I haven’t been able to quite find out why this book makes on to banned or challenged lists from time to time, but I have an idea.
I first read it when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. After finding it on my parents’ bookshelves, I read the cover off within a year. My mother gave up and let me keep it. For years, I read it at least once a year, sometimes twice. I still have that edition.(It's the one with this post)
Yet, after that first reading until I was a senior in high school, there was always a chapter I skipped.
If you don’t know, Watership Down is a two part hero quest story where the heroes are rabbits. The first part is about finding a site for a new home, the second part is about finding does. In the second part, as one rabbit is about to play at double edition, he asks that the rabbit storyteller, Dandelion, tell a story about El-ahrairah (the rabbit’s trickster hero/first rabbit) and the Black Rabbit of Death.
The story scared the shit out of me for years. I skipped this chapter. The first time I read it, I needed the night light – something I had never needed before.
It wasn’t so much death that frightened me. After all, most children are frightened of death at some point in their childhood, but if that was the sole case, then I wouldn’t have been constantly re-reading the Godfather (or Godmother) Death folktales that I enjoyed so much. It was the bargain.
El-ahrairah’s rabbits are dealing because of a plague, so he goes to Death to bargain for their lives. Death and El-ahrairah play rabbit poker, and each time El-ahrairah loses. When he loses, he loses a body part – his ears, his tail. These parts are replaced with vegetables. It sounds silly here typing it, but it always struck me as cruel. Death was playing with him to teach him a lesson. The death god-parent in the folktales was harsh, but just. Not here. That’s what terrified me when I was younger. Death seemed so unfair and so needless cruel. As adult, you know death is that, but to see it expressed in such a way in a novel was terrifying to me when I was a child – though I don’t think I could have articulated it.
While I can remember my fear of this chapter, I can also remember my joy, my utter sense of being transported when reading the rest of the book. And it’s telling that my reaction to that one chapter didn’t stop me from re-reading the book. I just skipped that chapter (an act of self-censorship that everyone has the right to perform). I read that chapter now when I re-read the book, have every sense I was a senior in high school.
So maybe that’s why Watership Down is banned and challenged. Or maybe it’s because of the idea of rabbits have their own term for god. I don’t know. I don’t care. All I know is that while one chapter of the book frightened me when I was a child, I loved the book anyway. If this book had been forbidden to me, I wouldn’t have been frightened, true. But I wouldn’t have discovered such powerful magic either.
And the magic is stronger than the fear. Always will be.