- Troy, Carthage, and Watership Down
When maps appear in children's books, they are usually of mythical or invented places. Think of the imaginary map that was the genesis of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, or that of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, a loving depiction of a whole continent made to order for a hobbit quest. There are also many books like John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which creates a strongly realized allegorical place without an actual map. Richard Adams's Watership Down is unusual in that it is a fantasy that contains a map of a real geographical place, the approximately five-by-ten miles in Hampshire that contain the action. In fact, in the first edition, Adams "insisted on a color map. . . a proper ordinance survey map."1 The setting of Watership Down combines the actual and the allegorical in a manner reminiscent of the classical epics.
Although Adams claims he is not comfortable with the notion that Watership Down is "an allegory of the human condition,"2 the quotations that, to cite Aidan Chambers, sprout "like thorny, protective hedges at the beginning of every chapter,"3 clearly indicate the analogies that can be drawn between rabbit and human behavior. Adams himself has discussed Pilgrim's Progress as an influence.4 It is also easy to see that his book shares with both Stevenson's and Tolkien's a spirit of adventure and quest. But Adams takes an area not much larger than the usual island of pirate adventure and converts it into a whole continent, simply by defining it in terms of rabbit perspective.
Unlike Treasure Island or Middle Earth or the Slough of Despond or the Delectable Mountains, Watership Down is indeed an actual hill (as real as the Seven Hills of Rome) in southern England in Hampshire. Furthermore, Overton and nearby Basingstoke were slated as development areas by the National Planning Council; beyond the accuracy of simple geography, the action that begins the book, the encroaching bulldozer, has a socio-economic basis in reality, just as human epics are founded on historical events. Besides his stated wish "to pay tribute to the beauty of this part of the English countryside,"5 why would Adams wish to be so extremely meticulous in his detailing of down, heath and copse if not, perhaps, to impart an epic flavor to his saga?
Although there seem to be no direct references to it, and few references to other epics, the epic poem to which Watership Down bears the most resemblance is Virgil's Aeneid. There is not any chapter by book analogy between the two works, but the doomed Sandleford Warren, for instance, can be considered a lapine Troy. There are several parallels between the destruction of that ancient city and the destruction of the warren. For one thing, we have in Fiver, the small mystical rabbit, a kind of Cassandra. His warning that the signboard announcing a housing development presages disaster is accurate, but generally unheeded. Another parallel is in the tone of lamentation. The first the rabbits learn of the warren's demolition is Captain Holly's voice crying, "Zorn! Zorn!. . . All dead! O zorn!"6 And Holly later warns that the tale "will strike frost into the heart of every rabbit that hears it." (p. 133) Compare this with Aeneas's trying to tell of the sack of Troy and beginning, "Who may unfold in speech that night's horror and death-agony, or measure its woes in weeping?"7 Later, he says, "But the inner house is stirred with shrieks and misery and confusion, and the court
echoes deep with women's wailing. . . . Affrighted mothers stray about the vast house." (p. 35) In describing the gassing of the rabbit burrows, the escaped rabbit Bluebell, says, in similar fashion, in similar fashion,
"I heard the commotion beginning before I smelled the stuff myself. The does seemed to get it first and some of them began trying to get out. But the ones who had litters wouldn't leave the kittens and they were attacking any rabbit who came near them. . . There were coming the most terrible sounds...