“We’ve got to go away before it’s too late.”
Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972) was born originally of bedtime stories he used to tell his children. Tales of a pair of rabbits, Hazel and Fiver, the latter of which had second sight which told of disaster striking the warren. Adams told his children this tale on one rather long car journey spanned over many nights, thereafter, and on the insistence of his children, Adams wrote the story down. This is noted in the introduction at the start of the 40th Anniversary Edition, which is a great addition to my understanding of this rather brutal but engaging novel. I was introduced to this story quite young with the 1978 film adaptation, so as I read my copy of the novel recently, it was like a trip down memory lane. Nearly everything was close to how I remembered it, yet somehow reading it now has opened up a new fascination with the story itself.
Watership Down follows the story of Fiver, Hazel, and a small group of other rabbits from their warren who leave the safety of their home because of a warped vision of the future which Fiver sees with his second sight. They head for the hills in the hopes of finding a refuge there away from the impending dangers which their warren holds. So, with Hazel and Fiver in the lead they travel across the countyside to try and find the safe place which Fiver also saw in his vision. This is easier said than done, as the group of rabbits face dangers they never would have faced otherwise, both in the ‘human’ world and their own. From crows, cats, and dogs, to other strange and unfamiliar rabbits, this small but brave group of rabbits take a massive journey to the hills. Unknown but seemingly much safer territory than that of their own home.
Watership Down casts these rabbits into a new light, as Adams gives them a human like societal structure. They have a leader, those with more power who work to keep order in the warren, the gatherers of food, and even their own creation stories and a whole series of mythologies. These mythology stories are threaded throughout the novels in timely places, or when one of the rabbits tells a story to comfort to those who are scared. This brings a huge amount of heart to a novel which could otherwise be quite difficult to form an emotional connection with. I wasn’t entirely sure of what to expect, even though I did have some memories of the film. You don’t come across many novels from the point of view of a small group of rabbits unless it’s in a children’s picture book, do you? It is this which makes Watership Down such a classic and beautiful read. It is one of a kind, and heartbreakingly so.
This novel is something which on the surface is about a small group of rabbits trying to find a safer home, but it manages to go so much deeper. Adams brings a unique personality to each rabbit, and in doing so develops a way for them to have their own way of dealing with the problems they face, as well as having their own way of contributing to the group’s survival. The traumas the rabbits go through in order to find safety make for an intensely emotional read. This is enhanced further through the beautiful but simple prose Adams uses. You can’t help but get caught up in the anxiety and fear which follows the rabbits from the moment they leave their warren. I was on edge for most of this novel, even in those stretches where things are meant to feel calm. It is a testament to the powerful nature of Adams writing style that you can become completely invested in the fate of a small group of rabbits, and feel the fear as they do as they try to find their way in such a cruel and unfamiliar world.
Despite my praise of the story, prose and characterisation, I cannot say that I completely loved reading Watership Down. It is one of those novels which I am very glad to have read, but it was an emotional journey. The cruelty of it, and some of the frankly horrific scenes were things I expected to encounter, but I hadn’t thought they would affect me the way they did. Watership Down is an intensely rich novel set in a cruel, but very realistic world seen through the eyes of a small group of rabbits. Without this perspective though, Adams novel would lose the uniqueness, heart, and emotion which has helped it to win both the Carnegie Medal, and the Gaurdian Children’s Fiction Prize. There is something spectacularly unique about it which is most definitely worth reading.