14 JULY 1979, Page 14

Rabbits and reality

Christopher Booker

In a few months time the Seventies come to an end — at which point, I have no doubt, we shall be deluged with retrospective articles and television programmes, attempting to put the decade into perspective. Never wishing to. be behind events, I would like to anticipate that deluge somewhat. Over the next few weeks, I plan to discuss, in turn, four of the most popular books of the Seventies, the success of each of which, I believe, casts particular illumination on some aspect of the strange decade we have all but lived through.

The first of these four books is Richard Adams's mini-epic about the adventures of a group of rabbits in the Berkshire countryside, Watership Down. The story of the book's origins will probably be familiar — how it evolved from tales told to his two young daughters by a then obscure, middle-aged civil servant, working in the clean air and pollution section of the Department of the Environment, on their journeys up to Stratford-on-Avon. When the book was first published in 1972 it was only given a modest reception. The next year, after considerable trepidation and talk of extensive re-writing, Puffin put out a paperback edition. Within twelve months it had become one of the best sellers of the age. Its total sales to date, in the Puffin and Penguin editions alone, are around three million — and its world-wide sales are several times that.

Why should a fiction about rabbits, studded with somewhat portentous-looking chapter headings from Shakespeare, the Earl of Chesterfield, Cost Fan Tutte, Xenophon, Yeats, Tennyson, Napoleon and the South Sea Bubble company prospectus, have caught on in this way? The touching of what deep chord in the public imagination has led Watership Down to be accepted within such a brief space of time as one of those classics of children's literature which speak to readers of all ages, fit to be mentioned in the same breath as, say, The Wind in the Willows, The Lord of The Rings, or even Gulliver's Travels?

The story of Watership Down centres round that age-old theme in the literature of the world, a Quest. It begins with a group of rabbits receiving the intuitive warning that some appalling fate is about to overtake their warren. Like so many fields on the outskirts of English villages in the early Seventies, the rabbits' home has in fact been earmarked by a rapacious property company as the site for a 'high class' housing development. The little group of rabbits, who become the book's heroes, just manage to get away in time, before their confreres are hideously gassed and bulldozed to death. The rest of the story tells how they make their way, through all sorts of perils, across the countryside to Watership Down, where they eventually manage to establish a flourishing new warren.

In all these respects, the story is remarkably similar in outline to other, more celebrated Quest stories, such as the Aeneid, describing how Aeneas and his friends leave the burning city of Troy to found their new city in distant Italy, that of the Children of Israel escaping from bondage and threatened destruction in Egypt to set up a new home in the Promised Land, or Christian in Pilgrim's Progress leaving the 'city of destruction' (which he has a premonition is about to be engulfed by fire) to set off on his perilous journey to the distant Celestial City.

In fact the parallels between Watership Down and other stories formed by the Quest archetype run even deeper. It is a misconception, for instance, that the essence of Quest stories is that they simply describe a long journey towards a distant goal. In almost all the best-known stories of this type, the journey itself only accounts for a part of the tale. The worst ordeals of all await the hero and his companions when they have already come within sight of the goal, and lie in the difficulties which still stand in their way of winning it and securing it for the future. The whole of the second half of the Aeneid is taken up with Aeneas's battle to secure his new home in Italy against the tribes who already live there. The same is true of the Jewish Exodus (the Battle of Jericho etc). Jason's fiercest tests await him when he has already arrived in the neighbourhood of the Golden Fleece in Colchis, just as Odysseus's arrival in Ithaca before the final great battle with the suitors occurs exactly halfway through the Odyssey. And it is here that we can also see, in almost every instance, what is the real nature of the goal of the Quest story. What matters is not mere arrival at a goal, the winning of a treasure, or whatever, so much as the securing or establishing of a Kingdom, and usually, simultaneously, the winning of a Princess into the bargain.

In this respect, Watership Down is absolutely true to its underlying archetype — to an extent which I suspect even Richard Adams, for all his background in Jungian analysis, was not fully aware of. The jour ney across country to the new home only takes up a comparatively small amount of the story. The rest describes the great strug gle which faces the little group of male rabbits when they get there, first to win a group of rabbit Princesses' from the hostile warren of Efrafa and then to make their new kingdom secure against the avenging depredations of the 'monster' General Woundwort. Only then, after their final victory, is the future of the new kingdom secured, and can 'King' Hazel die in peace, knowing that the union of 'masculine' and 'feminine' has assured future generations of little rabbits to carry the kingdom on into the future.

