I originally read Watership Down as a teen. It was Christmas, and I unwrapped a gift from my grandmother: a worn, yellowed paperback with a picture of a rabbit on the cover. My grandmother’s name was written on the inside, and it was the same copy that she had read to my mother and aunts when they were children. I dove into it immediately, ignoring all the other festivities of Christmas. I couldn’t put it down.
Now, about 17 years later, I just experienced it again when I made my kids listen to the audiobook with me. Having a degree in literature has ruined many of my childhood favorites on the reread, but this book withstood that test. Richard Adams’ writing style is that of a great story teller, and the pacing is perfect throughout. It once again swept me off to another world.
How would I describe this book? In a word: Epic. Not “epic” like “awesome sauce” or “amazeballs”. No, this book was EPIC like a book-length poem that a talented storyteller should recite by firelight, regaling listeners with the tales of mighty heroes and dreadful villains performing great deeds and facing down death with a courage we all wish we had.
These characters must be great people to elicit such a response, right? Well, they were great, alright, but they weren’t people; the characters were anthropomorphic rabbits. And no, this is not children’s literature. These rabbits did all of the things that normal rabbits do including running, digging, pooping, and making rabbit babies. They had no special powers (unless you count Fiver’s prophetic visions), and their exploits were believable, yet awe-inspiring. I couldn’t help but invest in them emotionally because they were very real.
The story begins when Fiver foresees the doom of his entire warren of rabbits. He convinces his brother Hazel to leave the warren. Most of the rabbits refuse to leave, and only a few set out with Hazel and Fiver. On their journey they bravely face one danger after another, and at moments I wanted to stand up and cheer for them.
The truly inspiring thing about these characters is that, although the story is about rabbits, I found myself taking life lessons from it. For example, Hazel was a perfect model of leadership, with his humble, duty-bound authority. He always took extra care to never leave anyone behind, no matter the danger of waiting or going back for them. He would never ask any of his rabbits to take a risk that he wouldn’t take himself.
Another interesting addition to Adams’ book are the rabbit folktales about the mythical rabbit hero El-ahrairah, who is a kind of trickster demigod to the rabbits. The rabbit Dandelion is a gifted storyteller who entertains the others between obstacles by telling El-ahrairah’s tales. These framework stories punctuate the action of the book nicely and work wonders for maintaining the suspense. Each tale meshes well with the action and gives insight into bunny culture. (Did I just say bunny culture? Yes, it’s that real!)
My only complaint about the story is that there were no strong female characters. Clover, a domesticated doe that Hazel rescues from a hutch, shows strength by managing to breed a litter of rabbit kittens. I’m sure if there had been kitchens in their burrows, her pie-making skills would have been unmatched. Another doe, Hyzenthlay, shows her courage by risking her life to organize an exodus of other female rabbits from a tyrannical warren, but she only does so with the help of Bigwig, a brawny warrior, and in the end, the credit goes to him. Of course, despite this flaw, this book kept me on the edge of my seat.
Watership Down remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. When I say it ruins other books for me, I mean it. I haven’t been exposed to many stories that I enjoyed more, and I have seldom loved characters as much. Have you read it? Leave me a comment!