Watership Down by Richard Adams was published in 1972. It began as a story he made up to entertain his daughters on long car journeys. When he finished the story his daughters told him that it was too good and needed to be written down. Which, thankfully for us, he did.
Watership Down is a tale of a group of wild rabbits. Young Fiver is a very special rabbit and can feel things before they can happen. When Fiver becomes very scared that his warren at Sandleford was in extreme and imminent danger he tells his brother Hazel. Together with Hazel, Fiver sees the chief rabbit and explains his feelings, however, the chief rabbit is unimpressed and ignores the pair. Hazel, though, has learned to trust Fiver hand his feelings and entices a small band of rabbits to leave the Sandleford warren to find new and safe grounds.
The small band escapes the warren with a little force and makes their way from Sandleford to a new spot at Watership Down. Along the way, the band faces difficulties and dangers, but with perseverance and some luck, they make it more or less intact. Reaching Watership Down is only a small part of the story though. There are many more hardships to endure and adventures to be had before the story of Watership Down is complete.
I first read Watership Down when I was nine at around the time the animated film came out. I decided to revisit Watership Down again prior to the release of the BBC1/Netfilx adaptation due to be released this Christmas. I enjoyed Watership Down when I was nine, but I absolutely loved it this time round.
While Watership Down was initially an entertainment for children, it is far more than just a children’s story. The life of these rabbits is filled with happiness, sadness, danger, dread, strife, and success. You could look at Watership Down as a pure adventure story. Taken in its base element it’s a story of children (young rabbits) leaving home to make their way to adulthood. However, there are elements of the fantastic about it as well. With Fiver’s special gift of foresight and the vaguely The One Thousand and One Nights inspired stories of the magical and mythical rabbit El-ahrairah, Rabscuttle, and Prince Rainbow, Adams manages to skillfully weld the mundane lives of rabbits and his created myth for them into a masterpiece of storytelling.
Adams went further still to create a language for the rabbits, called Lapine, with words like silflay (to go above ground and graze), elil (any enemy of rabbits like a fox, weasel, or stoat), hrududu (any motor vehicle), and many others. The Lapine language, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s language of the elves, Sindarin, adds a depth to the entire mythos of rabbit-kind. Plus Adams doesn’t treat readers like children. He defined the words once and then used them as naturally as you would any other word in the English language making the language immersive and culturally relevant to the rabbits.
While Watership Down is a fine story of adventure, it is also a work of great literary value. Adams use of epigraphs foreshadows what is to happen in each chapter. Some of these quotes are wonderfully erudite and one or two had me looking up the reference; something I didn’t do at nine. Adams use of words both common and uncommon lends itself in engaging readers of all levels as well. It can be read by children and adults, each group gaining new understanding.
Adams also gives his rabbit characters unique and interesting stories. Each one has a story all their own, both in their past and in their quest to make Watership Down a viable home. The rabbits have clearly identifiable human traits and desires, yet they also have distinctly rabbit ones as well. Adams anthropomorphism of the rabbits is not so heavy-handed as to have them dress in clothing as Beatrix Potter did in The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) or drive motor vehicles as in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908). Instead, he chose to have readers step into the lives of the rabbits he had seen in and around Berkshire, making them nearly as magical as any elf, dwarf, or hobbit.
But why should you read Watership Down? Well beyond the simple fact that Watership Down is an excellent story for anyone, it is also a very compelling and visceral one. It works on your imagination on a very deep and subtle level, drawing out feelings of true empathy for the characters. When any of the rabbits were in danger I found myself holding my breath at the outcome. On any of their harrowing adventures, there are times I felt myself urging the characters onward out of harm’s way.
Adams also had the gift of economic writing. He painted such a wonderful world with a minimum of use of language, using precisely the correct number of words to express himself. In these days where books are sold by the kilogram, Watership Down, while fairly lengthy, never feels like Adams is writing just to pad things out. Every sentence is there for a reason and to remove one of them could topple the entire work.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that Watership Down is a real place in Hampshire. It’s always kind of thrilling to be able to wander around the places characters from books you love have lived. Just ask fans of James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloomsday, or Charles Dicken’s London, or Sherlock Holmes London, or… well, you get the idea. Using a place as barren and seemingly mundane as Watership Down, Adams elevated it to the stature of any place as mythical devised by C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, or Homer.
I firmly believe that Watership Down is one of those books everyone should read, not because of what the story says, but what it does to the reader. It can affect you very deeply without you knowing it or even understanding it at first. But in the quiet places and times, in places of stark beauty and distance, you might find yourself reflecting on the plight of rabbits and how, with determination, you can overcome many obstacles you didn’t think possible.
Watership Down has affected me in much this way and I don’t think I’ll ever look at a rabbit on a far slope without thinking what dangers it’s faced or will face before Frith takes him. Watership Down is not just a story about rabbits, but of life and what we can make of it if we’re only brave enough to try.
UPDATE: 4 December 2018
The first trailer for the BBC One/Netflix adaptation has been released.