A single, powerful leap

Here's our last reading activity. We're going to end the way we started this whole series, with a snippet from Watership Down.

Spoiler alert: This is the end of the book. But hopefully it will make you want to read the rest (or watch one of the adaptations).

Language alert: Richard Adams invented a rabbit language for this book and this passage includes a couple of lapine terms:

  • Owsla: a squad.
  • Silflay: outdoor grazing.

Read this snippet carefully and notice how it affects you.

Hazel raised his head and said, "Do you want to talk to me?"

"Yes, that's what I've come for," replied the other. "You know me, don't you?"

"Yes, of course," said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger's ears were shining with a faint silver light. "Yes, my lord," he said. "Yes, I know you."

"You've been feeling tired," said the stranger, "but I can do something about that. I've come to ask whether you'd care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you'll enjoy it. If you're ready, we might go along now."

They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body anymore, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.

"You needn't worry about them," said his companion. "They'll be all right—and thousands like them. If you'll come along, I'll show you what I mean."

He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.

How do you feel when you read this snippet? What makes you feel the way you do?

This is the ending of a long story, and without knowing the rest of the story the impact of the end may be limited (these rabbits have been through A LOT).

But hopefully this snippet retains some of its power even out of context.

  • Characters: Hazel and the stranger.
  • Conflict: The stranger wants Hazel to join his owsla, but it would mean Hazel leaving his rabbits (and life) behind.
  • Context: Rabbit warren, meadows, death.

Another bittersweet one! But this one is particularly lyrical:

  • Upbeat words: silver, shining, glad, ready, shining, spring, shoots, extraordinary, strength, speed, flowing, inexhaustibly, sleek, young, healthy, powerful, leap, easily, bloom
  • Downbeat words: darkness, stranger, faint, tired, might, lying, worry, slipped, away
  • Note that all these words are gentle; even the most upbeat of the upbeat words are soft and gentle.
  • There are also lots of soft nature words: burrow, ditch, cold, wind, spring, grass, woods, primroses.
  • The lyrical feeling comes from the combination of all these soft words and the gentle rhythm of the text: the way the dialogue and action flow smoothly and gently away.

This is a really interesting snippet because Hazel's feelings are somewhat hidden from us.

  • The narrator tells us Hazel feels strength and speed flowing out of him and into the bodies of the younger rabbits.
  • And the unnamed visitor tells us Hazel has been feeling tired and might be worried about the thought of leaving the younger rabbits.
  • But that's all, which is very strange because we as readers tend to feel much more than that.

This snippet starts in the middle of one loop and then concludes with another.

First loop

  • Trigger: Not shown in this snippet, but Hazel is woken by an unnamed visitor.
  • Feelings (in visitor's dialogue): Tired.
  • Thoughts: Hopes he'll remember the visitor's name, sees his ears shine with a faint silver light.
  • Emotions (in visitor's dialogue): Gladness, enjoyment.
  • Behaviour: Leave the burrow and go past the sentry.

Second loop

  • Trigger: Going outside in the cold and seeing the young rabbits at silflay.
  • Feelings: Strength and speed flowing from his body to the younger rabbits.
  • Thoughts: Won't need his body anymore.
  • Emotions (in visitor's dialogue): Needn't worry.
  • Behaviour: Leaves body, stops to watch his rabbits, follows the unnamed rabbit away.

So what's going on?

We saved this snippet for last because it's a great example of writing that can make us feel contradictory emotions: joy and sadness.

For many readers (or viewers of the adaptations) this is a moment of heartbreak, of crying while reading or watching—even though neither of the characters in the scene are sad!

Why does this scene have this effect on people?

For starters, it has so much contrast:

  • Life vs death
  • Earthy dark vs silvery light
  • Forgetting vs remembering
  • Leaving vs joining
  • Age vs youth
  • Tiredness vs strength
  • Body vs spirit
  • Worry vs joy
  • Ending vs beginning

This is a death scene treated lyrically: that contrast is the source of its power.

But rather than make a big deal out of it, Adams only hints at what's happening: 

  • Hazel is dying. This is a big moment in any story!
  • And he's being visited by some kind of Rabbit-God. Also a big moment!
  • But what we get is, "How about you come on down the road with me? These guys will be fine."

And look at how much space in this snippet is devoted to Hazel's triggers and behaviour, and how little is devoted to his feelings, thoughts, and emotions.

So we are barely told anything about Hazel's feelings, but that's the point: we know he's calm and happy, and that's what makes us so sad.

Hazel doesn't weep because he is dying; we do.

Not every moment can or should be like this.

This scene is powerful because we already have strong feelings, fears, and hopes about death.

Not every piece of writing can or should affect us in this way, but this snippet is a great example of how when you are dealing with a big moment, there is power in using contrast and restraint, and creating space for the reader to feel fully, and to feel their own emotions beyond those of the characters.