Watership Down is rightly regarded as a classic. Richard Adams wisely resisted the temptation to write a traditional sequel. However, he did attempt to satisfy readers’ demands with Tales from Watership Down, a set of tales told in the aftermath of the warren’s’ victory over Efrafa. The first set of tales provides more background on the rabbit legend El-ahrairah. The second set reveals what happened to El-ahrairah after he left the Black Rabbit of Inlé’s lair. The final set continues the adventures of the Watership Down rabbits.I thought the first few stories undermined the narrative frame Adams so carefully constructed in Watership Down. In the original novel, Adams presented the story from the perspective of rabbits and treated the world as rabbits would. However, in several of El-ahrairah’s adventures, rabbits – and other animals – suddenly become obsessed with humanity. Whereas in Watership Down humans were simply an odd form of predator, in Tales the animals blame humans for mass extinctions. Moreover, some of the animal species go by the names humans gave them, such as “Oregon Bison” (I doubt a real bison would know about U.S. geography).
In the better stories, El-ahrairah encounters a seemingly impossible puzzle or a moral quandary. In my favorite story, El-ahrairah briefly joins a warren of rabbits after saving them from a plague of rats. However, the rabbits begin to encroach upon a human farm. How far should El-ahrairah go in trying to convince them to tread carefully? The tale is especially memorable because Adams manages to make the rabbits both sympathetic and unnatural at the same time.
For the most part, I didn’t think the stories about the Watership Down rabbits actually add much to their character development, mostly because Adams did such an outstanding job in the original novel. Some of the later tales even bordered on undermining the development of key characters from the original novel. Bigwig in particular comes across as whiny or even sexist as he berates a female chief rabbit, whereas I’d always gotten the impression that he was a chivalrous rabbit.
There’s one exceptionally memorable story about the original Watership Down rabbits. Speedwell was a forgettable character in Watership Down. I honestly can’t recall a single thing he did in the original novel. In Tales from Watership Down, Speedwell gets a chance to tell his story from his “unique” perspective. I won’t spoil the twist, but I think it’s a good example of how shorter stories can breathe new life into characters by exploring approaches that might not fit in a novel. Let’s just say I’ll never forget about Speedwell again.
As is often the case with collected volumes of short stories, the tales vary in quality. Tales from Watership Down has a few stories that recapture the spirit of Watership Down, but I’d hesitate to recommend it to diehard fans of the original. It’ll inevitably be disappointing, even though taken on their own most of the stories fare quite well. I’d recommend skipping the first section entirely and focusing on El-ahrairah’s journey back from the Black Rabbit of Inlé.