Book #73

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Fiver was only a small rabbit, but he had a sixth sense and foresaw that disaster was about to destroy the warren. Few believed him. Led by his brother Hazel, a small band of rabbits set out on a perilous journey to find a safe home. Fiver's intuition finally leads them to Watership Down. But here they encounter the greatest threat of all. 

How do I put my feelings about Watership Down into words? I last read it about eleven years ago, when I wrote my reviews down in a notebook. After digging out these notes, I can see the only thought I managed to put into words was: “Hazel-rah! Hazel-rah!”. Clearly 2009 me didn’t waste words; I find the review rather fitting.

Watership Down is a gorgeous story of journey and discovery as Hazel and his companions leave their warren to seek a new home. We see them growing and learning, evolving from small, insignificant kittens, into intuitive, thoughtful, and strategic planners. We see their relationships develop and strengthen, see them begin to understand how best to use each other’s strengths. They adapt from their learned behaviours, and find new ways of working to benefit them all. It’s a truly beautiful story of developing a community into something wonderful.

I loved each of the rabbits in their own way, and was impressed that although Adams gave them all their own personalities, he still kept them as rabbits in the reader’s mind. They were distinctly small, their thoughts immeasurably a rabbit’s own; their comprehension of the world simply could not come from anything other than a small animal. This skill made the whole story immersive - oh to be a rabbit nibbling on grass in the serenity of the downs!

There’s a lot of comparisons in Adams’ animal world to our own human world. We learn a lot about rabbit leadership, rabbit love, rabbit beauty, rabbit courage, the importance of rabbit community, and it’s not difficult to relate these learnings to our own lives. We see other warrens living in entirely different ways, some in fear and delusion, some in totalitarian states, some in comfort and blissful ignorance of the wider world. Again, easily comparable to people within our own human world.

Of humans, though, one message is clear. All animals kill either to survive or to eat. Once either, or both, of those objectives has been achieved, there is no other reason to kill. Humans will kill for sport, humans will kill for convenience, and humans will kill simply if animals are in their way. This is something the rabbits struggle to understand, and something which reinforces their idea that man is something innately evil.

Of course, there are some of us who gasp with tear-filled eyes whenever the words Watership Down are mentioned, myself included. We remember the bloodshed, the violence, the sheer effort these rabbits made to improve their lives, and what they lost along the way. And yet, today, closing the final page, I felt a sense of pride and relief rather than heartache.

I usually struggle to wrap up my reviews when I get to this point, but I feel my two-word 2009 review still encapsulates everything I feel about Watership Down, so here it is again: Hazel-rah! Hazel-rah!