Dec 29, 2007

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Rabbits (says Mr Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which is it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now.
The story of Watership Down starts when, at a peaceful warren in Sandleford, a small rabbit named Fiver has a forewarning: he senses that something absolutely dreadful is about to happen to the warren, and that all must flee to save their lives. His brother Hazel knows that Fiver’s sixth sense is normally right (and, although they cannot read it, near the place where the rabbits stand there is a notice board saying that the land the warren is in will soon be used for construction, so Fiver is indeed right), so he takes him to see the Chief Rabbit, so that they may warn him. But, since they lack any sort of evidence, the Chief Rabbit does not believe Fiver. The little rabbit cannot shake his feeling off, though, so later that night, along with his brother and a group of other rabbits willing to follow them, they leave the warren.

What follows is almost 500 pages of adventures. The rabbits must travel a long way until they find a place to start a new warren, and they face many dangers during this journey. After the warren is settled, their adventures continue. They have conflicts with other warrens that lead what can only be described as fear-dominated and unnatural lives for rabbits, and, since there are only bucks in the group, they must find does willing to join them.

Watership Down is a story for children about a group of rabbits. It is, however, a story for children about a book of rabbits that quotes frequently from Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Yeats, Mallory, Robert Browning, William Blake and Thomas Hardy, among others. It is also as much a story about people as it is about rabbits.

Richard Adams did a lot of research on the habits of wild rabbits, and his characters are completely believable as wild animals. But books with animals as characters naturally tend to tell us as much about people as they do about animals, and this is no exception. This is a story about people's cruelty towards animals, and about humankind’s abuse of nature. It is also a story about society and fear, and the struggle for freedom, and the ways in which we lead our lives. And it's about loyalty and friendship, and courage and endurance and hope.

Richard Adams created a very rich and fascinating culture for these rabbits. They have a language of their own, Lapine, and several words of it are used in the story. They also have myths and folktales and they often tell each other throughout the novel – stories about El-ahrairab the trickster and his companion Rabscuttle, stories about the ominous Black Rabbit of InlĂ©. The way these tales are interwoven with the story, along with the rabbit’s culture, values and beliefs was extremely detailed and felt very real.

The book is beautifully written, and full of insightful comments that never, ever intrude on the story. A few examples:
Human beings say, ‘It never rains but it pours.’ This is not very apt, for it frequently does rain without pouring. The rabbit’s proverb is better expressed. They say, ‘One cloud feels lonely’: and indeed it is true that the appearance of a single cloud often means that the sky will soon be overcast.
Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it. For them there is no winter food problem. They have fires and warm clothes. The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security. For birds and animals, as for poor men, winter is another matter.
Watership Down is a perfect example of how children’s books can be as complex and relevant as books for adults. It’s a story full of meaning, and also a very gripping one. The book is rather long, but not for once did I lose interest in what was going on with this group of rabbits. I treasured each moment that I got to spend with this book, and once I turned its final pages I knew I would miss these unforgettable characters – Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Holly, Dandelion and others will always remain in my heart. Fortunately, I discovered that Richard Adams revisited them in a book called Tales From Watership Down. It is not a sequel to this novel, but a collection of short stories, some about these characters, some expanding on Lapine mythology and folklore. I really look forward to reading it.

Reviewed at:
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Words by Annie
B&B ex libris
Dog Ear Diary


  1. Now I want to put this one right on the top of the stack! It's coming up soon though, so I'll be patient. It's the last one I have left for the four-legged friends challenge. I've been wanting to read this book forever and it really sounds like a touching book. I love that he invented an entire culture for the rabbits with their own folklore and traditions. I can't wait to read it now!

  2. This book never really sounded good to me-I happen to be annoyed by rabbits, due to several college suitmates that had them and let them run around-but now I want to start reading it right away! Your reviews always do that. :)

  3. Oh, wow.

    I'd forgotten how good this book is. Thanks for the reminder. I've got to read it again. Soon.


  4. I read this as a kid after watching the film a bunch of times. They are both quite creepy and scary in places but I enjoyed both. If you haven't seen the animated film version of it I definitely recommend it.

  5. I read this EONS ago! but you bring back memories with your review! I'm glad you enjoyed it.. funny how we can get a mind-set and believe animals talk as we do.. good writers can do that!

  6. Chris: I'm glad to hear you'll be reading it soon too... it will be fun to discuss it! The Lapine culture he came up with was definitely one of my favourite aspects of the book.

    Eva: Liking rabbits is definitely not a requirement for enjoying this book. It's about so much more than just rabbits! Do give it a try when you have the chance :)

    CJ: This is definitely one I see myself revisiting in years to come.

    Rhinoa: I haven't seen the animated film, but a while ago HMV had it for only £5... I want to get it if I can still find it. And yeah, the story really has its dark moments - I can only imagine what reading it as a kid must have been like.

    Deslily: It definitely takes a talented writer to do that, and I think Richard Adams pulled it up perfectly.

  7. Annie totally adored this one as well. And on her recommendation I put it on my to-read list. But your review has me wanting to move it way up on that list! Thanks for yet another beautiful review!

  8. Debi: I hope you enjoy it! I think you will. It's such a wise book. Who could have known that a story about rabbits could have so much going on?

  9. I love this book! It's written so well. My review (back from when I first started blogging) is here


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