Critical Context

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If Watership Down were no more than a skillfully told imagining of rabbit adventures, it would not have been praised by critics as diverse as those of the British Broadcasting Corporation and The Village Voice. The story, winner of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award for children’s fiction for 1972, has been compared to works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and The Lord of the Rings. Clearly, the story awakens in its readers memories of human adventures. It participates in the great myths.

When Hazel and Fiver lead their band from the destruction of Cowslip in search of a better home, the reader may think of Aeneas fleeing Troy or of Moses and Aaron leaving Egypt for the Promised Land. Adams is a very allusive writer, one who has already brought the thought of Odysseus to the reader’s mind. In this context, when the second part of the story deals with the building of a city, it is natural for classical or biblical parallels to come to mind and to invest the story of the building of Watership Down with their greater significance.

Therefore, if the reader has had such parallels suggested, what is he to think when the plot concerns the lack of wives in the newly built city? The myth that underlies the third part of the story is the story of the Romans and the Sabines. Mythology and its uses thread all through the plot, from inherited stories such as those of El-ahrairah to the soon-to-be-invented ones that will preserve the memory of the unbalanced but heroic General Woundwort.

At the very end of the story, Hazel, now long honored as Chief Rabbit of Watership Down, comes to the end of a life that has been very brief on a human scale. The folktales of the Prince with a Thousand Enemies, in conjunction with the resonances of Moses, Aeneas, and Romulus and Remus, have prepared the reader for the apotheosis that occurs. Hazel in spirit is raised up to the mythical world of El-ahrairah, a world that has sustained and guided him throughout the story.

Watership Down is a story on two levels, at the same time entertaining and profound. Its simple, direct adventures can entrance the youngest audience at the same time that Adams’ skillful use of allusions suggests broader dimensions to a more sophisticated reader. Its use of great themes invests the story with significance beyond the actions of the individual characters, so much so that the book seems sure to become part of the canon of fantasy.

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