Watership Down by Richard Adams

Remember I read Tales from Watership Down a while back? And noted that this was probably really one to have read in order, meaning *after* Watership Down? I was so right. I wonder if I’ll find the time to go back and reread it now; I’d certainly like to.

This is a charming story. It’s about rabbits – but wait, come back! It’s a story of adventure, battles and bravery and trying new things, stepping into the unknown, making new friends. It’s exciting. And while it is enough when read for the explicit story of these rabbits of Watership Down, it can also be considered allegorically, if you’re so inclined.

At the beginning, a rabbit named Fiver has a premonition of something bad coming to the Sandleford warren where he lives. His friend Hazel has learned to trust Fiver’s intuitions, and the two of them attempt to warn the Chief Rabbit; but he will not be warned. Hazel (a leader type) and Fiver (more shy and withdrawn) gather a small group and leave the warren headed for parts unknown. Their comrades include Bigwig, a trained fighter; Blackberry, a cleverer rabbit than most; Dandelion, an accomplished storyteller; and Pipkin, even smaller and less impressive than Fiver. This unlikely crew faces the dangers of traveling through the open, through the woods, and over a small river; they move into a peculiar but welcoming warren for a time, until they discover the strange danger that dwells there, and have to move on again. As a group, they become closer, learn one another’s strengths and weaknesses and learn to work as a team. Finally they settle at Watership Down, and begin to build an idyllic new life, but there’s a missing piece: without does (female rabbits) to bear their kittens, their warren is doomed to extinction. So our friends launch yet another expedition…

As an adventure story, Watership Down has it all: likeable characters with developed personalities; a plot with beginning, middle, and end, during which those characters grow and mature; suspense, danger, excitement, bravery, personal sacrifice, bad guys, good guys, strange and wondrous creatures and happenings. It’s great fun, and I stayed up too late one night because I wanted to know what happened next (always a good sign). This is an enjoyable story.

And then there is the allegory. Much has been written on the topic, and for the most part I’ll leave it for others to cover the concepts of religious symbolism, historical allegory, and the like. I prefer it as a “straight” story of adventure fantasy as experienced by this gang of rabbits. But I will say that I enjoyed the epic-hero aspects, and the fact that the larger rabbit society has its own set of myths, proverbs, and stories passed down through the generation. Story-telling and the remembering of mythical heroes (and the creation of new ones!) play a large role, and this was familiar to me, as I have long loved the ancient Greek myths. Watership Down has been compared especially to the Aeneid; I actually thought of the Lord of the Rings trilogy-plus-one (to include The Hobbit), in terms of the building cadence of action. (Side note: Adams includes a number of quotations and allusions to classical works, lending credence to the idea that he had some of this explicitly in mind.) Also, I found myself musing from time to time on the statements Adams (or his rabbits) might be making about human civilization. The four warrens we see in this story embody four different cultures and styles of organizing citizens; some work better than others. I’ll say no more, because if you read this book, I believe you might enjoy making your own connections as you will. But yes, there is plenty of opportunity to consider allegory at work in Watership Down.

This is definitely an enjoyable read. Early in the book the pace is measured, as we get to know our characters and invest in their fates; when the cards are on the table later on, the pace ratchets up (this is where I didn’t go to bed on time). I thought it was very enjoyable when read “straight”, and would work as a children’s book. But it also offers fodder for serious thought and discussion. I can see why this one has remained in print for so long! Now to track down Tales of Watership Down again…


Rating: 7 bunnies.

2 Responses

  1. I’ve read this a few times over the years and each time I read it, I pick up on more of the layers going on in this story. It’s a great one that can be read with as much enjoyment from a 12 year old to a 50 year old. A stunning book to do that.

  2. Indeed! That was one of the most remarkable things about it. I wonder if Adams set out with that as a clear goal in mind, those layers.

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