Review: Watership Down, Richard Adams

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.

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50 thoughts on “Review: Watership Down, Richard Adams

  1. I haven’t read this and have avoided watching the TV programme and film becasue I am continually warned about how sad they are. It is silly that I’ve got to my age without knowing the story and so I think it is about time I read the book. Thanks for letting me know how good it is. I am going to make a real effort to read it this year.

  2. I read this when I was 8 and sobbed my heart out. My mother was annoyed and asked me why couldn’t I read NICE books? I kind of think she missed the point a bit there.

  3. Love Watership Down! And your review reminds me so well why. Very different, but sad/spooky is Girl in a Swing…have you read that one? I also like his autobiography, The Day Gone By. I think you may have inspired another visit to W.D. Thanks!

    • I think I may have missed the point of Girl in a Swing. I read it last year, or two years ago maybe?, and was deeply disappointed in it. It wasn’t spooky enough or else I was just too dumb for it. But I would like to give Adams’s autobiography a try!

  4. I keep hearing about that book and it does seem quite interesting. I heard about it on vegan podcasts as being very good at depicting animals as animals, not as human-like. I’m glad to read yet another review going in that direction.

    I should read this soon…

    • I’m sort of fascinated that vegan podcasts would mention Watership Down! I mean of course, it is a wonderful book and all people must love it, but it pleases me that vegans in particular like it. And why not.

  5. Oh, I forgot about the Mary Renault connection! But yes, yes, GIANT ADDED GIFT, thank you, Richard Adams! I just want to say, I love it when authors do chapter epigraphs. It turns the whole book gold for me. Love this review! I always find it hard to review books that I love, so well done you. Correct as usual, King Jenny.

    • Me too! I wish copyright issues didn’t make it so hard to do chapter epigraphs. Fun fact: Quoting in an epigraph is never ever fair use. You always have to get permission for it. (Apparently.)

  6. I love Watership Down. I wrote about it way back when my blog was just beginning, and in no way did the book justice. Your words here are wonderful. Makes me want to go and read it again.

  7. Watership Down is one of those books that I’ve read so often I could quote you any part of it, and I STILL want to read it over and over again. Thank you for reviewing it, because I love seeing what other people love about things I love (did that make sense?)

  8. Loved this book too, although I only read it a few years ago. I grew up loving the 1972 “cartoon” first which in all truth is quite horrifying and gory! I hear a lot of parents walked out of the cinema back when it was first released. I’m betting that the adults were more horrified then the children.

    The song Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel still makes me cry.

    I agree with your sentiments about Hazel. He is a wonderful character and more then just a rabbit. I love how he grows from a mediocre rabbit to a true leader.

    I haven’t read anything else by Adams yet. I have the Plague Dogs which I’m a little scared to read and Shardik which is about a bear I think.

    Unfortunately the real Watership Down hill is under threat from having houses built on it now. I think it’s all but confirmed. It’s very sad considering the story and the land that will be destroyed. Every piece of land has to be built on now. I guess people have to live somewhere… but do they have to build everywhere?

    • But what could the adults possibly have expected? I suppose this would have been adults who didn’t read the book.

      There — wait, there’s a real Watership Down hill? Why will it be destroyed? Can’t some rich bored people mount a campaign to save it and make it a national park, which I’m realizing now I don’t know if Britain has any of?

      If you read any of Adams’ other books and like them, please come back and tell me. Girl in a Swing was a total bust for me and has scared me off trying others of his books.

  9. Oh, Watership Downโ€”what a genius book. I loved it to pieces as a teenager. I think it was assigned for my freshman English class in high school, and I just absolutely fell in love. There are lines in that book that make me shiver just thinking about them. Gorgeous.

    • I’m jealous you got to read it in English! If I’d been assigned it, I’d have read it years earlier than I actually did. Well, two years. Or maybe one year. But still that would have been one or two years longer of loving Watership Down. We could have read that instead of awful The Things They Carried.

  10. I read this book when I was really young, possibly as young as Lit Love was. I remember liking it, but not much about it. I might have to re-read it now, because you’ve intrigued me with the bit about how they act like rabbits. As the owner of one crotchety old rabbit, I think I could evaluate that.
    I also love it when authors use epigraphs from other books, because Cornelia Funke’s epigraphs to Inkheart are what made me read The Borribles, and those turned out to be some of my whole family’s favorite books ever.

    • Well, I mean — I don’t know anything about how rabbits act. I only mean that Richard Adams says things like “Rabbits get nervous when XYZ” and then shows the rabbits getting nervous when XYZ happens. I’m trusting him to tell me the truth about rabbits!

      I wish epigraphs were covered under fair use! I love them so, and so few authors employ them.

  11. I tried to read this a few years ago, when I was in the throes of a hardcore trashy fantasy craving. That was exactly the wrong time to try to read it, but I think enough time has passed now that I can give it another go. It sounds like the sort of thing I’d love to itty bitty bits, in a proper and intellectual manner.

