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Watership Down and Leafensong

How One Inspired the Other

How Watership Down Inspired Leafensong

Just in time for Christmas, Netflix is delivering a great gift to all fantasy lovers (with a subscription): an animated series based on Richard Adams’ iconic novel, Watership Down. As one of the book’s biggest fans (it inspired my own fantasy series), I’m looking forward to revisiting the suspense and fascination I experienced when I first read the novel.

And when I read it again, and again. 

Here’s what I loved so much about the book and what inspired my own:

Rabbits Are Cute and Vicious

Well heck, for one thing, rabbits are cute and endearing. Their noses twitch and their eyes are large and beautiful. They are non-threatening and seem to ask for cuddling.

Okay, maybe that’s only for pet rabbits–if you’ve read the book or seen the animated version from the 70’s you might not want to hold one of those guys–but that’s also part of the intrigue. The juxtaposition of such a seemingly sweet creature against its necessarily self-protecting instincts. Like all animals, tame or not, they have a need to survive.

Which, incidentally makes for some good action.

In an article from 2016 (when the Netflix series was set to launch in 2017) a Slate Magazine article said this about the show…

“With any luck, it will steer viewers back to the novel, which has violence and haunting oddness in spades…Watership Down, which I would feel comfortable describing as one of the finest and most interesting books of the 20th century, is most accessible to older children and adults, despite having originated from gentle tales Adams told to his children on long car rides.”

Someone to Root For

Rabbits aren’t known to be especially smart. They run fast for sure, but if a rabbit is stupid it won’t survive for long in the wild. Too many coyotes, foxes, and stoats, even in town, would love to eat them. Some rabbits, like Hazel in Watership Down, are much smarter than others. Having the main figure be intelligent, courageous and morally upright was something I appreciated. I was on his side, so to speak, and it always helps to have a character to root for.

Like Humans, Animals are Unique

Our back yard has its share of rabbits, who can thankfully escape through the fence when our dogs are on the prowl. One day I was looking out the kitchen window and noticed a rabbit with three ears! Two sprouted from the same spot, one only slightly smaller than the other two. An anomaly for sure, but it’s a reminder that every rabbit, every animal, like every human, is unique. Both physically and, I believe, in personality. And there are those who have unusual characteristics that make them more interesting. (Read: weirdos are good.)

Watership Down is full of unique individuals as well–physically, mentally and emotionally. In this anthropomorphic tale, some rabbits are simple, others cunning, some are bullies, some are courageous. Like people. I could empathize with these animals, which is the whole point. 

Real Animals Have Real Problems

Richard Adams also kept it real. He displayed the rabbits’ concerns about not getting enough to eat, the dangers of predators eating them, of a vehicle driving on a road, and of a farmer’s attempts to get them out of his meadow. The characters weren’t simply cartoonish; they seemed real.

Personalities plus real-life dangers = me staying interested in a book about bunnies.

Communication is Key

Watership Down helped me realize that in real life rabbits, like other animals, must communicate more than we realize. We don’t speak rabbit-talk, don’t understand their subtle facial and body cues that probably say so much, just like they do for humans. We don’t know if rabbits share stories as much as they do in Watership Down. But I believe that rabbits–and all animals–communicate with each other far, far more than we understand.

Magic

But best of all, Richard Adams’ imagination made the rabbits more than realistic; some had extrasensory perception. The expectation that something extraordinary could happen   existed (and isn’t that what we all want out of a book?). Adams added magic, the key ingredient to any fantasy novel. And life, if you ask me.

I always hoped for a sequel written by Adams. Why he wasn’t interested I don’t know. I’ve read other books by him but Watership Down remains my favorite, not only of his work, but of all fantasy novels. It prompted my own musings about squirrels on my walks in the woods 35 years ago, which led to Leafensong: First Telling.

For now, I look forward to the Netflix series to give even more life to this classic story. We’ll see how they do. I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve watched it in full. 

And opened a few other presents.

Peace,
J.R.

To read about some extra-sensorial squirrels,
with unique personalities,
who face real-life dangers,
and must fight to survive,
and to learn how the whole forest is communicating right under their noses,
Click here. You’ll get the first two chapters free.

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