Watership Down, the gateway to high fantasy
It’s a really random thing to be fanatical about I guess, but I love Watership Down. It’s been my favourite book pretty much my entire life, and I’ve struggled to really bring across how much more there is to the story than its frustrating reputation of ‘scary Easter movie’.
I was listening to a YouTube video recently where someone reviewed the book, and they compared it to The Hobbit briefly, but I think that’s where it clicked for me.
Watership Down is a fantasy epic, I’m having an internal debate right now on whether we’d consider it high fantasy, because, while it’s set in the real world, it’s the rabbit’s interpretation of that world, and it differs quite significantly from our own.
The book has all the foundations of a high fantasy tale, the characters have their own language, lore and tales past down from generations. It’s also a story of a journey. When I think about it, there’s a lot of logical comparisons between Watership Down and Tolkein’s work. Maybe I just love Watership Down more because it’s no where near as mentally draining to read.
Anyway I wanted to talk about some themes and segments from Watership Down and why it’s the story your fantasy-loving life is missing.
The Lord of Silver Fountains, the King of Carven Stone, the King Beneath the Mountain, shall come into his own.The Hobbit
It’s a common trope in your fantasy story, a prohecy has been foretold, and it will shape the character’s journey.
As far as Watership Down being a cute kid’s story about bunny rabbits goes… It pretty much ends at the first chapter.
It’s probably the most famous scene from the book, Hazel is enjoying a chill morning foraging with the warren when his brother starts having a premonition.
“The field… It’s covered in blood!”
The story kicks off with Fiver having a vision of Sandleford Warren (and it’s inhabitants) being destroyed by a housing development project. Awkwardly one that started happening this year in real life.
You want us to climb this, is that it? – Yes! Come on, Pipkin! Come and look! You can see the whole world!Watership Down
Okay so we’ve got our destiny laid out for us, what does a fantasy epic need now? A long-ass journey of course.
Hazel, Fiver and a small selection of other rabbits willing to believe Fiver’s story go along for the journey, similarly to what you’d expect from Tolkein’s work, the rabbits encounter enemies, battles, loss (more on that later) and other civilisations with their own mannerisms and customs.
Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.Watership Down
Throughout the journey of Watership Down there are many points where the rabbits will stop and regale with a story, these are folktales, legends handed down, usually starring the first rabbit there ever was, El-ahrairah.
El-ahrairah’s stories cover the origin of the rabbit, from how they got their cotton tails and powerful legs, and the stories build the foundation of what I guess can be compared to the commandments in the Bible. Like we have our own ‘Rules’ to follow as humans, the rabbits have lessons learnt from the tales of El-ahrairah.
“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.” – An excerpt from the tales of El-ahrairah.
These stories compare well with the way Tolkein’s books are filled with mini-stories, songs and fables from the different lands of Middle-Earth, and they create a world beyond the ‘real world’ setting of Watership Down.
Silflay hraka, u embleer rah!Watership Down (Bigwig)
Multiple languages is a staple of large fantasy stories, and Watership Down is no different. It’s a small point of reference in the books, mostly they just replace existing words that rabbits would not have encountered, ‘hrududu’ for example is their onomatopoeia term for ‘car’.
The real treat of the fantasy language in Watership Down is coming up to the quote above, and cheekily knowing what it means.
Heroism and character development
My Chief Rabbit has told me to stay and defend this run, and until he says otherwise, I shall stay here.Watership Down (Bigwig)
Every good adventure needs its heroes. One of my favourite themes in the book is the development of Bigwig’s character. He starts off as this bossy champ of the group, arguably the strongest of them all and as such expects to be treated as their chief.
As the journey progresses you see Bigwig’s relationship with the group leader, Hazel, develop, and there’s a really satisfying moment when Bigwig is protecting the other rabbits and he acknowledges Hazel as the leader of the group, a lot of events lead up to this but it reminds me of those relationships we always see in great stories where two characters don’t really see eye-to-eye, and after a bunch of hardships they eventually gain a mutual respect. It’s good shiz, and not unlike Thorin and Bilbo’s relationship in The Hobbit.
Battles and Evil
I’ll settle you myself, Bigwig. There’s no need to take you back.Watership Down (General Woundwort)
The rabbits actually find Watership Down, their perfect home, around a third of the way through the book. From there it becomes a new quest for the gang of rabbits.
