This is a story I know from childhood, from watching the film, and crying as Art Garfunkel sings. However, it is only now, in adult life that I have decided to read the book. Once again, it is because it was on the BBC’s Big Read list that I chose to read it now. Although the story follows the migration of a group of rabbits, it’s not as cutesy as I thought it would be. This is a book that would appeal equally to adults as well as children. Bizarrely I’ve heard two adults independently quote from it in the last week.*
Throughout the book we learn little bits of the rabbits’ language and their culture. We learn about their hierarchy (the owsla), their enemies (elil) their god (Frith) and ultimately, how their lives are fraught with danger. Yet even though I was reading about rabbits, they are so anthropomorphised that I found myself really rooting for them. The book is often seen as allegorical, with the rabbits’ struggles symbolising the fight between freedom and tyranny. Moreover, Adams takes influence from the epic tales of Homer and Virgil, introducing the rabbits’ greatest hero, El-ahrairah as an inspiration to them. We see how the rabbits struggle just to survive and how their quest is every bit as epic as any of El-ahrairah.
The story begins as Fiver, a young rabbit with a sixth sense (I know, but stay with me here!) foretells of the destruction of their warren. He manages to persuade his friends to leave their home and seek new territory and so begins their journey. Fiver’s sense of doom continues throughout the story and the reader is constantly aware of the danger around every corner until finally our bunch of rabbits are threatened with destruction by their own kind. Considering all the outside threats to their lives, you’d have thought the rabbits would stick together, but as we know, life isn’t like that. Now, some of you readers may think I’m hard-hearted when it comes to animals (see Pigeon English and Two Caravans) but it’s not true. I loved these rabbits and was on their side throughout. Perhaps this was because they are not entirely cute. They fight, behave stupidly or arrogantly sometimes, can be insensitive and judgemental. All the things that make them seem more realistic as characters.
Considering I loved the film as a child, it’s crazy that I have left it so long to read the book. However I’m glad I did as I had forgotten how it ended (slightly different from the film anyway) and I felt that I had a better understanding of the characters involved…I’m definitely softening!
*incidentally, one of the quotes I heard recently was from my brother, about to down a Jaegerbomb, using the war cry “Dogs aren’t dangerous!”
“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price?”
If you liked the anthropomorphising of animals you might like The Wind In The Willows