Richard Adams’s classic “children’s” tale Watership Down, published in 1972, is an absolute gem. I say “children’s” because while the plot might seem childish at first glance, as it does revolve around a group of rabbits, it is no Beatrix Potter – but don’t get me wrong, I do love me some Peter Rabbit. Watership Down is so much more than a novel for kids because it carries with it a lot of issues, including animal rights, human authority and the relationships between the natural world, men (I say men because that is how humans are referenced in the novel) and animals. Watership Down is easily, even though I only read it for the first time last year, in my top ten favourite books of all-time. This is because of many reasons. Too many to count probably, but I’ll give it a go.
1. RABBITS. Of course. If you don’t know this about me already, I LOVE rabbits. I’ve had an attachment to rabbits ever since I got my first pet rabbit when I was ten. Her name was Pearl and she was albino – or at least, that’s what she looked like. Pure white with red eyes. She was the best. She died of mitsamatosis under a year of owning her. I buried her myself. It was the saddest thing ever – except for another pet death involving my stupidity and my chick called Mango, but I won’t go into that. I’m getting off track here. So, as I love rabbits, it seems only natural that Watership Down and me = perfect match.
2. It’s an excellent adventure/quest/journey story. Sure, it bares significant similarities to many quest-type plots, in which the protagonist(s) are in search for The Promised Land, and also to traditional story lines of good vs evil, but to me it’s about as unique as any plot like that can get. I mean, RABBITS. Brave rabbits who risk everything to escape their warren under the instruction of Fiver’s premonitions. They face a number of different obstacles throughout their journey, from elil (any animal that sees them as prey – men, cat, dog, fox) to other rabbits marking their territories. But under these difficult circumstances and troubling times, the rabbits group together and become stronger than any of the other animals. It’s a fantastic story, it really is.
3. Richard Adams is a wonderful writer. He has a certain way with words that really puts the reader right there with the rabbits, whether they’re in the warren or running away from danger. Not just anybody could have pulled off writing a story about rabbits and make it work, and Adams really pulls it off. Watership Down began as bedtime stories to his children, but Adams wanted the novel to be more than a story about cute rabbits. So he went off to learn more about rabbits and their world. He found Ronald M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit, published in 1964, which I have also read. It’s a great non-fiction book and you can really see that a lot of rabbit behaviours Adams includes in the novel are not just made up. Of course, Adams has obviously added fictional aspects to the novel, such as the rabbit God Frith, the black rabbit of Inle, essentially their Grim Reaper, El-ahrairah, the Prince/hero of all rabbits, and of course the addition of rabbit language, something we, as humans, wouldn’t be able to understand even if it did exist. All of this is believable and helps to make Watership Down so good.
4. The characters are brilliant, the Sandleford Warren rabbits in particular. They are: Fiver, the seer; His brother and our protagonist Hazel, the loyal leader; Bigwig, the brave; Blackberry, the smartest of them all; Dandelion, the storyteller and the fastest; Silver, the strong, Pipkin, the timid, Holly, the honest, and Bluebell, the joker. Other great characters include Kehaar, a seagull who becomes their friend and helps them, and a number of bucks and does that join them along the way, including Strawberry, Blackavar, Clover, Hzenthlay and Vilthuril. And of course, we can’t forget to mention the villains of the story, Clowslip and, to a much larger extent, General Woundwort. Each of these characters serve a lot to the storyline, and not one of them is a weak character, or ill-used. They all share a part in the journey that takes them to Watership Down, Hampshire. Which looks like this:
These are only some of the reasons why Watership Down is a fantastic, wonderful book. I can’t say much else for fear of spoiling the story for you – case is I’ve probably given away too much that I shouldn’t, but no fear, there is plenty in this story that will surprise and entertain you. Plenty that will make you fall in love with Adams’s writing style and the characters he has created. I guarantee you will love this book if you give it a shot. The film version is also worth watching, and is certainly no children’s movie even if it is animation.
So there you have it. I hope I have, in some way, convinced you to take the plunge into Adams’ exciting world of rabbit adventure and wonder. I was not disappointed in any way while reading this novel for the first time, let alone the second time. It’s a novel that takes me to my happy place, and I hope it will be the same for you if you chose to read it.