Re-Discover the Rabbits of Watership Down

There are a few books that I’ll be reading to my kids from the first day they open their eyes. One is The Hobbit. Another is Wind in the Willows. But first among these books will be the modern fairy tale of Watership Down.

The book opens with two rabbits, Hazel and his younger brother Fiver, looking for a patch of clover outside of their warren. After being chased away from the good feeding grounds by the larger, older rabbits, the two wander near a field. There Fiver has a powerful premonition that the entire warren is going to be destroyed.

He convinces Hazel, the strong but sensitive leader-type, to help him convince their leader, known as the Chief Rabbit, that the warren must be abandoned. The chief, sensing no danger and not believing Fiver’s psychic drivel, dismisses the threats.

Fiver is panic stricken and Hazel knows that his brother’s visions often come true. But more than that he’s tired of how outskirters — young rabbits who haven’t had a full-year’s worth of growth — like himself and Fiver are treated. He proceeds to round up a few other discontented rabbits — Bigwig, a brave, stubborn and very strong former members of the warren’s guard force; Dandelion, a story teller extraordinaire; Blackberry, an innovative rabbit with the ability to think around corners; and others.

After dodging the warren police, known as the Owlsa, they headed out into the countryside. Guided by Fiver’s vision of a ‘high, dry place’ that should
serve as their new warren, the ragtag band of rabbits began looking for their new home.

Capturing a different reality

Fantasy, like science fiction, is difficult to write — you need to create a universe that stands apart from our own, but is still similar enough that it remains familiar. Richard Adams more than succeeds at this task with Watership Down. The heroes of the book are rabbits, and he creates an entire world-view for them. These are not simply rabbits that can talk — this is their reality, from their perspective. For them, like ancient people, numbers are a difficult concept — they can not count higher than four. Similarly, they have no concept of time as we know it; instead they use terms like ‘moonrise’ or ‘sunset’ to plan their days.

The author provides them with a rich mythology via his storyteller, Dandelion. Dandelion tells the timeless tales of their hero-god, El-ahrairah, and how he escapes from tricks and traps with even more inspired tricks and traps of his own. These elements provide an excellent atmosphere for the book, but it’s the characters that raise to the level of classic — and may it one of my all time favorite books. Adams gives his rabbits real personalities, and these personalities play of each other to create natural-feeling heroics and conflict.

Adams does an expert job of pacing his book, accelerating and slowing the plot logically and naturally. It’s the sort of book that draws the reader in, and then doesn’t let go until the ride is completely over.

A few random notes

Watership Down was first published in 1973 and appeared as an animated movie in 1978. A sequel of sorts, Tales from Watership Down was published in 1996.

Stephen King appears to be a fan — he mentions Watership Down in The Stand (Stu Redman mentions going ‘tharn’ while escaping from a disease center in Vermont) and in The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands (After encountering the bear Shardik — which got its name from the Adams book of the same name — Eddie mentions the ‘rabbits book’).

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