For some reason Watership Down gets played at Easter. Nothing to do with the Christian or Pagan celebration. Just because it has rabbits in. Which is fine by me because that film is one of my all time favourites.
What I wanted to say here was that today, having seen the film was on television and getting into the last third of it, as I always do, I felt compelled to grab the book and read a bit. I was looking for something, I can’t quite remember what. I think Bigwig taking a swing at Campion just because Woundwort wondered if he could take him. Such a typical Bigwig moment.
Anyway, I sent the afternoon skim reading the last part of the book.
If you’re a fan of the film and not read the book, I highly recommend you do. It is well written, not hard to read or follow at all and gives a lot more insight into the characters. Especially the Efrafans.
The book helps us get to know various members of the so-called bad guys. We find some are vicious, like Vervain, and others are only following orders, like Groundsel and Ragwort. Then we have Campion, a loyal captain and yet also someone the good guys respect, because he’s always ready to throw himself into the mud and dark along with his patrol. Campion seems a noble and brave rabbit, whose loyalty to Woundwort keeps him from questioning him.
Woundwort himself is much more than a 2D villain. Even the film gives some glimmers of this. But not much. In the book, we understand Woundwort. Losing his family while young, witnessing his mother be killed, he became ferocious. He went looking for fights. They say, later on in the story, that they think he was unlike any other rabbit. Their natural instinct was to run and hide. He wanted to fight. He wanted to make rabbits safe by making them strong and fearsome. He did this by personally leading and inspiring them. Hell, even Bigwig, for as much as he loathes the regime under the General, admires him for his ability to command. Woundwort leads where others fear to go, and so becomes an admirable but brutal adversary.
The other thing to mention is that the book explores the life in Efrafa much deeper than the film can. That does manage to tell us that their society is breaking down, but in the book we see it for all it is – the good and the bad. Woundwort took over the warren, then moulded it into his image. They feared him, yet many under him respected him and some even admired him. He made them feel strong. Gave them hope.
His society is one of strength and stealth. Rules are ruthlessly enforced. Rabbits can’t even shit where they want, for fear of leaving signs of where they live. Woundwort honed his warren to be one where everything is for the good of the community. Everyone has their place, has their role. You do your job, don’t cause a fuss, and things will go well. In fact, this harsh life has helped them flourish, to the point where Efrafa is overcrowded.
That’s what is so interesting about this society. It is one where the individual wants and wishes are overridden, and it works, but many feel miserable and resentful. Woundwort keeps it together, but you can already see the cracks. It is a facist/communist society. There is a secret police of sorts, led by the reviled Vervain. No one can leave. Order must be maintained. Promotion is highly sought after for the prestige and the rewards. But also many do believe in their way of life and want to do well for their people.
I loved this mention I came across today. After Bigwig helps some escape to Watership Down, there is an incident between him and Blackavar, who he helped escape. Blackavar warns him of something going wrong and Bigwig doesn’t listen, so after it has, he lets Blackavar know he should have listened to him. Blackavar says he has no idea what he is talking about. Turns out, in Efrafa, lessers are so deeply taught to follow their betters, that if a subordinate gives advice that isn’t heeded, he or she will forget about it. Basically, Blackavar genuinely has put that out of his mind, because he can’t show up his better. To him, Bigwig was never wrong, never ignored his warning. Efrafa breeds strong rabbits who are ranging wide across the land, but there is a weakness in their heads and hearts.
As I said, it is a fascinating depiction. A society that flourishes because of its own brutal and regimented nature, and yet is suffering for it too. Woundwort led them to greatness, but then kept them in his grasp. He wanted to stay in charge at any cost. He didn’t believe anyone else could do what he had. Maybe he was right.
Anyway, I love the film, with its melodic score at times and intense drumbeat at others, and the comedy and gore, yet the book is a must read. Woundwort and his followers are more colourful and more intriguing. I feel the story benefits as the world is shown to us via more than one group of characters. Differing views, challenging philosophies, conflicting personalities = more fascinating and engaging story.
I know they’re just rabbits, yet Woundwort and Bigwig remain two of my favourite characters and are a big influence on my writing. Their bloody showdown – depicted with more tactical thought and personal fear in the book – was everything those two promised us. I can only hope to deliver the same one day.