“Men are often taken, like rabbits, by the ears,” observed the British literary critic F.L. Lucas. He added, “And though the tongue has no bones, it can break millions of them.” Yes, it can: we live in an age of broken bones, one in which the power-hungry are grabbing at—well, ears, if nothing else, by which we are all too often captured.
In that context, rabbits, ears, bones, and power, Richard Adams’ Watership Down is an oddly timely fable. It was written around the time the first Earth Day was being hatched, but by an English nature lover and, moreover, one who held a high position in the government’s environmental section. Adams set out to write a simple story about rabbits, whose meadowlands homes were under threat by pollution and development. But then something happened, perhaps after a season of working around bureaucrats and politicians: though it was published in November 1972 in Britain as a children’s book, Watership Down had morphed, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, into a fable with a sharp political edge.
The Hampshire countryside about which Adams wrote is postage stamp–sized, at least by American standards. That space broadened when Adams took the point of view of his tiny rabbit protagonists. His hero, one of several complex characters, is called Fiver, the last and runt of the litter. Seemingly one of those ordinary, workaday rabbits who, “lacking either aristocratic parentage or unusual size and strength, get sat on by their elders and live as best they can,” Fiver is no run-of-the-mill lagomorph: he has visions, the first of which would do Danny Torrance, of Stephen King’s The Shining, proud: he sees the field in which his rabbit warren lies drenched in blood, soaked in gore.
In the way of heroic epics, Fiver now must save his tribe, leading them onto unfamiliar turf. There, they discover that, unlike their gentle royal government, some rabbits live in police states (it was, after all, the height of the Cold War) with enemies within and without. The other creatures of forest and meadow are similarly blessed or cursed, and then there are human hunters, ravenous dogs, and empire-building bunnies bent on world conquest. Sexual politics are at play, too, it being the height as well of first-wave feminist consciousness, and there are lots of other allegorical moments interspersed with some rather matter-of-fact nature writing—quite a heady mix for a kids’ book.
Thus, now slated as a book for grown-up readers, Watership Down was published in the United States in 1974. Some critics didn’t quite know what to make of it; our own reviewer discerned biblical overtones that didn’t always work as Fiver and company make their way to the New Jerusalem. The book stuttered for a bit on this side of the pond, but then it took off. Still in print, it stands as a modest classic whose message remains relevant today: watch out for your ears and stay away from that blood-drenched ground.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.