rabbit-kind in general. They have a vague spirituality based on sun-worship (“great, golden Frith”) and tell tales of their revered ancestor, a Trickster. The rabbits are nice, altruistic, accept difference and so on, so we don’t worry about their other slightly politically incorrect habits, such as their predilection for the abduction and rape of females from other warrens.
As mentioned above, the rabbits conveniently work out the value of inter-species co-operation, and here it gets clunky. The plover who helps the rabbits find females (“mothers”) while preparing for migration across the sea (“the big water”) speaks like a comic Dutchman – “‘Ya, ya, ‘elp you for get mudders. But now ees dis, Meester ‘Azel. Alvays I vant Peeg Vater now – alvays alvays. Ees hearing Peeg Vater vant to fly to Peeg Vater, Now soon you go for get mudders, I ‘elp you, ‘ow you like. Den, ven you getting mudders, I leave you dere, fly avay, no come back. But I come back annuder time, ya? Come in autumn, in vinter I come live ‘ere vid you, ya?” The grateful mouse speaks like a comic Italian – “‘Go now.’ said the mouse. ‘No wait owl. But a what I like a say. You ‘elp a mouse. One time a mouse ‘elp a you. you want ”im, ‘e come'”. Perhaps this is fair enough personalisation (although, was the mouse really Italian?) but it grates, as do the words of “Lapine” used arbitrarily – “elil” for enemies, “silflay” for grazing, and so on.
Watership Down is known as a violent and frightening children’s book. The huge distance and dangers which the rabbits face to get to their haven are real and scarey enough, but they do suddenly disappear rather unconvincingly and there the rabbits are, at Watership Down. Often their triumphs are unlikely, but perhaps that is the point. There is a final battle which is quite nasty and intrusive, as it is in their new, ‘safe’ home. It is true that some of the enemy rabbits and elil are vicious and there is brutal violence but not many of our friends die a premature death. Together they overcome, thank Frith. An entertaining, evocative and exciting enough book. Dare I say it? Yes I shall! More a boys’ book than a girls’ book – go on, tell me off.