Classic Book Recommendations – Watership Down by Richard Adams

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Recommending Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down by Richard Adam’s is probably one of the most gruelling adventure stories I’ve ever read, which is a funny thing to say, given that it’s about a group of rabbits just trying to find a new home. And I’m probably not the only one who was surprised by this juxtaposition.

At the time of its release, the book was marketed to children and young adults, though this was in 1972 and back in those days I don’t think the term young adult was as narrowly defined as it might be today. Rather than sheltering younger readers from just how horrible the world can be, for example, when you read Watership Down it sometimes feels like Richard Adams is rubbing their noses in it. This is all to say, I’m a pretty big fan of the book. I’ve never actually put together a list of my all-time favourites, but if I did it’s a safe bet that Watership Down would probably be somewhere in the top 50, in large part because a lot of the intensity it accomplishes is created through the pure realism of its set pieces, something that I haven’t I haven’t found in a lot other books, whether they were aimed younger audiences or not. If you’ve watched this channel for a while, you’ve probably seen me go back and forth on the whole idea of genre, which I think is because while I can’t deny how useful it can be, I also think that when a book reaches a certain level of quality, it can become sort of irrelevant as to what category of fiction it was originally associated with. As Richard Adams himself said: I’ve always said that Watership Down is not a book for children. I say: it’s a book, and anyone who wants to read it can read it.

The basic plot of Watership Down follows a group of rabbits whose warren is about to be destroyed by a construction project on their land. What’s more, because these rabbits have always survived by having a warren to take shelter in, when they’re forced to flee they aren’t exactly well equipped to undertake the dangerous trek. Nevertheless, they have to pluck up the courage to find a new home in some unknown land. 

If you’re familiar with the name Watership Down but haven’t read the book, there’s a good chance it’s because of the animated film that was released in 1978, which has become of a bit of a meme among a certain generation because of the fact that their childhoods basically ended the day their parents let them watch what they probably thought was a normal cartoon. I can’t really blame those parents, to be honest. You’d think since it was an animated adventure that a lot of the more disturbing parts of the novel would have been toned down, but no, every brutal bite and scratch that happens among the rabbits was brought over to the big screen. That said, I don’t think the film has actually aged very well. The animation itself is pretty ropey even compared to other movies of its time. Some of the worst panning shots I’ve ever seen in an animation feature are seen throughout it. And all of that is before even comparing it to the novel it was based on. I never take it for granted that, ‘the book is always better than the movie,’ but in this case, I’d have to say that the rule proves to be true. There’s so much fantastic world-building and characterisation in Richard Adams’ original version that just wasn’t translated very elegantly to the animated version.

The first thing I’d say if you were on the fence about reading Watership Down is to throw out any preconceived notions you might have about children’s stories and anthropomorphized animals. Like I said already, the book doesn’t shy away from cruelty, which immediately moves it into a more adult realm, but what Richard Adams does is a lot more clever than just having the rabbits engage in a little ultra-violence. To this end, you should think of it more like a fantasy or historical epic about a group of immigrants who have to traverse a dangerous realm. These immigrants could hardly be called warriors. In fact, they’re probably some of the weakest people who’d have to undergo the ordeal. They have very little knowledge of the outside world, so they’re susceptible to con artists and dangerous traps, and they aren’t particularly strong, so it’s not like they can fight their way to safety through some show of brute force. Of course, they are rabbits at the end of the day, real rabbits as Richard Adams says in the introduction, so if you have any issues about that it’s not like you’ll be able to imagine them otherwise. But you’d do well to remember just how cutthroat nature can be. From the very start, every part of the story is built on the fact that in a world of natural selection, these animals are about as low as they can get on the food chain. In the predator/prey scenario that is their life, it’s most often their role to run from danger, take safety in numbers, and accept that their survival strategy will inevitably lead to one or two of them getting lost along the way. Moreover, Adams’ does an incredibly good job of helping you to experience this whole world from the rabbits perspective. For example, at the beginning of the book they understand that their warren is in danger because of an alien-like object that appears in their field. They’ve never been outside the small area they claim as their home. They’ve seen very little of human civilization at all. So at no point is the alien object described as a sign post that’s been placed to announce that construction is about to begin, but rather, as readers we only figure out what it is because of the utter confusion the rabbits experience on trying to decipher what the strange black lines on it might mean. Indeed, from the rabbits point of view, pretty much everything in the world makes it a terrifying, dangerous place, where obstacles that we recognise as cars, roads and farms, are enormous mysteries that can only be assumed to be portents of doom.

That said, not all of the world-building works toward this idea of making the rabbit’s psychology as believable as possible. Throughout the pages, many elements are injected to give the entire adventure a more mythic quality. For example, at the beginning of the story, the rabbits are living under an oppressive, militaristic regime and as they escape their warren, they clearly yearn for more freedom, such that, it gathers the kind of power you might expect from an old Bible story, like that of Moses leading his people out of Egypt. Their character traits too aren’t completely limited to that of actual rabbits. Richard Adams supposedly based many of their personalities on men he knew in the British air force during World War II, some of whom died in the course of duty. As such, the characteristics of the rabbits have an incredibly realistic flare to them, grounding the book in a down to earth quality, such that the excitement, arguments and fear they experience when they’re under stress really come off like the tensions Adam’s might have experienced with his fellow soldiers during the war.

Of course, as much as I love Watership Down, not all of the creative choices seem very smart today. Adams apparently came up with the idea for the book by telling it as a bedtime story to his daughters. Aside from the terrifying nightmares it probably inspired, this does kind of come off as kind of an unexpected origin because every single one of the rabbits that take part in the adventure are male. Now, this in and of itself probably wouldn’t seem like too big of a deal, especially for an older book, but oddly enough, the female rabbits that do show up are so docile and stupid that they could best be described as livestock. In point of fact, not only do the male rabbits get all of the smart ideas and moments of bravery, the female ones pretty are much incapable of looking after themselves. This is an issue that would probably irritate different people to lesser or greater degrees. And while I certainly recognised it as a little old fashioned it didn’t actually affect my enjoyment of the book, so really I’d just say it’s something to be aware of, especially if you intend to buy it for a friend. The whole thing kind of reminds me of that ongoing issue in fantasy fiction, whereby instances of abuse are sometimes used for the sole purpose of making the imaginary worlds feel more gritty and real, which can actually start to become kind of counterproductive when you recognise it as a lazy writer’s trick. But all of that is secondary to the point that Watership Down is just a richly rendered story that for the most part is expertly told.

All said, when I try to think of any other reasons you should move Watership Down up to the top of your reading list I find I start getting into heavy spoiler territory. It’s an incredibly harrowing story, so I feel inclined to describe some of the sadder scenes, but obviously it’s best for you to experience them on your own. It’s consistently clever in how it makes you see the world from a rabbit’s point of view, so I want to give you more examples of what that means, but again, those are the kind of things that are a joy to discover for yourself. Most of all though, I just want to say that the characters are endearing in all of the most important ways, meaning you’re likely to feel a tear running down your cheek when the whole thing comes to an end, though I won’t even let you know if that’s because you’ll be happy or sad. So, on that incredibly vague note, I’ll just leave it by saying what an awesome title Watership Down is. There are no boats in the story, at least as they pertain to the book’s name. It just brings to mind the nightmare of being stuck on a sinking ocean liner, trapped in a cabin as the water begins to touch your chin. Richard Adams was actually going to call the book Hazel and Fiver as it happens, but his publisher suggested this other title, and thank god he did because it perfectly encapsulates the rising tension the rabbit’s experience from beginning to end.

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Simon Fay

Simon Fay

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