That’s where the evil kingdo-I mean warren Efrafa comes in to it. Comparable to places like Mordor, this is a warren of tough, hard-done-by rabbits led by a tyrannical and cruel leader, General Woundwort.
Sure, the battle between Watership Down and Efrafa is no Helm’s Deep, but it’s pretty epic.
My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.Watership Down
I guess the main theme that kind of takes me out of this idea that Watership Down is a kid’s book is how it handles loss. It’s really deep about it.
The rabbits have their own prayer they say when one of them passes, there’s a grim-reaper bunny which takes them away, there’s gruesome battle deaths and it explores it’s own version of spirituality.
It’s all a bit much for a kid’s book really, but every fantasy epic needs that sense of loss, it gives the story weight and reason, and Watership Down isn’t shy about it either.
It’s simply not an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragonsNot actually Tolkein
Fantasy fans might recognise that quote as it’s often cited incorrectly as a Tolkein quote, but I honestly love the quote anyway.
Every good fantasy needs a dragon. Watership Down, being set in the real world, doesn’t have a dragon. Sad news.
… Or does it?
Maybe not obviously… But what about that flying… Shiny treasure loving, moody flying beast… Kehaar? Yup, Kehaar is totally the dragon of the story, when the lightning flashes and he comes crashing down on Woundwort it’s so exciting you could almost forget that you’re reading about a noisy-ass seagull pecking at a mean bunny rabbit.
And I do think it’s intentional that Watership Down has something as close to a dragon as they could possibly get.
Trailing off for a moment to talk about the Watership Down fandom. It’s small, because not enough people read the book these days and just meme the movie. My only real encounter with other fans was through the Watership Down Facebook group.
And it’s a hilarious group. Watership Down fans more-or-less fall in to one of two categories: Older Historian types who got in to the book as kids or because of its connections to Adams during the war, and furries. Not gonna lie, I got a massive kick out of seeing Buttons the bunny asking if anyone wanted to roleplay and being asked what they mean by 70+ veteran Albert. Fantastic group.
That aside there are also occasional conferences in the UK talking about the book and movie, and from what I’ve encountered it’s a really nice group, worth getting to know if you’re a fan.
Bunnies and Burrows
Comparing Watership Down to Tolkien is hardly an original idea now that I think about it, I mostly went so in depth because I can’t really find another place listing the comparisons to a decent extent.
Watership Down is already classed as a fantasy book, but I think when you take that at face value the obvious comparisons become things like The Last Unicorn, or Tales of Farthing Wood. But I’d argue that they’re not the best related texts.
Something to help steer this impression correctly is the Tabletop RPG, Bunnies and Burrows. I won’t go in to it too much, but it’s basically Dungeons and Dragons with rabbits, and it uses lore from the Watership Down books.
So connected materials do see Watership Down as more of a high fantasy piece of work, which feels more correct to me.
Tales from The Silmarillion
You know WHAT ELSE makes Watership Down basically Tolkienesque? I’m almost done honest…
The Silmarillion is a book filled with history, lore and myths from Middle-Earth. I won’t touch much more on that having not read this extra material, but Watership Down has it’s own version of this!
Tales from Watership Down is an additional book filled with extra myths and tales of El-ahrairah as well as extra information about Watership Down and the land surrounding it.
Richard Adams totally went the extra mile to bring us in to this world, much like Tolkein did.
A kid’s book? Sure…
If I’m honest reducing Watership Down to a kid’s book kind of annoys me, but only because it’s a lot of people’s mindset that when you hear that you can’t possibly dive in to it after the age of twelve.
Truthfully I’m not sure it suits being a children’s book. It’s a lot longer than your average kid’s story, three times longer than most Roald Dahl books.
It’s padded out with deep, meaningful lore, strategic maps, language references and themes that go beyond the things you’d typically expect a kid to process.
I was actually pretty gutted to learn that Watership Down was an A-Level study book, and I remember asking my teacher why we didn’t choose it, and she said ‘Because it’s a kid’s book.’ So I painfully seethed whilst reading about slut-shamed Hester Prynne.
I do hope one day Watership Down will rise past its reputation for being a scary Easter cartoon, because beneath that is a story that’s right up there as an easy digestible The Hobbit, Lord of The Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire.