[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Pennington studies the critical reception of Watership Down and the novel's attempts to fashion a mythological bridge between the reader and the natural world.]
Richard Adams' Watership Down is a "hesitant" classic of fantasy literature. Readers love the book (it has sold in the millions and continues to sell well), and though critics recognize the primal aspects of the work, many seem reluctant to take it too seriously or fault it for its obvious conservative proselytizing that upholds traditional middle-class values. David Pringle, in Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels (1988), a popular survey of the "best" in modern fantasy literature, includes Watership Down in his list, but he feels the need to apologize for it: "It is easy to mock Watership Down for being an over-inflated children's novel. ... Nevertheless it is a novel which has pleased millions of readers, and it is not difficult to see why. It is a very accomplished quest narrative (and war story), combined with a moving tract on behalf of nature conservation" (147). Watership Down seems reduced to a simple, didactic narrative.
More rigorous critics echo Pringle's assessment. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981) relegates Adams "to that realm of fantasy which is more properly defined as faery, or romance literature" (9) and places him in such company as Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, Walter de la Mare, and J. R. R. Tolkien for their "tradition of liberal humanism [which] spreads outwards, covering with its moral, social, and linguistic orthodoxies a world of bears, foxes, wolves, rabbits, ducks, hens, and hobbits" (155). Though Jackson does not directly state that these writers and their brand of fantasy are "inferior," she implies as much. In Fantasy and Mimesis (1984) Kathryn Hume categorizes Watership Down as an unsuccessful "character-based fantasy" which
starts with an attempt to enter rabbits' minds, but quickly lets the lapine vocabulary--owsla, silflay, hraka--substitute for real strangeness, while the plot degenerates into the adventures of animals with human brains. ... The novelty and strangeness which entering a rabbit's mind should entail quickly disappears. The fantasy of this adventure is literally only skin deep; the minds and characters of these furry humans are but little touched by newness or originality.(161-2)
Christopher Pawling, in the most sophisticated study of Watership Down to date, analyzes the novel from a Marxist perspective, finding it a "vein of nostalgia for 'traditional' patterns of life which has played an important part in the constitution of English culture over the last decade, and which shows no signs of disappearing in the near future" (233). Pawling contends that Watership Down reworks the traditions of pastoral war narrative and archetypal quest narrative to become "more than just a reworking of timeless myth"; it is, in fact, a novel that is "addressing a specific cultural milieu at a specific moment in time" (230). Thus, Pawling, influenced by the theories of Lucien Goldmann, Pierre Macherey, and Frederic Jameson, finds Watership Down a perplexing work that balances...