Watership Down and the Power of Not-Quite-Appropriate Children’s Books

Tina Kügler

In April, the BBC and Netflix announced an ambitious four-part animated dramatization of Richard Adams’ childhood classic, Watership Down, to be released in 2017. By the looks of the thoughtfully chosen cast and much-touted production budget, it seems likely that this new Watership Down may overtake the particular, trippy charms of Martin Rosen’s 1978 film in the hearts and minds of a new generation. With any luck, it will steer viewers back to the novel, which has violence and haunting oddness in spades.

Watership Down, which I would feel comfortable describing as one of the finest and most interesting books of the 20th century, is most accessible to older children and adults, despite having originated from gentle tales Adams told to his children on long car rides. This disparity between material and tone made literary agents and publishers uneasy when the manuscript first crossed their desk: Rabbits, Adams says in his introduction to newer editions of the book, were considered a topic too “babyish” to appeal to an older audience, while the writing was too complex and literary for the sorts of younger children for whom rabbits would be a logical selling point.

Adams’ intentions aside, it is certain that many, many children too young for Watership Down found their way to it, via either well-meaning relatives who scooped a bucolic-looking copy from a bookstore without investigating further, or from children’s libraries, where it often occupies a position of honor. I certainly did: The horror of the Sandleford warren’s demise (rabbits gassed to death in their stopped-up holes, tearing each other to shreds while scrabbling for air) gave me a mild claustrophobia that makes the ordinary drudgery of deplaning an unpleasant experience to this day. Many great books embraced by a younger audience generation after generation contain passages darker than parents would prefer: the leper tossing his rotted finger casually into the fire in Henri Charrière’s Papillon; the sisters starved to death in their own rooms in Mervyn Peake’s glorious Gormenghast. My own parents’ resolve to leave their bookshelves completely open for our edification was shaken by the questions I asked after reading The Color Purple at 11. Watership Down is no exception. The characters are drawn from life, in particular from the officers and resistance fighters Adams had known during the Second World War, and their preoccupations are adult ones: tyranny and rebellion, survival and reproduction.

Our world is confusing to children, and so they are richly prepared to fumble their way through imaginary ones. A new language, be it Adams’ Lapine or High Elvish or Klingon, is no more baffling than the whys and hows of adult interaction. When Tolkien explains that one can study hobbits for a hundred years and still be surprised by them in a pinch, he’s talking about humans. As the parent of an autistic child, I have come to see the subtle cues most of us think of as instinctual—the physical shifting and wrist-glancing that signify a readiness to end a conversation, inquiring politely after what an acquaintance did over the weekend despite being utterly indifferent to the answer—as the learned dialect they are. Adams explains, for example, that rabbits live in a hierarchical society where leaders only welcome suggestions if they are couched in such a way that it seems the leader has come up with it himself. That’s a lesson some of us take decades to learn.

Alongside the mysteries of adult behavior in Watership Down is the elemental mythology that children also absorb early in life. Joan Bridgman has argued for the importance of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces as a backdrop to Adams’ writing. (It is not for nothing that El-ahrairah, the foundational hero of his rabbits’ folk tales, is the Prince With a Thousand Enemies). The trickster is everywhere in the stories that the rabbits tell each other, and it’s the failure of the rabbits of Cowslip’s warren to appreciate the traditional folklore of Blackberry’s tales that first starts to warn our heroes that these rabbits are not quite right: too soft, too plump, too helpless. When it is revealed that said rabbits live in full knowledge that they are being deliberately fed and periodically snared by a nearby farmer, and simply choose never to speak of it, Hazel recognizes at once that Cowslip’s rabbits are ashamed to think of the tales of cunning and bravery that keep our heroes going.

I’ve always found it amusing that Adams apologizes on behalf of his characters for the blunt indifference of his male rabbits to the inner lives of the female ones, inserting an aside to that effect following Hazel’s “Are they any good?” query as to the fertility of the liberated does. Romance is not the goal of rabbits! The goal is to build a stable breeding population so that the warren can survive. The producers of the 2017 remake have wisely promised to beef up the female roles (you can’t hire Olivia Colman and expect her to be satisfied with “We’ve always lived in the box and the girl brings us cabbage”), but the novel is, at its core, a Fellowship of the Ring–like quest by a band of brothers. This is the sort of thing I must admit I noticed not at all as a child, which speaks to the willingness to see themselves in boy heroes that girls have traditionally had to muster in their literature.

Despite Adams’ repeated vow that his novel was never meant to be read allegorically, I don’t buy it, and never have. The encroachment of machinery and man into the pastoral is at the center of Watership Down as it is in The Lord of the Rings; so too the allure of safety over freedom when offered at the point of a gun, or a snare. It may be that the central preoccupations of 20th-century literature (and British literature, in particular) transcend allegory—that what Adams calls “simply the story of rabbits made up and told in the car” tracks with the themes that matter to people, particularly people who drive in that car past field and farmland for years, gradually noticing a factory or a tire store where once none existed. For children who read Watership Down, the “dark Satanic Mills” of William Blake encroach eternally on pleasant pastures green, peopled with rabbits idly chewing clover in the sun.

Nightlight is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s books, running for the month of August. Read about it here.