I’ve been resisting reading Watership Down by Richard Adams for nearly forty years, telling myself that I don’t like books about animals despite blubbering through Black Beauty as a child, remembering what I learned my whole life after studying Animal Farm in school, and more recently, having discovered the delights of The Wind in the Willows.
When I joined The Classics Club, I needed to create a list of fifty books and in a ‘Why not?” attitude, included Watership Down on the list, then borrowed the book from the library before I could change my mind.
It turns out that I do like stories about animals. At least, I felt anxious and concerned about the welfare of Hazel, Fiver and their daring band of rabbits as they lived their lives, felt relieved for them when their adventures turned out well, and cried over them at the end of the story. Hmm.
The story was written for children but it isn’t a childish read. The rabbits have their own language, morals, proverbs and myths. The story is an adventure story and the rabbits are the heroes.
Watership Down begins with a rabbit called Fiver warning his brother Hazel about an imminent danger to their warren. Fiver doesn’t know what the danger is but Hazel heeds Fiver’s warning as previously, Fiver has inexplicably known when something bad was about to happen. Hazel and Fiver attempted to warn their Chief Rabbit, but when he didn’t listen they escaped the warren themselves along with a handful of other rabbits including Bigwig, a physically and mentally strong rabbit with soldier-like characteristics and experiences, Dandelion, who is a story-teller, little Pipkin, