Ode to a Perfect First Chapter: Why the Opening of ‘Watership Down’ Is So Indelible

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Watership Down is likely the only children’s adventure novel that begins with a section from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Recalling Richard Adams’ Watership Down — which I, like many others, read obligatorily in middle school — it is not specific scenes of rabid rabbit-on-rabbit violence (there are many) of which I have a vivid sense memory (despite not, myself, having ever been a rabbit), but rather the deeply unsettling calm of the opening chapter.

It’s a terse piece of writing that vividly and masterfully sets up the rest of the novel — and in an interesting rabbit-shaped literary matriochka, it’s a few quotes from Agamemnon that sets up this chapter. Oddly, both the Cassandra myth as told by Aeschylus and this opening segment underscore Watership Down‘s potential as it could translate yet again to visual media like film or TV — which it’ll soon be doing, in a new adaptation with John Boyega, Ken Kingsley, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult for Netflix and BBC.

As Flavorwire’s Shane Barnes reported this morning, the producer of the upcoming CGI miniseries has alleged that his rendering of the story of a group of rabbits seeking a new home following a gory prophecy about their old home will not be as bloody as the well-received-by-critics, traumatically-received-by-children 1978 animated film. (Its graphic leporine barbarism has been neatly tidied into this super-cut, in case you’re interested.) This may be disappointing to some who see the book’s worth in its allegory-friendly story; though author Richard Adams has stated that he meant nothing more than to retell (in oddly gruesome fashion) adventure stories he’d woven for his daughters, it’s no challenge to take far more than that from the book. But while the violence may seem to legitimize it as something beyond a kids’ adventure about rabbits, this wholly suggestive opening shows how powerful authorial withholding can be in the book.

The first chapter is prefaced by this small text from Agamemnon:

Cassandra: The house reeks of death and is dripping blood. Chorus: How so? ‘Tis but the odor of the altar sacrifice. Cassandra: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.

From this snippet of Greek myth — taken from the moment the seer Cassandra, Agamemnon’s lover, foreshadows their own demise at the hand of Clytemenestra before entering the House of Atreus — Adams jumps into a description of a pastoral patch of English land, packed with rabbits. The popularity and ubiquity of Beatrix Potter’s work brings an automatic sense of cuteness and comfort to English rolling hills and their fictional anthropomorphic rabbits. Thus, Adams’ novel beginning with this ancient theatrical set of quotes about a cursed kingdom immediately encroaches on those pleasant affiliations. As though spilling over from Cassandra’s prophecy itself, the language with which Adams describes an otherwise pleasant scene is wrought with violent words commingling with selectively adorable British plant-life names: “A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half choked with kingcups, watercress and blue brooklime.” He describes “dandelions and cowslip” as they appear beneath a “red in the clouds” sunset. It’s like a horror novel written by Vashti Bunyan.

And then it turns out that beyond the infiltration of ancient Greek clairvoyant dread into the language describing the landscape, we have an actual Cassandra-as-bunny on our hands. Using the same method of heightening dread with adorability, Adams names this bushy tailed seer Fiver. As you may recall — as, again, it’s certainly the most pervasive memory I have from the novel — Fiver and his brother Hazel are out bunny-hopping in search of a cowslip. Is there anything more fucking adorable?

Well, yes, a lot of things are more adorable, because while they’re roaming, Fiver notes that there’s “something queer about the warren this evening” — and this funny sensation soon morphs into dread as they meander down toward and across the brook, over to a fence, where a sign has been posted. Suddenly, Fiver proclaims that he sees that the “field’s full of blood” — an image that only he sees, but whose gravity he insists on as he sits “trembling and crying among the nettles.”

The dramatic ironic cause of the vision (the rabbits don’t know it, because they are rabbits, and thus cannot read Human) is a sign that reads, as Adams reveals at the end of the chapter:

THIS IDEALLY SITUATED ESTATE, COMPRISING SIX ACRES OF EXCELLENT BUILDING LAND, IS TO BE DEVELOPED WITH HIGH CLASS MODERN RESIDENCES BY SUTCH AND MARTIN, LIMITED, OF NEWBURY, BERKS.

De Chirico’s ‘Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’

The opening of the book has become, for me, similarly imprinted as just as potent a premonitory vision of apocalypse as Giorgio De Chirico’s Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. Adams verbalizes an uncanny description of something being amiss among the banal that linguistically captures the innocuousness and languor of the dread depicted by a great deal of surrealist art. Fittingly, there’s been a good deal of Jungian analysis (obviously, a huge influence on surrealists’ foreboding dreamscapes) that’s been read into the book, which begins with this atmosphere of dreamlike suspension (before becoming more visceral and physically violent).

“The naive, even primitive, presentation of good and evil,” writes Joan Bridgeman in her essay, “The Significance of Myth in Watership Down,” “is skillfully contrasted with the Jungian concept of the unconscious, as the dark, buried life with which we live in harmony and the shadow forces of the soul which we must reconcile within ourselves.” Interestingly, collective unconscious is also — as Charles A. Meyer writes in “The Power of Myth and Rabbit Survival in Richard Adams’ ‘Watership Down‘” — “used by the rabbits as a survival strategy…Animal instinct and human myth both arise in the collective unconscious of the species. Hazel and company show us that, as real rabbits do, we can sometimes steer toward a safe haven by allowing the breath of our unconscious to touch us and then tacking as it directs.”

The Jungian notion of collective unconscious posits an inherent intersocietal connection through basic human motifs, and it’s the pack mentality of the rabbits, based on Fiver’s premonition, that ultimately enables their safety (again, they don’t know what the sign says — they’re going off a feeling). To that end, the book’s narrative about characters seeking safety amidst an anthropocenic threat — and then finding just as much adversity within the micro-societies they encounter — seems a rife bit of storytelling in the present day.

We see now how the Anthropocene is not only a threat to animal life, but ironically a dire threat to human life — and we see the world trying and stumbling to rally its various governments to come to an agreement on how to save the planet after the exceedingly slow heeding of warnings about global warming; suddenly, the planet’s future relies on the near-absurd notion of collectivizing its 7 billion+ population based on a common fear 0f a scientifically proven prophecy. Whether or not Jung’s now somewhat dated take on the human mind has total scientific bearing, tapping into some broader notion of a universalized survival instinct would probably do us good.

And so the 1972 novel’s opening chapter is not only startlingly effective in its dreamlike rendering of dread — it also, perhaps unintentionally, aims that dread towards a very real future, seeing a line of mythological and real-life prophecy perpetuated from Cassandra through the ages. What’s so cool about these opening pages is that within the bracket of a few thousand words, the author is able to render perfectly the transition of fear from the unconscious to the conscious in the reader. We do not know what’s so horrifying about what Fiver sees, and yet the adorable language and quaint languor set against the onset of visions of a blood-soaked field make for an indelible image — one I personally remember from reading 20 years ago. That abstract horror we feel throughout the beginning of the chapter becomes — with the bluntness of a sign haphazardly nailed to a fence — blatantly real for the reader at the chapter’s close. To make a story that questions how long it’ll take for the message on that sign to truly hit home on a collective level work, you don’t need gruesome violence. The seeming unanswerability of the question is already violently unsettling.