Sunday, 23 March 2014

Review: 'Watership Down' by Richard Adams

As a child, I remember looking through a picture book that held 250 stills from the 1978 animated movie of Watership Down. It was one of those things that I grew up with, coming back to it occasionally and leafing through the now slightly tattered pages. It is from this book that I know Watership Down, but I had never read the actual novel until now. One of the reasons I put it on my 100 Classics list was because I knew I had to read it, but had grown slightly complacent knowing that I at least knew the plot a little.
A phenomenal worldwide bestseller for over thirty years, Richard Adams's Watership Down is a timeless classic and one of the most beloved novels of all time. Set in England's Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of rabbits on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society
Funnily enough, I regard this book with an enormous amount of childish affection despite not really knowing the plot until I picked it up almost two weeks ago now. By choosing rabbits as his anthropomorphic characters, Adams might have accidentally tied himself with Beatrix Potter for a lot of children, although I seriously believe the two couldn't be further apart. What Adams creates is a reflection of human society on an animalistic level, stripping away many of our social restrictions that have nothing to do with actual natural instincts. There has been a lot of criticism about how Adams' tale treat the does (female rabbits). What I really appreciated was that the story had been stripped, to a certain extent, of love and romance. Although not entirely eliminated from the narrative, it was kept to an almost practical yet affectionate level. The rabbits are much closer to their natural instincts than we humans are and I think Adams was possibly trying to show how society's conventions problematise many of our instincts. Hazel is attempting building a warren, for which he needs does. For the does it is natural to want to reproduce as well, as I think it is with women as well, only it is expressed through cooing over little children etc. There is, as such, nothing romantic about this, but the danger through which the bucks put themselves and the fact that these does are a critical part of a warren, which can't function without them, shows how in Adams' perfect society, gender equality and relationships aren't restricted or forced.

Reflecting humans by replacing them with animals in a narrative is nothing new. The Greeks did it in Aesop's Fables and Animal Farm is a more modern classic using the same technique. Adams, however, combines this with an incredibly catalogue of tales and references to a cultural background. He treats these rabbits and their society as if it was completely equal to ours. What he doesn't mention as interesting or different therefore is assumed to be the same as for us. There are some chapters in this novel in which one of the rabbits, Dandelion, tells stories and myths, and although some might say these break up the narrative, I think they're a stroke of genius. Usually these chapters come when the rabbits are agitated or just before a big plot point and it really helps to set the atmosphere. As a reader, you are grounded and get a bit deeper into "the rabbit world".

I really liked all of the different characters among the rabbits. It is easy to throw them all together in a group, but each of them had distinct qualities that separated it from the others and made it a vital part to the warren. Fiver holds a special place in my heart since he is a 'seer', which means he sometimes has visions or feelings relation to things that will happen in the future. He foresees something will happen to their old warren yet he can only convince few to run away with him. By creating a character like this, Adams introduces a sense of mysticism to the novel. Combined with the culture Adams creates for these rabbits, Watership Down almost takes on a fairytale-esque quality. When I told my housemates I was reading this book some said they remember it as the first book they read. I've been thinking why you would let a child read this book because surely they would miss all of the subtext. But the beauty of this book is that it can be understood on many different levels and something can always be taken away from reading it.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

This novel is an absolute classic. There is a quality to Adams' novel that enchants the reader and makes the 300-odd pages fly by. Each of the characters has intrinsically human character traits and yet remains a rabbit. What unfolds is a tale of epic proportions to them and yet it seems innocent to us. Because of this, the novel is a very good lesson in how subjective stories and tales are. I'd definitely recommend it, to everyone.


  1. One of my favourite books. for a children novel it was quite intense and violent. It's raw and purely instinctual. Great review :)

  2. I loved this book, in every way. But my favourite part was the language. It was so creative. If I remember correctly, he'd said that rabbits could only count up to four, right? And that everything above that was called hrair! I remember loving those little details. :)

  3. Watership is on my reading list. The only experience I have with it is clips of the animated version, but you make it sound a bit like Animal Farm meets The Wind In The Willows, which makes me even more excited for it!