Hazel and Fiver are brothers – two young rabbits living in the Sandleford Warren in the English countryside. Still relatively low in the social hierarHazel and Fiver are brothers – two young rabbits living in the Sandleford Warren in the English countryside. Still relatively low in the social hierarchy, they are often bullied by bigger, stronger rabbits from the warren’s Owsla – the rabbit equivalent of military or police. One day, the brothers find a “man-thing” in the fields near their home – a notice board – and Fiver has a vision of impending danger and destruction. Hazel, not doubting his brother’s intuition for a second, takes initiative and makes plans to leave the warren – taking as many others as he can persuade to come along. Like Moses and Aaron, the rabbit brothers lead their rag-tag band of rabbits away from the only home they have ever known, through many perils and adventures, until at last they arrive at the high hilltop of Watership Down – where they must learn to build new lives and a new community of their own.
This classic tale of adventure is appealing because of its realism and tone. Even though I read this book as an adult, I felt the fascination of a child as I traveled through the English countryside alongside brave Hazel and his rabbit companions – memorable characters all. Interestingly, even though the rabbits are anthropomorphized, (Bigwig is a warrior, Dandelion is a storyteller, Fiver is a seer, etc.) the story is not fantasy. Everything about the tale – from the setting, to the conflicts, to the characters’ behavior – feels very true to nature. The tone is very frank, and the rabbits must face all aspects of life – both the good and the bad. While the rabbits do have their own creation myth and trickster-hero, El-ahrairah, the only morality they know is the ruthless and indifferent law of nature. But don’t despair – for the tale is not one of hopelessness; in the end we see, like the rabbits, that life is always as it must be – and just as it should be.
This book is a bit difficult to place in terms of genre, and as such, compares easily to a wide range of literature. It is a landscape novel – but not a fantasy. It is a socio-political commentary – but its characters aren’t people. Those who enjoyed J.R.R. Tolkien’s characterization of hobbits and their perseverance in a vast and dangerous world may also connect with the small rabbits who defy the odds and accomplish great things. In a completely different realm of literature, aficianados of Orwell’s Animal Farm may appreciate how Adams uses rabbit life as a means to subtly comment on human politics and society. And readers of myths and epics will not miss the comparisons between Watership Down and classic tales like The Odyssey, The Bible’s Exodus story, and even Aesop’s fables. In the end, I read this book as a pure “adventure” story – complete with an archetypal hero (or in this case, a group of heroes), a mission, and many obstacles to overcome.
Watership Down certainly is a classic – both for children and adults. I am surprised that I have never read it until now – but I am very glad that I did. It simultaneously tugged at my heartstrings and kept me on the edge of my seat. It is the familiar adventure story repackaged and told from a totally new perspective. With its picturesque setting, fascinating plot, and engaging characters, this novel is one that I won’t soon forget. ...more