Watership Down is like a psychic-Rabbit equivalent of The Grapes of Wrath, except Richard Adams is not quite the writer that John Steinbeck is. At the start, a small group of rabbits from a relatively peaceful, advantageous warren leave their home at the urging of a small, mysterious rabbit with the gift of foresight. They traverse across the wide countryside, encountering roads, rivers, and floating devices for the very first time. They also make unlikely friends, and dangerous foes (or should I say, does – hah!). Ultimately, this is a story of family and friendship, love and survival, strength and adventure. The “realistic” portions of the story are interwoven with stories of rabbit mythology, which makes the novel read much like an updated adventure story, with Greek, Egyptian, or other traditional mythological throwbacks (I’m thinking of something like Louise Erdrich’s work, for instance, which tells one story of a modern people, but demonstrates how the people are still driven by and attached to their ancient mythologies and folklore).
There are two pieces of this novel which stand out: characterization and story progression. I found Adams’s character development within the rabbit warren to be masterful, in that each rabbit – from the prominent leaders to the more conspicuous followers- are distinguishable from one another and necessary to the overall story. Hazel-rah, Fiver, and Bigwig all develop in their own way as the story progresses, and each seems to find his place in the end. Kehaar, the gull who befriends the rabbits of Watership Down also shows growth throughout the story, and the many enemies (cats, dogs, foxes, and other rabbits) are all distinctive from one another and demonstrate the traits we would expect in these types of antagonists.
Story progression, too, was very well done. The rabbits’ path is easy to follow (the plot line involving the river I found to be particularly endearing, as I am a huge fan of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and the included maps are reminiscent of something out of classic fantasy novels, like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. With each new point on the trail, there are things to be learned, characters to be encountered, and stories to be told (and made).
While the story was engaging and interesting, I found that it took me longer than I would have expected. It is hard to find particular fault, except to point out the following: First, I did not particularly like the fact that certain “rabbit language” was infused into the prose & dialogue. This is a typical complaint of mine as I feel it detracts from the story when you have to try to remember what certain words mean; perhaps I just do not like to make the effort and I do continually remind myself that Shakespeare, in his plays, invented an incredible amount of vocabulary that is still in use today. Still, I have my likes and dislikes, and this is a dislike. Could it have been executed in a way such as to distract me less and, thus, not bother me as much? Yes, I think so. Adams’s prose in general I found to be a bit scientific and mechanical. The story was passionate and quite intense in parts – the rabbits were often times fighting for their lives, and they truly grew to care for one another, except only in the words. The true feelings did not come across (maybe because they were not human feelings, rabbits being uncomplicated by such trifles) but, after hearing how this novel so impacted many friends and associates of mine, I could not help but wonder “why?” A novel like Where the Red Fern Grows, for instance, I found to be much more emotionally challenging. Perhaps I just cannot relate to animal narrators.
The Final Verdict: (4.0 out of 5.0)
I was actually going to give this novel a bit lower of a rating but, upon further reflection, I realize that my bias toward non-human narrators and toward nature stories in general might be impacting my neutrality when it comes to reviewing the novels characteristics and achievements on their own; still, I would hope that an animal story done right would still be a story done right. This one, I felt, lacked a bit of something that should have been there to grab me and drag me into the story. I felt I was an outsider to the journey when I would have liked to have been a traveler and an adventurer. Still, there were many pluses; a lot of the humor was quite good – cute and appropriate. The characterization and plot development, and the final resolution were all positive. Overall, I found the read to be entertaining and certainly something that many, many readers might enjoy but I will likely not pick it up again.
Published by Avon Books, 1969
Challenges: 2010 TBR Challenge
Source: Owned Copy