Treasure Trove: Watership Down

If I’ve given the impression that The Culture Project is some kind of self-imposed curriculum in which I’ve driven myself to slave over dry, boring material, then the Treasure Trove is my effort to correct that idea. The Culture Project isn’t a curriculum, it’s an exploration of that foreign country which we call the past and the continuation of those traditions in the present day through the lens of art, during which I’ve certainly encountered the odd desert, wilderness and pit of despair, but also discovered sweeping vistas and unknown jewels. The Treasure Trove is where I’ll be putting some of them on display.

I’m starting with a modern classic, which is also a treasure I’ve loved since I discovered it on a classroom bookshelf when I was about ten before appropriating my mother’s copy a year later: Watership Down, by Richard Adams.

My (mother's) now rather battered 1978 edition of Watership Down.
My (mother’s) now rather battered 1978 edition of Watership Down.

Watership Down is a story about rabbits. And if you stop there, then you’ve missed the whole point. Because Watership Down is about rabbits the way Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is about violins. The rabbits in Watership Down aren’t cute, fluffy, mindless pets (or pests, as the case may be). They’re wild rabbits, and they’re on a mission.

The young prophet Fiver has had a horrific vision of the imminent destruction of their home warren. Convinced of its veracity, his brother Hazel in turn convinces a small band of bucks to flee. They include Blackberry, the clever innovator; Dandelion, the storyteller; Bigwig the fighter; and timid little Pipkin. As the rabbits journey through the English countryside in search of a promised land to call home they encounter many trials and dangers – not least from their own kind.

In other words, this is an epic quest interwoven with a complex Christo-pagan mythology including the Sun-Lord Frith, the trickster-god El-ahrairah, and the menacing and yet occasionally merciful Black Rabbit of Inle. ‘Watership Down’ is the name of the high, isolated common which becomes their haven and new home, but once there their challenges have only begun…

Richard Adams originally created the story of Watership Down in the 1960s, to amuse his children on a long car journey, and it was first published in 1972, winning both the Carnegie medal and the Guardian award for children’s fiction. I’ve re-read this book countless times, can quote passages by heart, and even as an adult still consider it a treasure and a delight.

Indeed, it is only as an adult that I’ve come to see that this ‘story about rabbits’ was so much more than just another children’s book. It was the first time a book affected me on a spiritual level. In the lives of Hazel and his friends the spiritual and the material are profoundly woven together. Their physical journey to Watership Down is also a spiritual journey to discover their inner resources, something which is often only truly realised in times of hardship, and to trace the connection between their lives and the tales of their spiritual tradition: a tradition of which, ultimately, they too become a part.

“So after they had swum the river,” said Vilthuril, “El-ahrairah led his people on in the dark, through a wild, lonely place. Some of them were afraid, but he knew the way and in the morning he brought them safely to some green fields, very beautiful, with good, sweet grass.”…
“I seem to know this story,” whispered Hazel, “but I can’t remember where I’ve heard it.”
– Richard Adams, Watership Down

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