Among the first, and still one of the most influential, Richard Adams’ delightful 1972 Watership Down is a highly original work of animal fantasy. Charmingly and savagely bringing to life a rabbit’s world, the novel is one of the top sellers of all time, and winner of several awards. Eminently enjoyable by the young and old, Adams struck imaginative gold with his heroic tale of Sandleford warren and their quest to establish a new home.
Watership Down begins with Fiver, a rabbit who has a vision of his home warren being destroyed in a terrible catastrophe. Only able to convince a few of his friends of the impending doom, Fiver, along with Hazel, Bigwig, Blackberry, Dandelion and others, escape just in the nick of time. Homeless, the group need to find a warren where they can live in peace once again. But finding a new home proves more than difficult. Their quest taking them to a variety of places in the English countryside, the band of survivors must always be on alert; not all evils are of the black and white variety. Dangers appear on all sides—traps, foxes, impassable waterways, and other rabbits, making the start of a new warren a harrowing experience they may not survive.
A tale of heroic fantasy, Watership Down naturally stretches the limits of reality. That Adams continually keeps the scope of the story rabbit-sized, however, drives interest, and is undoubtedly the reason for its popularity. Encountering problems humans would easily solve, rabbit thinking is much more grounded in the rudiments of life—food, predators, and a safe place to live. No swords, spells, or walking on two feet, the adventures of the group and their fight for survival have all four paws planted firmly on the ground.
This is not to say, however, that the rabbits are simple beasts. Being the ‘fantasy’ in ‘heroic fantasy’, the rabbits have a language, called Lapine, and scattered throughout the dialogue and narration are important concepts. Elil are enemies, like foxes and owls; flay is food; and thlay, meaning fur, are a few examples. (Context usually enough to provide meaning, there is a short, supplementary glossary to assist.) The rabbits also have their own mythology. Like the coyote trickster of Native American legend or Brer Rabbit of the American South, El-ahrairah is a similar figure—a hero in the rabbit’s eyes—who is able to outsmart all elil. The tales of El-ahrairah as told by Dandelion are a true delight. It is such layers that flesh out the rabbit’s world, making the book a real storyteller’s story.
But what renders Watership Down thoroughly engaging is “characterization”. The group’s plight empathetic and main characters speaking with a voice of their own, Adams truly endears his readers to the rabbits and their plight. Fiver, though a runt, has foresight the others come to trust. Bigwig, despite often facing horrendous odds, uses his strength, and occasionally his wit, to lay his life on the line for the safety of the group. Hazel, neither strong or exceptionally wise, leads the group through loyalty, instinct, and concession, ensuring that no one is left behind. These and the other main char—err, rabbits, though stereotypical in the meta-textual sense, fit the story perfectly.