General notions are generally wrong
(Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, letter to her husband)
Watership Down is such a famous book that more or less everyone has a vague idea of its subject matter - even if only "oh yes, that rabbit story". But as with many great works, a startlingly large number of people have got into their head fixed ideas about the book that simply don't match up with the reality, or at least with my reality, which is of course the right reality. Let's have a look at some of them.
Kehaar is the only comic relief
This is one of the most common misconceptions about WD - I once laboured under it myself - but any reasonably thorough reading of the book will tell you that it is, to be blunt, a load of utter hogwash. My favourite example is in ch. 20 ("A Honeycomb and a Mouse"), in which Bigwig starts getting ideas about standing up to elil. After the fury of the kestrel attack, Silver makes this dry rejoinder: "like to try standing up to that one? Let me know when. I'll come and watch". Actually, the scenes involving mice are fun throughout, and the occasion when one warns Hazel of the imminent Efrafan attack (ch. 42, "News at Sunset") provides me with one of my favourite quotes - after a load of gibberish from the mouse, "Hazel considered this lot briefly, but it beat him". If slapstick silliness is more to your liking, then Rowsby Woof (ch. 41, "The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog") has it covered! The London Evening Standard had it right in its review: "... very funny, exciting, often moving ..." Make no mistake, there's a lot to laugh at in this book.
RM Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit was Mr Adams' inspiration for Watership Down
Not true. In fact, the story was already pretty well formed by the time Mr Adams discovered Lockley's slim volume. Where the book was valuable was in WD's revision - and anyone who reads the chapter of Lockley's work entitled "The Rabbit Wild and Free" will find a great deal that is familiar. Incidentally, Lockley's book is well worth a read if you can find it - it's currently out of print, but is generally fairly easy to find on eBay and the like.
Watership Down is an allegory of world governmental systems
Aha! The "dreaded a-word", as I call it, shows its ugly face. Mr Adams himself says that the novel is intended simply as a good, exciting adventure story about rabbits that grew out of tales told to his children, and certainly it works well on that level. Of course, just because an author doesn't see an underlying meaning doesn't mean it isn't there, as Isaac Asimov was once told when he queried a professor's interpretation of his science fiction. And there is such a lot to get our teeth into in WD that we can easily find all sorts of things in there. (Why do you think this site exists, eh?) But I sometimes wonder whether people are going just a little bit too far when they announce portentously, as does one review I found on the net, that "one warren even has 'comrades'". After all, the word is used far more widely in Britain than it is in the United States, and is by no means only used by communists. The one concession I would make to this argument is that Efrafa could be considered a fascist regime - but, as Nicholas Lezard has said (in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition), it's in no way a foreign one; perhaps it's an example of what British fascism would be like.
The book is the same the world over
All you hardcore fans will know this one already, but never mind. It's certainly true that WD is unmistakably British, and thankfully no attempt was made to rewrite it for the US market - those who appreciate good literature can certainly cope with such things, and those who don't wont be reading the novel anyway. For example, I don't imagine there are too many people intelligent enough to enjoy WD who don't realise that a "corn field" is not full of maize! (As an aside, maize is quite a popular crop in Britain nowadays, but it's never called "corn".) However, there is a small but significant difference between the most popular British (Penguin/Puffin) and US (Avon) paperback editions, which arises because they are based on different British hardback editions.
The Penguin/Puffin editions of WD are based on the first Rex Collings edition: the Avon book on the second. This is important, because the end of ch. 11 ("Hard Going") is much condensed in the second edition, removing two quite significant happenings: the first addressing of Hazel as "Hazel-rah" and "Chief Rabbit"; and the foreshadowing of Bigwig's final stand against Woundwort. In most American readers' minds, therefore, Hazel does not become "rah" until well into part two, when Strawberry uses the honorific suffix (to Holly's surprise). There's more about this here. (Incidentally, this means that the first of Hazel's rabbits to be called "rah" is actually Fiver, in ch. 18!)
Those with the edited edition, though, do have compensation: several chapters have two chapter epigraphs, whereas the Penguin (etc) editions only have the one. I don't know exactly which chapters are affected, but I'll try to find out eventually. (I have now acquired the Book Club Associates edition, one of the few British editions based on the second Rex Collings edition, so with a bit of luck will be able to do this before too long, having promised it for nearly two years!)
The father of Clover's first litter is Speedwell
I think this misconception comes from Speedwell's "excited, triumphant look" when he comes up to announce the kittens' birth (ch. 42, "News at Sunset"). But a careful reading of the text will shoot it down in flames. For one thing, we're told as early as ch. 28 ("At the Foot of the Hill") that "Holly had taken to Clover", and they silflay together, which is a fairly hefty clue. In any case, at the start of ch. 42 we're told that Speedwell is engaged in digging a hole with Boxwood, the farm buck, rather than attending to Clover. Also, the chances of Speedwell winning a mating fight with Holly, even with the latter's injuries, seem rather remote. On top of all this, at the time when the kittens were conceived Speedwell would have been away with the Efrafan raid's support party.
In the film, Woundwort calls Bigwig "you traitoress"
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. And no. This misconception seems to have originated at the IMDB Quotes Page for Watership Down. This has now been corrected, but for quite a while "traitoress" was up there. I reckon it came from an American unused to British accents, as to me there is no way whatever that Harry Andrews (Woundwort) said "traitoress". Far more likely in my opinion is that the word is "traitorous", or conceivably even "treacherous", and that the sentence is left unfinished, thus: "Bigwig! You traitorous...".
Copyright © David "Loganberry" Buttery 2002-4. Updated 27/10/04.