Book Review: Watership Down

Book Name: Watership Down
Author: Richard Adams
First Published: 1972
The Library Association’s Carnegie Medal 1972
The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize 1972

Author Richard Adams was born in Newbury, Berkshire. He attended Bradfield College during his early years and transferred to Worcester College in Oxford to specialize in Modern History. When World War II began, Adams enlisted in the British Army, serving until 1946. Upon his discharge, he returned to his ala mater to earn first a Bachelor of Arts and then a Masters in 1953.

He worked in the civil service as an assistant secretary for the department of agriculture and then moved to the department of the Environment. With the publication of his second book, Adams was able to shift into becoming a full-time author.

Watership Down started as a story that he told to his two young daughters, Juliet and Rosamund, when they were young. The family loved the rabbit stories and urged Adams to write it as a novel. It took him two years to write and was rejected thirteen times by publishers before it found a home. Watership Down went on to sell millions of copies and won the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for 1972. The book has gone on to sell over 50 million copies and has earned the author more income than all his other books put together.

Adams currently lives with his wife Elizabeth in Whitechurch, England a short distance from his birthplace.

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”
― Richard Adams, Watership Down

Watership Down begins with Fiver, a runt of a rabbit who has the talent of a seer, seeing a horrific vision of Sandleford Warren’s destruction. He convinces his elder brother Hazel that what he envisions will come to pass and that everyone needs to leave the warren before it is too late. Fiver is not believed by the leaders of the warren. Hazel and Fiver leave their home along with a small band of brother rabbits and head off into the unknown.

The group is invited into a new warren, but they soon realize that it is unsafe and that the warren simply wants them to increase their own numbers because a nearby human farmer kills off a number of them for food. Hazel leads his merry band of brothers away from the dangerous warren after Fiver rescues the rabbit Bigwig from a snare. Fiver sees a new home for them in his visions and Hazel is determined to lead his friends there.

Eventually, the small band of rabbits find a peaceful habitat to create a warren of their own. They call it Watership Down. At first, the rabbits are happy, but they realize that their entire group is composed of male bucks. Without female does to create kittens, the warren will die with them. Hazel enlists the help of a black-headed gull named Kehaar to locate other warrens where they might be able to convince does to join them.

Kehaar leads them to Efrafa Warren, which is overcrowded and has many extra does. Hazel sends a request to the leader of the warren to ask for does, but his messengers barely escape with their lives. Hazel learns that Efrafa Warren is a police state run by a rabbit named General Woundwort who refuses to allow anyone to leave the warren. Inside there is a doe named Hyzenthlay who would like to leave and has a small group of females that would come with her. Hazel and Bigwig devise a plan to rescue the females and soon all are ensconced at Watership Down.

Soon General Woundwort is on their heels and Watership Down comes under attack. Will Hazel and his intrepid rabbits protect their home and keep their new mates? You will have to read this classic tale to find the answer.

Watership_Down_coverI think that there are two types of people who read Watership Down. Those that see through the layers of the story and love it and those who don’t get it and wonder why anyone would like a book about talking rabbits. I first read this book in the 1980s and felt a strong connection to it. The book is one that I always think of when asked what books I favor reading. I did not understand why I felt this way at the time. I was young and not as critical about the books that I read then. I enjoyed the way the rabbits filled archetypal roles of ancient human societies: leader, seer, warrior, and villain and the sense of oral tradition with their stories about the rabbit hero El-ahrairah. Their needs are primal and to the point, find a home, select a mate, and have children. The over story is a simple one, of friendship, loyalty, and adventure, but by its simplicity, Watership Down is a bit deceiving.

The characters that Adams creates are animal-like, you never forget that Hazel, Bigwig, and the others are rabbits. They retain their animal characteristics throughout the story, yet their needs and desires are the same as humans and in reading about their adventures, we the reader glimpse more of our past societies. As you absorb the mythos of their tribal organization, you start to realize that here is a commentary on how humans once lived and associated. It strikes a deep chord and resonates with most ancient cultures.

I feel that this is a good book to read with your children or grandchildren. While there are a few scary parts here and there, it is a commentary on learning to embrace new ideas while retaining the wisdom of the past. Ideas that are worth passing on. For the kids it will likely be a tale of talking rabbits, but for the parent, you will see the story with fresh eyes and appreciation if you’ve read it before.  Find out which type you are when it comes to Watership Down. I suspect you will love the book.

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