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Watership Down: Rabbits as embodiment for soldiers of war

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Watership Down was written by Richard Adams in 1972, and when he started scribbling his manuscript, he was pondering about how to fictionalize his experience as a Second World War veteran. At that time, Adams was residing at a place in the vicinity of a down in England which was a homage to myriads of rabbits with numerous holes leading to a giant warren, and thus he had a decent knowledge about the behavior of rabbits and their nice little culture. So yes, he fictionalized his own story with a veneer of a religious rabbit kingdom in search of a home.

So how does this work? Let me explain. In this tale, all the rabbits talked in English (actually ‘Lapine’ translated for us) and they all had a religious belief in a myth and in that story there was a hero called El-ahrairah and that prince had a thousand enemies (‘elil’ in Lapine) i.e. fox, wolves, cats, dogs and so on almost every carnivorous species on earth, which was a curse rendered by Frith (the sun god) as the rabbits were mating too much that there was a population explosion in the entire animal kingdom, so the rabbits were doomed by this curse but on the other side it, they were blessed with the cunning skills of survival, their ability to run fast and think to make a way out of the worst-case scenarios. So these conditions of the rabbits are actually relatable to the time when Lt. Adams was in command to liberate Dutch towns in the allied forces and their struggle, they were desperate and frightened as rabbits.

From (rte.ie)

Lieutenant Richard Adams commanded C Platoon in 250 Company’s Seaborn Echelon, and, as he wrote in his autobiography, he based Watership Down and the stories in it around the men of the 250 Airborne Light Company RASC—specifically, on their role in the battle of Arnhem. The battle, fought over nine days in September 1944 in and around the Dutch towns of Arnhem, Oosterbeek, Driel, and Wolfheze, resulted in devastating losses for the Allied forces, including in Adams’ company. Adams says that two characters were directly drawn from life. Hazel was inspired by Adams’ commanding officer, Major John Gifford, a man he described as “brave in the most self-effacing way” and an “excellent organizer” who rarely raised his voice, adding, “Everything about him was quiet, crisp and unassuming.” Gifford survived the war; Captain Desmond “Paddy” Kavanagh, on whom warrior Bigwig was modeled, did not. Daring, debonair Kavanagh was, Adams wrote, “afraid of nothing,” a “sensationalist,” and “by nature entirely the public’s image of a parachute officer.” He was killed in action outside Oosterbeek while providing covering fire for his platoon, at just 25 years old. As for Adams, he said in 2014 that he identifies more with Fiver: “Rather timid and not much of a fighter … but able to contribute something in the way of intuitive knowledge.”

From (kyleonfilm.com)

Adams’ knowledge of group dynamics in extremely stressful situations was well-founded, as was his knowledge of the habits of actual rabbits. To better understand the creatures, Adams turned to British naturalist Ronald Lockley’s 1964 book, The Private Life of the Rabbit. After the novel came out, Adams and Lockley became friends and—as friends do—took a trip to Antarctica together, and later collaborated on a book about the experience.

Watership Down even stands as a depiction of human exploits, we see that as the story begins in a flourishing warren, fiver (the extra-sensory rabbit) comes to the knowledge that human beings for their urbanization and shelterization are coming to attack their home with giant mechanic machines that will tear their burrows apart and their lives were in grave danger with a total hopelessness for any future, so they’ve to leave their home and go to the savage and fierce wilderness with other 999 enemies to search for a calm place to establish a settlement.

The book explores the themes of exile, survival, heroism, leadership, political responsibility, and the “making of a hero and a community”. Joan Bridgman’s analysis of Adams’s works in The Contemporary Review identifies the community and hero motifs: “The hero’s journey into a realm of terrors to bring back some boon to save himself and his people” is a powerful element in Adams’s tale. This theme derives from the author’s exposure to the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell, especially his study of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and in particular, Campbell’s “monomyth” theory, also based on Carl Jung’s view of the unconscious mind, that “all the stories in the world are really one story.”

The concept of the hero has invited comparisons between Watership Down’s characters and those in Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Hazel’s courage, Bigwig’s strength, Blackberry’s ingenuity and craftiness, and Dandelion’s and Bluebell’s poetry and storytelling all have parallels in the epic poem Odyssey. Alas, the story stands as a pinnacle of example for camaraderie and animality (as juxtaposed to humanity which is lacking in humans) so we got to learn so much from the lives of these clever cute little rabbits.

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