As a child I loved talking-animal books, a genre which seems to have gone thoroughly out of fashion (for anyone older than picture book age, at least). It was inevitable that I would read Watership Down. My first attempt was when I was seven or eight and I didn't get very far. I found the style a bit heavy and the action a little too frightening, and abandoned it. When I picked it up again I think I was ten or eleven, and I was hopelessly lost in the best possible way. I followed Hazel, Fiver and their friends out of the Sandleford warren and never looked back.
Many books have moved me, but I think there are only a few (another important one being The Lord of the Rings) which on repeated readings have proved so emotionally overwhelming that they leave me physically drained. I read and re-read Watership Down with cold shivers, with the complete disappearance of the world around me, in tears. Again and again I seemed to find myself physically in the midst of scenes – 'racing through the ochre light' of a thunderstorm ahead of a murderous gang of thugs, trying to save my friend from the deadly snare, staring awestruck at the enormous, silent movement of clouds over the downs. I have finished it and started it again immediately. I have read it several times in a year, although not for quite a few years, I admit. Despite that, its words and images are always within me. My visualisations of the book play through my head sometimes, or I hear the words, or read them behind my eyes.
Watership Down can be read as a really great adventure story blending the fantasy of anthropomorphic animals and their society with accurate details about the natural life of the rabbits and the English countryside they move through. It also has elements of allegory, particularly about the dangers of totalitarian rule. I have, however, read many beautifully written adventure stories, or allegories about fascism (I was even younger when I read Orwell's Animal Farm). What makes Watership Down unique is the way it subtly draws the reader into a literary world. It contains so many literary references that reading it is a remarkable education.
The book is famous for its epigraphs at the start of each chapter, which range from Xenophon to the Bible to Joseph Campbell to Jane Austen to Dostoevsky to WH Auden– and many others. In subsequent years, every time I have come across one of these quotations within the work of literature it was taken from, I feel a kind of time-shock and I am in Watership Down again. I discovered the World War II poet Sidney Keyes through one of these epigraphs, and he has become one of my favourites. Robinson Jeffers' poem 'Hurt Hawks' also came to me in this way. But the epigraphs are far from being the only references. Within the text itself, Richard Adams compares the adventures of the rabbits to those of Odysseus. The poem recited by Silverweed, the eerie rabbit-poet who appears in one of the book's most sinister passages, contains the phrase 'the heart of light, the silence', which is a quotation from TS Eliot's The Waste Land. (The blunt Bigwig refers to Silverweed as 'that lop-eared nitwit of a poet'.) There are glancing references to Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, to 'Everyone Sang' by Siegfried Sassoon, to the Psalms, and more.
Watership Down has thus been a kind of slow-release of literature into my bloodstream throughout my life. I have finally realised that this, more than anything else, has made it so important to me. It has created echoes everywhere and has accustomed me to walking through a world where I see and hear literature in everything. It seems that this is how Richard Adams saw the world, or at least how he wanted his readers to see it. I am used to carrying quotations and stories and references and poems with me wherever I go, seeing and hearing them everywhere. And because of this book, I know that it's ok to do so. Some of us see the world in this way, and it enriches us. It makes life a little easier and a little more beautiful. It helps us to understand the interconnectedness of things, to see cause and effect, and to act with compassion and understanding. It shows me that understanding my connections to literature is a way of understanding connections to the world around me.
Clarissa Aykroyd is a poet. Her work has appeared in many international publications, journals and anthologies, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A version of this article first appeared on her website, The Stone and the Star. You can also find her on Twitter @stoneandthestar