Sometimes I do a quick search through my blog archives and find that I have somehow, in four years (four years!!), not reviewed a book that I love more than I love eating cheese fries while watching The Good Wife (in this case, more even than I would love eating cheese fries while watching Kalinda plan and execute a cold-blooded takedown of Dana). Watership Down is one such book. It is also an example of the phenomenon that a late conversion can make you more of a fanatic about something than if you loved it all along. My mother told me about Watership Down when I was in my early-to-mid teens, and I was like, “Oh, it’s about a psychic bunny rabbit and his bunny rabbit pals? Well I’m just going to rush right the hell out to read that one!”
However, if you haven’t read Watership Down, you should rush right the hell out to read it. It is the best ever.
Watership Down is about a rabbit called Hazel and his brother Fiver, who gets a premonition of danger to the warren where they live. When the leader of the warren refuses to listen to Fiver about this, Hazel and Fiver collect a small group of rabbits and flee the warren in search of a new home. As wanderers they are forced to behave in ways totally foreign to them, adjusting to meet the unexpected challenges they encounter, like not having any girl rabbits and not knowing how to get across rivers and making friends with birds and getting in fights with terrifying warrens full of creepy psychopath rabbits.
I find it difficult to enumerate the qualities that make Watership Down so wonderful, but I will try to tease out a few. I adore the way that Richard Adams develops Hazel from an average rabbit in an average warren to a leader of vision and courage. Adams manages this mostly through the eyes of the other rabbits: you see them begin to trust Hazel’s decisions more and more, and he sort of organically becomes their Chief Rabbit, and by the end any of them would die for him (and let’s face it, so would you). There is this marvelous scene towards the end where Hazel goes to confront the leader of an opposing warren, and for a scene that lasts a page and a half and consists only in Hazel talking quietly, it is just so badass.
Watership Down is also an excellent example, if you’re into that sort of thing, of a monomyth story. Richard Adams was strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell, and the story structure is very Odyssean, with the rabbits encountering danger after danger in order to find, and settle into, their home. There is the leader character and the supernatural aid character and the clever one and the strong one and the Neville one and the jester. You can’t not like this! It’s programmed into your brain to like this.
The way Richard Adams writes his rabbits is superb. They are really rabbits, not rabbit-shaped people like, say, the animals in Wind in the Willows. When they act, they act like rabbits would, or they at least acknowledge that their exceptional circumstances are forcing them to act differently than rabbits ordinarily would. That is great. Then on the other hand their speech patterns are those of mid-twentieth-century Brits, which look, there is a pretty fundamental layer of my consciousness at which proper books are the Chronicles of Narnia and proper characters talk like the Pevensies, so book characters who call each other “old chap” will please me more often than not.
I like plans. I like it in books and shows and things where the characters come up with a plan and then put the plan into action and then the plan works (or the plan encounters a roadblock and the plan-makers, thinking fast on their feet, alter the plan to adjust for the new wrinkle) and the desired effect is achieved. If I had been born in the days of Homer, I would compose an epic poem in praise of plans and plan-making, and I would sing it loudly at feasts and festivals. Because I love plans. And the Watership Down rabbits are always making plans, and that is another reason Watership Down is amazing.
Finally, if it weren’t for Watership Down, I would never have known about Mary Renault. I would have been part of the horde of people whose lives are currently impoverished by not knowing about Mary Renault. My mumsy told me about Mary Renault, and she had only read Mary Renault herself because one of the chapter epigraphs in Watership Down is from The King Must Die. I wouldn’t know about the Alexander books or The Charioteer! That would be terrible. Thanks, Watership Down!
P.S. SPOILERS. It is awesome that Bigwig’s final victory over General Woundwort is a psychological victory. I could read that scene every damn day.