On the Unsettling Allure of ‘Watership Down’

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Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve 2016, less than a year before now, when you furtively caper about the countryside. If he were still alive, you would not seek him out; the rabbits of his book are more real to you than he ever was.

Darkness. Another day out in the high fields beyond the Downs. The sky goes dark, the sun so pale it appears to be the moon — Frith becomes Inlé — glowing orange. Far away, Hurricane Ophelia has kicked the sands of the Sahara, stirred them all up into the sky. Some say that El-ahrairah, the rabbits’ trickster folk hero, controls the weather, because the wind, the damp and the dew are friends and instruments to rabbits against their enemies.

The wind sweeps hard through that darkness. Trees gyrate. Distant sheep lie down in the hollows of the land. You lean into the wind, almost fall over. Weather, dreams and reading are three things that can shift your waking emotions; at times they feel like things that come out of you, rather than things you take in.

The real Watership Down.CreditPeter Rock

Now it is my voice reading, my two daughters listening — one on the couch next to me, one on the floor, staring at the ceiling. My voice has become a father’s voice:

When Hazel woke, he started up at once, for the air around him was full of the sharp cries of some creature hunting. He looked quickly round, but could see no signs of alarm. It was evening. Several of the rabbits were already awake and feeding on the edge of the wood. He realized that the cries, urgent and startling though they were, were too small and shrill for any kind of elil. They came from above his head. A bat flittered through the trees and out again without touching a twig. It was followed by another. Hazel could sense that there were many all about, taking flies and moths on the wing and uttering their minute cries as they flew. A human ear would hardly have heard them, but to the rabbits the air was full of their calls.

My wife listens, across the living room with her computer in her lap, sending messages to her patients. The guinea pigs in their cage listen; they chew on their timothy hay, raise their heads; they worry about Hazel, though they are rodents and not lagomorphs. Our puppy RoRo was born deaf but she watches me, my mouth moving. She can feel the tension in the air, the danger rising so high, the Thousand alerted by the first wrong move.

How would you look to Kehaar, as he circled high above the River Test, not far from Efrafa, the dangerous warren of General Woundwort? So small and tentative you are — at Kehaar’s height, it’s difficult to say if you are a person or a rabbit; you creep along the riverbank, under the arch of the stone bridge. You imagine a small boat full of rabbits, drifting down the stream, caught beneath the bridge in a storm. The weather, the rain, the thunder and lightning never ceasing.

Now, however, the River Test runs slowly, its chalk beds pale through the cold, clear water, its banks groomed, sculpted; water plants’ tendrils wave gently in the currents. You lean close, your snout close to the surface. And then, on the breeze, the scent of a pine tree — but thicker, sharper. You scamper up from the riverbank, stand tall on your hind legs. Through the trees you can just see the pale walls, can just read the sign: Bombay Sapphire Distillery.