Author: Richard Adams
Reviewed Format: Trade paperback
Release Date: November 1, 2005
Hazel lives with his smaller brother, Fiver, in the Sandleford Warren with lots of other bucks and does organized around the Chief Rabbit and his Owsla (a group of guard rabbits). Fiver’s a bit of a prophetic and has odd, sometimes unintelligible visions. One such vision is of a terrible danger coming to the warren and in his fear and conviction convinces Hazel the Chief Rabbit must be notified. In order for the warren to be safe, an evacuation order must be made. Unfortunately, neither Hazel nor Fiver is believed. However, hope is not lost: one by one rabbits start to appear in support of Fiver and are willing to follow the two in their journey to escape the unknown danger and start their own warren. Along the way they run into rivers, foxes, gulls, mice, cats, a dog, traps, unknown devices made by man, and strange new rabbits.
When I tried explaining what this book was about to my brother, it came out something like this, “It’s about a bunch of bunnies and they’re trying to find a spot to make a good warren and then they realize, ‘hey, we need some does’ so they try and find some does and then there’s these other vengeful bunnies with lots of extra girl rabbits but they don’t want anyone taking them and then…”
That’s not too coherent, but in a nutshell Watership Down can be broken into a few parts: fleeing the warren, settling into Watership Down, needing does to fill the Honeycomb, and the journey that takes them to hell and back just to get some, as Kehaar would put it “mudders.” It can’t just be about that though (well, it can be, but it isn’t), and so the adventures of Fiver and Hazel are enormous and test the very strengths and weaknesses of lapine endurance, friendship, and ingenuity. Initially, the group sets out with 10 additional rabbits (even the Chief Rabbit’s nephew comes along) and grows, by the end of the book, to 32, plus kittens (baby rabbits). I thought keeping track of twelve rabbits with distinct personalities and dialogue was hard to do. Richard Adams kept throwing more into the mix! To make it even better (or worse, but really he’s adorable), there’s also Kehaar, a gull with an Austrian accent Hazel and Fiver’s warren befriends, and an unnamed mouse companion.
The large cast of characters aside, Hazel and Fiver have a lot to contend with themselves as they cross the wide unknown, but they have a few advantages on their side: bravery and open mindedness. Those are, I think, two of the most powerful ideas behind Watership Down. As the group first sets out, they encounter their first obstacle: a small river. There’s a lot of confusion, wariness, and a bit of despair as the rabbits feel the limitations of their own traditional methods of travel. Everyone is tired and afraid; no one wants to cross, even though they can swim perfectly well; no one wants to leave little Pipkin and Fiver--the youngest and most exhausted of the bunch--behind. With a little bit of ingenuity and some convincing, they fashion a raft out of a piece of driftwood and float the pair across. I make it sound more simple than it actually was (in one sense, it’s quite simple). That’s the beauty of Richard Adams’ writing: he turns a small river crossing into a test of skill and intelligence, the first challenge that forces the rabbits to act in very un-rabbit-like ways to save themselves. They confront their sense of propriety and overcome expectations in this, only the first obstacle to reach Watership Down.
Hazel and Fiver’s group are pioneers and radical in their ideas and methods (does aren’t the only rabbits that can dig out a warren). They go against tradition but never once compromise their integrity or resort to fighting when talking will do just as well, if not better. Everyone is kind and patient, but most of all: welcoming.
I really adored the spirit of each rabbit--Adams writes from the intimate knowledge that inordinate amounts of research and devotion brings and uses terminology and descriptions that are innately natural to lapine movement. He not only convinces us their gestures are those of rabbits, but that from the very depths of their being they are calling forth some collective rabbitness that turns out to be the very core of sentient creatures everywhere. With beautiful passages such at this:
“When several creatures--men or animals--have worked together to overcome something offering resistance and have at last succeeded, there follows often a pause--as though they felt the propriety of paying respect to the adversary who has put up so good a fight.”
p. 215 Watership Down, Scribner Trade edition
Adams invites a contemplation that goes beyond rabbits pulling down a hutch door. Their efforts are appreciated long after we stop to consider the absurdity that Adam has imbued with such gravity. The actions of rabbits are on a rabbit-scale; Blackberry and Bigwig (my favorite, aside from Kehaar) have tackled a new, strong adversary and won. In thinking of their feat we must consider a time when we, too, have felt the pause of success Adams refers to. As the moment comes to us, finally we understand and so believe in their courage. As the door falls, we may see a little rabbit in ourselves--that part of us that, like those of the Honeycomb, is all “warm hearts and brave spirits” (p. 279).
If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Watership Down.
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