Until about a year ago, I had some misconceptions about Richard Adams’s novel Watership Down. At first, knowing nothing about its plot, I assumed that it must be about a naval battle. Later, when I learned that it was in fact about rabbits, I thought that it must be a children’s book. I was very wrong on both counts (although I do think it is sometimes labeled a children’s book, despite its mature themes).
Watership Down is a story of a group of rabbits who escape the violent destruction of their warren by a group of humans. It stars Fiver, the clairvoyant, undersized fellow whose prophecy prompts the escape, his brother Hazel, the leader of the group of escapees, and Bigwig, a tough, brave rabbit who had been an officer in their old warren.
The rabbits, a group of fewer than a dozen, make their way across the countryside in search of a safe place to dig new burrows. Along the way, they run into various dangers: a warren of rabbits who live a comfortable life with plenty of human-provided food, but are nonetheless resigned to their eventual death at the hands of said human; an authoritarian warren called Efrafa, which is ruled by a cruel and unnatural rabbit named Woundwort; dogs; hombil (foxes), cats, humans, hrududil (cars), and other elil (enemies). They establish a new home on Watership Down, and immediately set out to find some does (for they are all bucks, and how are they to reproduce?). This brings them into the dangerous territory of Efrafa, and all they have to depend on are their wits, trickery, and their new gull friend Kehaar for survival when things turn ugly.
At times I felt positively creeped out while reading Watership Down. I’m not normally one to feel frightened when reading—I read It and The Exorcist without any problem—but there were parts of this novel that were quite disturbing. The authoritarian nature of Efrafan society, for instance, and the sad group of rabbits who knew they would eventually be caught in snares gave me the shivers. And the Black Rabbit was no warm, fuzzy guy—when he calls your name, you must follow, knowing you are no longer for this life.
There was blood, violence and abuse of power—and on the other hand, friendship, loyalty and camaraderie. There were rabbit myths and legends, stories of triumph and trickery, leaders and gods. (Rabbits worship the sun, whom they call Frith; and El-ahrairah, their rabbit lord). In many ways, rabbit society in Watership Down is not much different than human society.
I expected this to be a slow read, but I really flew through it. It was exciting and suspenseful, and I grew to root for Hazel-rah and his group of rabbits. The book was an in-depth exploration not only of Hazel’s warren, but of rabbit society in general. I saw at once a demonstration of human destruction and imperialism over the animal world, and humanity’s flaws reflected in the dystopian rabbit warrens. I think Watership Down is definitely worth a read.
I also watched the movie (made in 1978), and it was a dated but good adaptation—quite violent and bloody. Definitely worth a watch, if you enjoy the book.