The subtext and chiaroscuro shading in Watership Down by Richard Adams

Richard Adams writes the book for his young daughters without any particular allegorical ambitions. Though, even before starting the reading, the book quoted by complex and symbolic stories such as Donnie Darko by Richard Kelly and Lost by J. J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber make one expect something more complex. Then, when starting the reading, right after few pages the presence of deep scenarios gets real. In order to discover their traits one has to do nothing but entering the world of the rabbits.

The location is Watership Down, a hill in the north of Hampshire, in South England, as perceived by Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Blackberry, Silver and all the other rabbits that are the characters of the story; in order to describe each nuance of its geographical and cultural landscapes Adams invents even a fictional language which is spoken by the rabbits, namely the “Lapine”.

The time covers the period of an adventure: the search undertaken by the heroic group of rabbits for a better world and a new home as an imminent destruction is forcing them to leave the one they have.

The narrative structure interposes the liner tale of this research with the narration of the legendary adventures of El-ahrairah, the rabbits’ mythological hero; hence at a first level, it is this continuous interposition of allegorical tales, the rabbit blindly trusted, to give the story its narrative depth.

At a second level, analysing the plot structure, one sees it proceeding out of progressive destinations, recalling masterfully the idea of “monomyth” and “hero’s journey” presented by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a thousand faces. These ideas, taking good account of Jungian archetypes, state that the majority of myths and legends are based on the same fundamental structure: the hero’s journey. A path started by a human being to search for their essence, going through “the world of common day into a region of supernatural fabulous: forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”. The passage through dim lights allows a new reading of the daylight which may lead to more comprehensive understanding of the the inner self and the world.

We do not take moonlight for granted. It is like snow, or like the dew on a July morning. It does not reveal but changes what it covers. And its low intensity – so much lower than that of daylight – makes us conscious that it is something added to the down, to give it, for only a little time, a singular and marvellous quality that we should admire while we can, for soon it will be gone again.

Adam’s geniality and the narrative depth that makes this fantasy novel unique, lie in the combination of Campbell’s ideas with the image of the rabbit. The imaginary representation of rabbits, though pictured as humans, keeps its animal-like being and its symbolic significance. Its animal-like being makes the characters’ action more consistent to their thought giving the story mythological and moral traits. Its symbolic significance, as it has been evolving in modern perception, relates to the presence of an unexpected event that may lead to the comprehension of a different level of reality able to scatter ordinary perceptions and beliefs making the plot assume cathartic values. See, among others, the cases of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s adventures in wonderland or Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix.

These two aspects combined with Campbell’s hero’sjourney shower the story with contrasting stimuli that give to the bright Hampshire scenery some traits of a lunar landscape creating an ambivalent space where life may be rediscovered and accepted as it is in all its light and shade.