Peter's Reviews > Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams
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Feb 28, 09

Read in February, 2009

Richard Adams is surely versed in country things.

Watership Down is the story of an unlikely group of young rabbits that break away from their warren and head out in search of a new home. They venture across the English countryside, through copses and combes, across rivers, and in and out of back yards, and their encounters on the way test their strength, cleverness, and resolve. It’s The Lord of the Rings meets Animal Farm, but without the deliberate political allegory.

What makes it work is Adams’ rich portrayal of country life and living, both for people and for animals. He offers up scenes of cunicular eating schedules, daily rituals, mating habits, life cycles, socialization, and more. We witness natural tragedies and miracles, small and large, and we see them through eyes inches off the ground. He guides us through seasonal evolutions in plant life and patterns of sunlight, and the pervading instinct of the novel is the continuation of life.

He draws a vivid cast of rabbits to populate his story. They are distinct in their personalities, and once we acclimate to their vocabulary we begin to see some very human emotional, psychological, and political conflicts play out.

Adams introduction to this edition, however, raises some interesting questions about what we’re meant to take away from the book. He writes that he intended for Watership Down to be no more than a transcription and expansion of the stories that he often told his children. He had no particular intention to compare the political leadership of the Honeycomb and Efrafra, or to compare the psychologies of Hazel’s band and Cowslip’s warren. He had no special environmental protection mission.

Nonetheless, the text can sustain these interpretations. So what of the cry of the student: “But the author didn’t mean it that way! It’s just a story!”?

In my mind, I think what matters here is that at their hearts, stories (short and long) are explorations into how people (or animals that act like people) would behave in various situations. Through these stories, we understand how we might engage similar situations.

In this case, whether or not Adams had in mind to set up a contest between democratic and fascist powers doesn’t matter so much if he has in fact set up a contest between Efrafra, which is more than vaguely fascist in structure, and the Honeycomb, which is more than vaguely democratic. How the two warrens interact can be read as large-scale political allegory because Adams has written a political allegory—even if he did not have “fascism” and “democracy” in mind.

This holds true with character analysis as well. A story may well be just a story, but if the characters are rich and full of complexity—just as people are—then they are lodes for us to mine to learn more about ourselves.

First and foremost, of course, it can’t be forgotten that we read because stories are captivating. They give us pleasure. And first and foremost, Watership Down does just that.

Do I recommend it? Yes. It’s an absorbing tale.
Would I teach it? No. There’s plenty of “what” to talk about, but not enough “how.”
Lasting impressions: The story is wonderfully told, richly detailed, and full of imagination and information—and the last 100 pages make you want to stay up until 2:30am to finish them.
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