Book Review: Watership Down

Fiver and Hazel are brother rabbits. Fiver is not a seer or prophet per se, but he has vague feelings of impending doom when something bad is about to happen, and he’s feeling strongly that some danger is about to come to the warren. Hazel takes him to the chief rabbit, but the chief rabbit doesn’t take him seriously and only goes into a long explanation about how hard it would be to evacuate a warren, especially the does and kittens.

One of the chief rabbit’s guards does take the warning seriously, however, and comes to find Hazel later. They agree to spread the word as much as they can that danger is coming and they are leaving the warren.

So a small group of rabbits sets out. Of course they face many dangers, the first of which is that the chief rabbit sends out guards after them to arrest them once he finds out they have left. So the first order of business is to get away as fast as possible. They face obstacles like rivers, enemies like cats and large birds and foxes, hardships like injuries, fatigue, and hunger. Once they find a place, they realize they have no does with them, so they have to decide what to do about that problem. And ultimately they have to defend their new home.

WatershipRichard Adams wrote Watership Down as a result of stories he used to make up to tell his daughters while they were in the car. His children urged him to write the stories down, but he resisted at first. But one night, after throwing the children’s book he was reading across the room in disgust, he decided to take a stab at writing. As he wrote sections, he would read those pages to his daughters and take their feedback. The book was published in the UK but didn’t really take off in sales until it was published in the USA.

Adams took care to have the rabbits act as rabbits, except for their being able to think and talk. There are no rabbits wearing clothing, sipping tea by the fireplace, or driving cars in this book. But endowing them with human-like thought and speech led to a rabbit mythology and history and human characteristics.

Adams insists that there is no symbolism or deeper meaning in Watership Down: it’s just an adventure story about rabbits. But there are still several things that can be gleaned from the story.

One is group dynamics. Hazel is not leading a coup or establishing himself as a new leader, but since he’s the one suggesting they leave, the others look to him to lead. He wisely does not assert anything like authority until the others show signs that they see him that way. He also is not a dictator (like another rabbit they meet along the way) or a micromanager. He knows how to rely on other rabbits’ strengths, like Blackberry’s ability to figure things out and Dandelion’s storytelling ability. Even the smallest rabbit, Pipkin, contributes to the group in ways. Bigwig, the chief rabbit’s guard initially, was the largest rabbit and their chief means of defense in a fight. Once he knows what to do and is assured a plan is a good one, he implements it with everything he has, but he isn’t afraid to question or oppose something he doesn’t think would work. Adams says in his introduction that some of the rabbits are based on people he knew and a couple on mythological figures.

The group also learns that, to grow and survive, they have to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones. Usually does dig burrows, but as they have none, it’s either dig or stay out in the unsafe open. They also learn that making friends with other creatures they would normally avoid can sometimes benefit them.

At some times humans are portrayed as the embodiment of everything evil, and I objected to that at first, until I realized that, from a rabbit’s point of view, humans are a chief danger. But even a human does the rabbits a good turn near the end.

One section that particularly touched me was in one of their stories about El-ahrairah, kind of a folk hero of rabbit lore. Many of the tales about him are funny, celebrating his wit and cunning. In this particular tale, he has fought a long and harrowing battle, suffering great loss. As he comes back to the warren, weary and depleted, he sees a group of younger rabbits he does not know. He asks them to find one of the captains, but they’ve never heard of him. Then the young rabbits start making fun of the “white-whiskered old bunch” and criticizing them for “wicked” fighting – fighting that had kept these young rabbits safe. “If nobody fought in wars, there wouldn’t be any, would there? But you can’t get old rabbits to see that.” As El-ahrairah steps aside by himself, Lord Frith (the “god” of their legends) comes to him and asks if he is angry. He replies,

No, my lord, I am not angry. But I have learned that with creatures one loves, suffering is not the only thing for which one may pity them. A rabbit who does not know when a gift has made him safe is poorer than a slug, even though he may think otherwise himself.

I’ve heard of this book for years and wondered about it. Somehow I picked up that it was about rabbits, and they were on a journey, and I thought from the title that a boat or journey over water was involved (and though they do have to get over water a couple of times, the name comes from a real place in England called Watership Down). It seemed strange that a book about rabbits would be so popular, but since it was so well-loved, I wanted to read it some time. December turned out to be a nice month for it, as it didn’t fit into any of m reading challenges (it’s not quite old enough for the Back to the Classics Challenge, though many would consider it a classic). I like to read (or listen to audiobooks) just for enjoyment in December and not have to race to finish any challenges then, so this book fit the bill. There was one place it dragged just a little, and I wondered if almost 16 hours of the audiobook was going to get boring. But just then the group ran into another warren which seemed a relief at first: this warren wasn’t going to fight them, seemed to welcome them, but something about them seemed a bit off. I got caught up in that mystery, and thankfully figured it out before the rabbits did, and by then I was invested and eager to follow them on the rest of their journey.

To come to the end of a time of anxiety and fear! To feel the cloud that hung over us lift and disperse—the cloud that dulled the heart and made happiness no more than a memory! This at least is one joy that must have been known by almost every living creature.

It’s hard to say what age this book is for. It had trouble gaining a publisher at first because they thought only young children would like a book about bunnies, but it was a bit intense, even violent in places for young children. I think it has found a wide audience among all ages, and I am glad be familiar with the story and characters. I listened to the audiobook very nicely read by Ralph Cosham.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Watership Down

  1. I love the quote about coming to the end of a time of anxiety and fear — I can relate! This sounds good. I, too, have heard about it for years but never read it. Since our family loves and has rabbits, that’s an additional plus. Thanks for a helpful review. I will add this to my to-read list.

  2. Thank you for your review, Barbara. I have not heard of this book, but you make it sound like one that I would enjoy. Thanks so much!

  3. How interesting! My only knowledge of Wateship Down was an animated film I watched when I was young. It had some of the scariest scenes in it (for a children’s movie), and awful blood-and-guts fighting. I’ve steered away from the story ever since.

    After reading your review though… I just wonder… if maybe I could step away from my aversion long enough to try and read (or listen) to the real story. I’m open to changing my opinion on the story (not that film though). Thank you for giving me something to think about!

    Tarissa
    http://inthebookcase.blogspot.com

    • When I asked my oldest son if he had read this, he said no, but he had heard it was quiet violent. I was surprised. There is a big battle scene near the end as the rabbits are defending their home, but beyond that, there’s an encounter with a cat and a fox, and one rabbit gets caught in a trap. None of it is told in a excessive way to emphasize the blood and guts aspect. Probably the worst scene is when a group of men is trying to poison a rabbit warren and shooting any rabbits who escape (in order to build a building on the property), but even that is not told in a gruesome way. It’s awful because of what’s happening, but it doesn’t go into gory details. It sounds like the video played up that aspect. I would say the fighting is no worse than the Narnia series.

    • I had never heard of this series, but I looked it up, and it looks very interesting! But I don’t know if there would be any similarities beyond both being about animals.

  4. Barbara, I’m glad you enjoyed this book. I tried to read it years ago and it didn’t grab me, but the audio version I found last year was terrific. I would say it’s more gritty than the Redwall series, which tends to have lots of delicious meals in between scuffles with the enemy. (There’s even a Redwall cookbook!)

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