Everyone’s talking about whether the cartoon adaptation of Watership Down is a children’s movie, but I wanted to talk about the book for a bit. Because Richard Adams’s book is itself an adaptation, a closer adaptation of an older text than any other book I know, including Fifty Shades of Gray. Watership Down, in short, is a modern version of Virgil’s Aeneid.
A group of travelers leave a doomed city, as dictated by prophesy, led by a hero burdened by small and weak family members. They travel to an apparently pleasant place, which turns out to be exactly wrong for them, so amid tears they leave and continue to a new homeland, where they promise to flourish. Along the way they reference many ancient myths. And then a controversy over finding a wife leads to a series of epic battles our heroes must fight to earn the right to remain in their new home.
This is a summary of Watership Down, but it also matches the Aeneid, point for point. Is that apparently pleasant place Cowslip’s Warren or is it Carthage? Does Hazel or Aeneas lead them? Must they fight Turnus or Woundwart? These are the main distinctions between the two texts. Also, one has more rabbits.
(The raid on Efrafa is not only an excuse to start a war, as is the courtship of Lavinia in Virgil; it’s also clearly modeled after the Rape of the Sabine Women, which is not in the Aeneid, but as Watership Down (the place) is just Italy in this scheme, an incident like this from early Roman history is de facto related.)
Virgil famously patterned his epic on the Iliad and the Odyssey, flipping the structure so that in the Aeneid the wanderings come first, the battles second. Adams preserves Virgil’s structure, although he does keep one Homeric detail — Cowslip is closer to one of the Odyssey‘s lotus-eaters than to Dido.
I love Watership Down, and obviously a knowledge of the Aeneid, which I hadn’t read when I first encountered these rabbits, is scarcely necessary to understand or enjoy Adams’s book. But it’s always nice to see an ancient story put to good use, and to read an apparently simple children’s story with multiple layers of meaning. (I know! I know! Efrafa is also totalitarianism! There are multiple layers!)
(I’m embarrassed to admit I find the Aeneid boring, and Aeneas a whiny prat. Viva Hazel!)