Category Archives: books

Watership Down

Image by Gary Bendig:

It was a Saturday morning in very early spring – one of those fresh, crisp but not cold days when you can sit outside for a couple of hours and turn the pages of a book with ungloved hands.

I had escaped to the bottom of the garden to sit on the swing and read perhaps the first ‘grown-up’ novel I’d attempted. In my memory, I am 12, but the reprint date on the imprint page of the book I was holding – Watership Down by Richard Adams – tells me I must have been 13. It had been given to me as a surprise Christmas present by my cousin Ray, older than me by ten years.

I was a town-raised child. To me, public green space meant the managed town recreation ground with its swings, roundabouts and impossibly high slide with open metal steps and a narrow ledge right at the top. My family didn’t visit rural places for fun. We only drove through them to get to the nearby town where our relatives lived or the seaside resorts where we took our summer holidays. I rarely saw rivers or forests or hill-tops. I knew the names of garden flowers and trees, including the weeping willow in my neighbours’ back garden, but wild flowers and woodland trees were unfamiliar to me.

The wildest place I knew was, in fact, the bottom of our garden. Meant as a large vegetable plot, it was actually a neglected square of mud, weeds and brambles, just waiting for someone (a future owner) to turf it over. So it was probably the best place for me to open Watership Down and read the first words, which carried me off in imagination to that alien place, the countryside:

The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog-mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes…

I loved the book from beginning to end. I was touched by the character of Hazel, Chief Rabbit of his warren not because he was the biggest, strongest, fastest, cleverest or most creative, but because he was able to meld all the holders of those titles into a team that could achieve great things together. I also vaguely understood that there were real places like Efrafa in human society – cruel totalitarian states where dissent was disallowed and spirits were all but crushed by harsh regulation and even harsher penalties.

In the story, by the time the Watership Down warren is besieged by the Efrafans, Hazel is lame, and his inspired escape to the farm with Blackberry and Dandelion, to release their rescuer, is overlooked by General Woundwort as utterly insignificant: ‘It doesn’t matter. Let them go. There’ll be three less when we get in.’ Woundwort is rather like Lord Voldemort, the arch-villain of a later tale, in his assumption that the smallest and weakest creatures (lame rabbits / house-elves / children) are no threat to tyrants.

The 1978 movie of Watership Down disappointed me. Disastrously mis-marketed as a kiddies’ film, it’s now infamous for traumatising the children it was supposed to entertain! The sad little song ‘Bright eyes’ was all wrong too – a death-lament to accompany a story that celebrates ongoing life.

The two-part TV adaptation shown just before Christmas 2018 was better – simple and humorous without glossing over the violence that’s an integral part of the story. (Just one big complaint: Bigwig’s decision to call Hazel ‘Chief Rabbit’ at the crucial moment should have been his choice, not Hazel’s suggestion…)

Nothing beats the book, though. I’ve walked on Watership Down itself since first reading about it in my muddy back garden on a fresh, crisp spring morning in 1977. But the magic is in the imagination, seeing the hedgerows from a rabbit’s-eye view and listening to approaching thunder with a rabbit’s ears.

Image: Gary Bendig:

East of Eden


Some books, I find, have an ‘atmosphere’ that lingers in the mind for several days after I finish reading them, like a cloud of smoke or a heavy scent on the air. When I finish a book like that, I don’t want to start reading anything else until the cloud or the perfume has dissipated and the air is clear again.

Often, when this happens, it’s because the sense of ‘place’ in the novel is very strong. Great Expectations is one such book, with all its dark locations – the foggy River Thames, the dank walls of Newgate Prison, the mustiness of Satis House. Watership Down is another, with a starkly different atmosphere – the rabbit’s-eye view of grass, sparkling rivers and the dappled shadows cast by the leaves of trees high above. I could think, too, of Hardy’s The Return of the Native, in which Egdon Heath has its own personality, and Forster’s A Passage to India, with the sinister Marabar Caves at its centre. In novels like these, the places have a definite shaping influence on the characters’ emotions, motives and actions.

One book I read recently, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, had the same lingering effect on my mind, but this time it was not because of the physical setting. The story takes place mainly in the Salinas Valley of California, but there’s a sense in which it could be anywhere, because this is a story of the psychological places – the interior landscapes – where any of us could find ourselves.

East of Eden is based consciously on the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. These two brothers, sons of Adam and Eve, both bring sacrifices to God. Abel’s is accepted by God but Cain’s is inexplicably rejected. God warns Cain to combat the jealous rage that threatens to overwhelm him, but Cain is unable or unwilling to do so and murders his brother. He’s then exiled to ‘the land of Nod, east of [the garden of] Eden’ – in other words, even further from paradise than his parents have wandered.

Like many of the ancient origin stories in Genesis, this one is short, mysterious and rather unsatisfying to those of us who are used to the extended narrative arc of the Western novel. But Steinbeck fleshes out the common human emotions at its heart and creates from it the kind of narrative that we are familiar with. Few authors draw a clearer picture of the internal struggle between good and evil impulses at the core of a person’s identity.

The homage to Cain and Abel could be seen as a bit clumsy, a bit contrived: all the major characters who show Cain’s murderous instincts – Charles, Cathy, Caleb – have names beginning with ‘C’, while their more passive victims have names with the initial ‘A’. (There is a twist in this pattern, though, as one ‘C’ is given hope of being led out of his destructive path by the strong love of another ‘A’.)

But the characters representing the extremes of evil and goodness, and the individual whose mind is the most compelling battlefield between the two sides, do make a vivid impression. There’s the horrific Cathy, possibly the most evil fictional creation this side of Lord Voldemort; Caleb, who, of all the players in the story, fights the hardest against his shadow side; and Lee, the Chinese servant who, like God, urges Cal  to overcome his jealous rage and grief. Lee knows and understands far more about everyone else’s motives than he ever tells or explains, because he listens closely, not just to the words spoken but to the spirit behind the words.

So in this novel, the physical location is of secondary importance. There’s no need for a great river, prison walls, grassy hills, caves or heathland to create a lingering atmosphere. ‘East of Eden’ is the metaphorical but very real place where we all live and make our moral choices every day.