Watership Downs. I was about two-thirds of the way through it when my family moved cross country a few months ago. It stands along side Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as the only two books I can visualize reading in my favorite chair in both living rooms. With both these, I rested on a period, move everything a thousand miles across the map, then took up the armchair and the books once more.
Watership Downs was a surprising experience for me. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, the root concept was something I had never imagined before and therefore it was all the more exciting to take in. While The Phantom Tollbooth only had a handful of passages with which I felt a deep personal connection (the orchestrating of the colors of the day was moving and masterfully written), I was fully engaged by most of Watership Downs, especially as the book began to come to a climax.
Watership Downs is a mystical book. It is the tale of two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. Fiver is a generally weak and distracted rabbit who has a tendency toward hallucinatory dreams of a prophetically accurate nature. The book follows Hazel’s development as the unlikely de facto leader of a rag-tag group of rabbits, who flee through the wild after Fiver senses that their largely peaceful home warren is in danger. Throughout the text they meet adversaries of every sort imaginable to a real group of rabbits who have no holes to protect them, while also making encounters with the alien cultures among other rabbit warrens. The events of the book are frequently broken up by chapter-length stories told amongst the rabbits, passing oral tradition down in a manner Joseph Campbell would be proud of. The rabbits, bolstered often by heroic tales of the clever forebear to the rabbit race, must time and again gather their wits and fight against their biological makeup to exercise sound judgement when their instincts pressure them to fly in blind fear.
The uniqueness of Richard Adams’ concept here lies in the distinct form of his anthropomorphism and in the central nature of cultural mythologies. It has elsewhere been accepted that if we choose to write books on talking animals, they must naturally exist in a world so magically foreign that they walk upright, wear clothes tailored to our liking, and eat foods similar to our own preferences. The Wind In The Willows is a perfect example of this type of book (and also one of my all-time favorite titles). Watership Downs goes the extreme opposite route, unearthing animals in a world that is so much our own that at times I felt like I needed a veterinarian or wildlife expert at hand to verify the minute details of rabbit life presented in the text. The only thing Adams’ toys with in his rabbits’ nature is their capability to communicate verbally and their social capacity to rely on shared histories and plan for a future.
This book is great. It really does stand in its own realm. I think it would probably surprise most people one way or the other, enjoying it far more or less than they would assume from the outset. Richard Adams proves himself to be a student of both science and myth, a great respecter of both biology and the intangible that requires pure faith. The book feels a bit long at points, and these days I could see a publisher trying to force the book into multiple titles in a series, but I think it works well as it is, even if the momentum is a bit erratic at times. I will say that the last 150 pages or so are pure gold. In many ways the ebb and flow of the momentum works in the favor the reader’s identify with the rabbits all the more at the end. From the start you have an epic struggle that really brings you in, lulls a bit here and there in the midst of an uncertain middle, and then hits full force in the final stages.
Watership Downs is one part tribal survival saga, one part homage to oral tradition and sacred myths, and one part fanciful tale of the lives of the rabbits living just beyond the hedge. If you don’t think you would enjoy a book about talking rabbits, I challenge you that perhaps this is exactly what you should read next.