Richard Adams: Watership Down (review)

9780141382227So I have a history with this novel. I read it years ago in a Danish translation and I liked it but didn’t love it – mostly because of the myths which I found a bit boring. Then back in 2008 I was in London with my boyfriend. In the meantime I had owned – and loved – four house rabbits. So when I spotted the 35th Anniversary edition of Watership Down, I had to have it. And then 5 more years passed by before I again became the owner of bunnies – this time three beautiful bunnies together with my daughters – and it just felt like the right time to reread this book.
And guess what – it so was. I loved it! I’ve added it to my favorite shelf and I really just want to establish a routine where I reread it every year or so.
But what is so special about a book about bunnies, you might ask. Everything, I’m tempted to answer. But I know that’s not enough of an answer so I’ll try to elaborate.
On the surface, this is the story of a small group of bunnies. Hazel, his brother Fiver who is something of a psychic, Bigwig, Dandelion and a few others. Because of a premonition, Fiver convinces Hazel that they have to leave their warren and they persuade a few other bunnies to come along – and fight their way away from the warren.
What follows now is a description of their journey towards finding a proper place to establish a new warren, the hardships they meet on their way as well as the realization that a proper warren needs does as well, not only bucks.
This is the essence of the story. But the book is so much more. First and foremost, it’s a must for any rabbit lover because it’s evident that Richard Adams has spent time researching rabbits’ mannerism, ways of interacting, movements and more so he just nails the ways rabbits are in his descriptions. But even if you don’t think rabbits are one of the most amazing animals like I do, this is still a wonderful book. Because it’s so much more than a bunny book.
In a lot of places, if not all, it’s a political analogy. This is a book showing what dictatorships and powerful leaders mean to the souls living in their shadow. It’s a book about friendship and the sharing of common dreams and the ability to see that life can be different. The plants are new, the smells are new. We’re going to need some new ideas ourselves.’ (p. 129) It’s about gender roles and how they doesn’t necessarily make sense and have to be questioned. It’s about forming friendship with the other even when he doesn’t look anything like you. And it’s a book about group dynamics and to use each individual’s competences and strengths in the best possible way so you get the greatest results.
It’s also a book about myths and legends and what story telling means to a community and how it can be a way of coming together and learning. And well-known life lessons told in a refreshing new way – like you shouldn’t worry about problems before they arises: ‘You are trying to eat grass that isn’t there. Why don’t you give it a chance to grow?‘ (p. 339)
But of course, mostly it’s a book about Hazel and his friends. The small Fiver who is overlooked by most but is hugely important to the ones who know him and realizes the power of his gift. The big and powerful and unimaginative Bigwig who is so hugely important to the rest of the group. Blackberry the clever one. Dandelion, Silver, Holly, Clover … And of course Hazel, the leader of them all.
Richard Adams manages to create unforgettable characters with this group of bunnies. He also creates a world that seems consistent with it’s inhabitants. Humans play only a very little role – this is the story of wild animals and they have special words for the things from the human world, they are forced to interact with, like cars and roads. They also have words for specific rabbit activities like going above ground to eat, silflay. And he doesn’t make them so intelligent and clever that it becomes unrealistic. When they are escaping from danger and a couple of them are hurt and tired, one of the bunnies realize that the injured bunnies can be put on top of a board and pushed across a river by a strong bunny but most of the other bunnies are incapable of understanding this. And one of the injured bunnies don’t even realize that he was rescued by this – he simply doesn’t understand it. And this means that the world of Watership Down is realistic and believable but also that it at the same time is well-known and a bit strange because it is viewed from the point of view of these bunnies. And that is definitely one of the novel’s strengths and charms.
It’s simply a wonderful and very special novel which I absolutely loved reading and completely adored and I’m a bit annoyed with myself for not rereading it sooner because it’s just such a charming book with so much depth.
‘Rabbits (say Mr Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuititive feeling that Life is Now.’ (p. 159)

  • Title: Watership Down
  • Author: Richard Adams
  • Publisher: Puffin Books
  • Year: 2007 (original 1972)
  • Pages: 475 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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