    Also, I know about Mary Renault, but I haven’t read her yet. Can I count myself as just semi-impoverished?

    • It’s not proper and intellectual at all, honestly. It’s a cracking good adventure story. Not fantasy exactly but as I say, very monomythy.

      You may count yourself as entirely impoverished! What? It doesn’t count to have heard about Mary Renault and not read her because. You know. YOU STILL HAVEN’T READ HER THEN. I recommend The Persian Boy.

  12. You’ve wonderfully captured what makes this book amazing. I especially love how much of the characters’ triumphs come from talking and thinking and being clever and working together. And I love how the characters change, especially Hazel and Bigwig. So, so good.

    • Oh Bigwig. Bigwig is such a badass rabbit. I love it when he goes to Efrafa and says he wants to join them and the other rabbits are totally baffled. ๐Ÿ˜€

  13. Thank you for reminding me what a great book this is! Yes, we are programmed to like it, if we are in touch with the mythic at all. It resonates deeply with me — and if someone doesn’t get it, I have to look a bit askance at them. (Can’t blame them for skepticism before they read it, but after is another story.)

    Putting Mary Renault on the TBR list right now. Clearly I’m one of the clueless ones!

    • You’re welcome! Any time! I am just shocked I haven’t talked about it way more often.

      I hope you like Mary Renault. Most of her books are good but I’d start with The Persian Boy or else The Mask of Apollo, which are possibly my favorites.

  14. (Doh! I don’t know about this cold-blooded take-down thingy; that must be in the current season! *plugs ears*)

    I was, perhaps, scarred by this story as a child, when I watched the movie and sobbed myself senseless. I finally re-read it a few years ago. I did like it, and I understand why some readers love it, but I didn’t love it myself. Even though I wanted to, and even though individual parts of it were so satisfying and thrilling and beautiful.

    But I couldn’t set aside the limited lives of the female rabbits. It’s funny, because I can set that kind of thing aside in more obviously historical works, but as you say, he does a great job of making the rabbits rabbit-y, not people with long legs and ears and fur, and I did love that, so why did he have to go and saddle all the female rabbits with the sexism of our world.

    It’s published in the ’70s, but if I had it to do over again, i would approach it more as a historical work so that I could expect that bit of old-fashioned-ness, y’know?

    • Oh no sorry! Wasn’t spoiling anything! It was just aspirational. I was talking about a character that features in this current season whom I don’t like, but I wasn’t talking about real events that happened.

      I understand where you’re coming from about the female rabbits. But I think there’s an extent to which that’s dictated by actual rabbits and the things they actually do. Right? At least a bit?

  15. I read this as a teenager but don’t remember clicking with it. Not sure why. I think it wasn’t what I expected from a fantasy book, maybe. Your post makes me want to re-read it because I hardly remember a thing and it would be like reading it for the first time.

    • You know, I’ve seen it described as a fantasy novel so often, and I don’t think of it that way at all. It’s really an adventure novel that happens to have rabbits as protagonists.

  16. I seem to be one of the few who never read this. I did watch part of the movie when I was maybe 19 or 20 and thought “wow, this is a messed up story” and that was kind of that. I think I had residual trauma from Animal Farm (I don’t particularly like talking/thinking animals for the most part) and so this one got on the “no thank you” list. Maybe I should reconsider that at some point.

    • Oh Kristen, no. It’s nothing nothing nothing like Animal Farm. It’s all about good decent rabbits trying to do the best thing they can do in a series of bad situations. And having adventures, and it’s wonderful. They’re not talking animals like in books with humans! They’re regular rabbits communicating as rabbits do, they can’t talk to humans. I really want you to love Watership Down!

  17. This has been on my wishlist for forever. It’s on my birthday wishlist, because it’s one of those books that should be easy to find in any Dutch book shop. However, somehow, my parents (who often buy me books from my birthday) refuse to buy this. Why? Probably because they think it’s too sad, having seen the movie themselves. There are more books that they simply will not buy.. I need to write a post about this, and then buy them all myself once I have the money. I cannot wait to read this as I fully expect to love this just like so many of you did.

    • I wish I could have it sent it to you from Paperbackswap! If you lived in the US I totally could. :/ I think you would really like it, and I am not just saying that because I want everyone to like it. I think it exists at a point where our tastes in books intersect.

  18. I fell on Watership Down a bit late and unexpectedly, but I too was surprised by how absolutely incredible it is. I find myself struggling, though, to convince other people to read it: “Well, it’s a book about rabbits… but sort of. It’s more of an epic, it’s really well-done, and… oh, I lost you at rabbits, didn’t I…” Maybe I should change my approach?

    • I know but I don’t know what to change my approach TO. It is about rabbits — you can’t describe the book without mentioning that part. I’ve just accepted that it’s a difficult book to describe, and you have to depend on the other person trusting you to begin with.

  19. I am glad my freshman high school teacher forced us to read this. Even though I read it 20 years ago I still remember Bigwig and can recreate the emotions the book induced.

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