I have a lot of friends who adore Richard Adams’ Watership Down. This is a book for adults about a bunch of cute little bunny rabbits. Naturally, I was a bit puzzled, but also intrigued. I finally decided to try it when the Mythgard Academy podcast selected it as the next offering in its free podcast series. I came away impressed with the book, but not for the reasons I’d expected.
Watership Down is a story about a group of rabbits trying to reach the safety of a hill called Watership Down. Once they establish their new home, they must fight off the Efrafan rabbits and find more female rabbits to ensure the future of the warren. Richard Adams does an amazing job bringing this admittedly odd concept to life. For the most part, the rabbits do feel and act like real rabbits. The story is told from a lapine narrative frame, so Adams presents the world from their point of view and their sense of morality. Watership Down works as an epic adventure story because it is an epic adventure for the rabbits.
The characterizations in the book are all excellent. The characters exhibit deep and complex emotions, yet emotions that seem appropriate for real animals. Adams manages to give each rabbit unique personality traits without breaking the illusion that they are rabbits. Some rabbits are bigger or smarter than others, yet none are pigeonholed as “the big one” or “the smart one.” Adams recognizes that, in a world filled with predators and other threats, insecurity is key to understanding the rabbit mindset. This theme is played out in the rabbit religion, which promises that although rabbits are weak they will have a fair shot at survival. Readers learn to fear simple things like cars and badgers and even the starry night sky.
Adams’ use of parallel plot threads is the best I’ve seen since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Adams creates several rabbit societies and establishes clear points of comparison. Each clan has developed unique responses to the problem of insecurity. The Watership Down warren cultivates individualism and encourages each individual rabbit to contribute his or her own skills to the greater good. The Efrafans, the primary antagonists, create a highly regimented society so its soldiers can fight off predators. Adams doesn’t simply present rabbit warrens as “good” or “evil,” but rather shows how leaders in each society made rational choices under different life circumstances. Both Hazel and General Woundwort, the leaders of the respective warrens, are fascinating case studies in political leadership.
At times, the rabbits do seem a bit too intelligent. For example, if rabbits are familiar with the concept of machines and tool use, why do they never try to build their own? Lacking opposable thumbs doesn’t seem sufficient as an explanation. It’s a small critique, but it occasionally broke the otherwise excellent illusion that these are real and realistic rabbits.
Although Adams hasn’t persuaded me to adopt a pet rabbit, I definitely encourage anybody who appreciates good literature to try Watership Down. If you have read Watership Down and are interested in diving deeper into the story, I recommend the Mythgard Academy’s free podcast course about the book, which is being offered live until January 14, 2015.