But at this point, having moved in the lofty realms of comparison between a children's book of our own time and some of the greatest stories in the history of the world, we come down to earth with a bump. It is all very well to descry these heady similarities with the Odyssey or the Aeneid but the fact remains that Watership Down is not about great mythic heroes, cosmic enlargements of our own human nature. It is about bunny rabbits — and in the very nature of the somewhat sentimental associations that conjures up, not to mention the diminution rather than magnification of scale it implies, I believe we have a further very important indication as to the reasons for Watership Down's success.

One of the book's most appealing qualities is the way it transforms a stretch of our own familiar, Home Counties countryside into a vast, seemingly mythic, realm. Just a few miles of fields, woods and downland have been magnified into an almost boundless kingdom, The English Channel, as visited by the black-headed gull Kehaar, seems unimaginably far away. Crossing a railway line or a tiny stream becomes for the rabbits a gigantic ordeal, comparable with Odysseus evading the clutches of Scylla and Charybdis. Now, as we all know, the trouble with the modern world as seen on a human scale, or through human eyes, is that it is no longer like that. There are virtually no more 'boundless, unknown realms' left. The world has shrunk to a tiny, over-populated, over-explored, over-mechanised backyard. It takes a great feat of the imagination to transmogrify the contemporary English countryside, with its broiler farms, barbed wire fences, motorways and housing estates, back into a laery-realm' of romance and high adventure. But by diminishing his heroes to mere rabbit-size, it is that which Adams has achieved— thus creating the most successful 'pseudo-mythic' landscape since the imaginary world conjured up by Tolkien.

Similarly — and ironically — one of the great advantages of having animals as your heroes, rather than human beings, is that you can invest them with purely human qualities, as opposed to all those dehumanising distortions of human qualities which are unavoidable when you set an adventure story in our modern world of motor cars, aeroplanes, space rockets, telephones and all the rest of the gadgetry. With James Bond, Star Wars and the rest, the 'dehumanising' of the epic hero, by placing him perpetually in the shadow of machinery and technology, has gone just about as far as it can. With the rabbits of Watership Down, however, we are firmly back in a premechanical world, where the hero and his friends can only survive by their direct exercise of a balance of our primary, innate functions — physical strength, intuition, a courageous heart and all the rest.

And herein,! believe, lies the real clue to Watership Down. The very fact that in order to conjure up a fully human story, according to the age-old pattern of the Quest, the author has had in effect to escape from our modern technological world altogether, is the most revealing comment of all on the nature of the book's appeal. It is no accident that men, with their cars, trains, bulldozers, traps and gassing devices, are by and large seen in the book as 'enemies', as the greatest 'monster' of all in the natural world of the bunnies. Equally it is no accident that the rabbits' adventure is set in motion in the first place as an attempt to escape from that supreme symbol of the steady advance of an alien, dehumanising future, a development scheme — nor at a deeper level still that the whole book should be about an attempt to escape into some place of distant, happy, innocent security.

As may be apparent, I have great admiration for Adams's book. I find it gripping, moving and in many ways profound. But let us not at the same time overlook the horrific message which is implicit in the book's success. At the deepest level, it is yet another of those countless fantasies of escape thrown up by the unconscious of modern man — escape from the unspeakable, ,inhuman world we are creating for ourselves by technology, shot through with every kind of premonition of some ultimate disaster. It is all very well to dream of getting back to a simpler, more natural world where we might once again become fully human. But in the conscious, outward world, the truth is that we are still doing almost everything we can to ensure that we are travelling self-destructively in the opposite direction. On that level, alas, Ware rs hip Down must be seen as nothing more than a charming piece of nostalgic wishfulthinking — as was demonstrated for me by' nothing more clearly than a copy of the local Newbury paper which I saw a year or two after Watership Down had raced to the top of the best seller lists. The front-page beadline announced that there was such a 'plague of rabbits' on the nearby Berkshire Downs (the very place where Watership Down is situated) that £20,000 was to be spent on a 'massive extermination programme'. It is one thing to dream of that purer, simpler world, where we are once again at one with nature and with our own nature. But if, in the tiniest respect, such dreams conflict with our drive to subject nature to our own use and comfort,it becomes a different matter altogether. Then is our sentimentality as a species shown up in its true colours as nothing more than the most appalling double-think — if not as the expression of our potentially quite catastrophic self-deception.