© 1972 Richard Adams
A small community sits on the precipice of destruction, but the few who realize it are unable to fully warn their comrades. A small band leave everything they’ve ever known behind, to face the unknown perils of the wilderness on their own – their only resources, one another. Their goal: to find a new home. The gifts of each will be demanded in full before they have found safe harbor again, and while their potential enemies are numberless, not every friendly face along the way proves true – and their best allies come from an unexpected source. Oh, and did I mention they’re all rabbits?
Watership Down is a rabbit adventure story, but you know that already. That it involves rabbits is Watership’s most salient fact, a bit like Gone with the Wind being a romance or War and Peace being big. Although the subjects are animals, this is not a cutesey woodland adventure: the stakes are high, nothing less than survival, and the way forward is one obtained only through blood, work, and ingenuity. Adams finds a way to make his subjects relatable, with distinct personalities and a shared culture, without overly anthropomorphizing them; there are no bunnies wearing suits and smoking pipes here, no monastery in Mossflower where woodland creatures in monks’ tunics bake bread and run about with swords. (I love the Redwall series, but its premise is silly on the face of it.) The rabbits occupy the same world we live in; Watership Down is the name of a place in England, in fact, and the author includes a map to demonstrate how closely he hewed to reality in creating the rabbits’ journey.
Our main characters include young Hazel, who is beneath respectability in his warren despite his intelligence and bravery; his brother Fiver, a runt with an uncanny sensitivity to danger; Bigwig, a bruiser who was one of the few prominent males in the warren to take Hazel’s warning seriously; and more as the story progresses. Being rabbits, they are exposed to danger for most of the novel; there’s no shortage of predators – cats and foxes being the most dangerous foes, but human snares and guns also coming into play. More interestingly, though, the rabbits-on-a-journey encounter two other rabbit warrens, both of which pose unique dangers to the intrepid band.
Watership Down was unexpectedly compelling for me, in part because of Adams’ Tolkienesque use of a rabbit language and even rabbit mythology to give his characters and world a certain richness, even beyond the full descriptions of the England countryside; tales about a rabbit hero-progenitor appear throughout the novel, as Hazel and Blackberry and others try to entertain their fellows, or bolster their morale. This adds more depth and interest to a novel that would already be appealing given the premise of plucky, humble characters overcoming serious challenges through their wits and hard work. I’ll be interested to see how Tales from Watership Down further develops the setting and characters!