I first read Watership Down when I was about 10 years old. It immediately became my favourite book and I re-read it many times. However, it’s been a long time since my last re-read and I wondered if I would still love it as much as I used to.
I know some people may consider a book about talking rabbits to be silly and childish, but Watership Down is not really a ‘children’s book’. It’s one of those books that can be enjoyed on different levels by people of all ages. In fact, the writing style and vocabulary used in this book is of a higher standard than many ‘adult’ books. It’s also not just ‘a book about rabbits’ – it’s a book about friendship, leadership, freedom, adventure, happiness, sadness and so much more.
Hazel and his brother Fiver are two young rabbits living in the peaceful Sandleford Warren. When Fiver has a premonition that the warren is going to be destroyed, he convinces Hazel and several of their friends to embark on an epic journey to find a new home. During their search for Fiver’s ‘safe, high place’, they encounter a number of problems and dangers including humans, predators and even other rabbits. The biggest obstacle of all, however, comes with the realization that as the group consists solely of male rabbits, they urgently need to find some females – this leads to a daring attempt to rescue some does from the overcrowded enemy warren of Efrafa…
Hazel and his friends are not cute little bunnies. They are intelligent, resourceful animals capable of solving almost any problem that is thrown at them. When faced with having to cross a river, for example, they observe that a plank of wood is floating on the surface of the water and they figure out how to use it as a raft. The rabbits are given such human thoughts and emotions that you can easily forget they’re actually not human! However, from a physical and behavioural point of view, they always behave like real wild rabbits. Richard Adams used R. M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit as his reference.
Each rabbit has their own individual personality – Hazel is the leader, Fiver the sensitive prophet, Bigwig the fighter, Blackberry the brains, Dandelion the storyteller, Bluebell the clown, and so on. This allows every reader to identify with at least one rabbit and to choose a favourite (mine was always Bigwig, who at the beginning of the book was overbearing and aggressive but learned some important lessons during the journey to Watership Down and ended as one of the most highly respected rabbits in the warren).
One of the things I love about this book is the way Richard Adams has created an entire rabbit world. This includes:
- A rabbit language, known as Lapine. Even before I began my re-read of the book, I could still remember that hrududu is the Lapine word for car, that a lendri is a badger, and Elil means enemies.
- A rabbit religion. Rabbits are taught that Frith created the world and is represented by the sun. Inle is the word for moon, and the Black Rabbit of Inle is a grim reaper-type character who appears when a rabbit is about to die. The rabbits often talk about “ni-Frith” – noon – and “fu Inle” – after moonrise.
- Rabbit folklore. The rabbits love to listen to stories about their hero, the legendary El-ahrairah, ‘the Prince with a Thousand Enemies’.
I think the author’s wonderfully detailed descriptions of the English countryside also deserve a special mention. As almost all of the places he writes about – the farms, hills, valleys and meadows – are places that really exist, it would be possible to follow the rabbits’ journey on a map or even to visit them yourself.
So, did I still enjoy this book as much as I did when I was 10? Yes, of course I did. No matter how many other books I read, Watership Down will always hold a special place in my heart. I’ll leave you with a favourite quote from the book:
“‘Animals don’t behave like men,’ he said. ‘If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.'”
Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 478/Publisher: Penguin/Year: 1972/Source: My own copy
This review is part of my Great Books series.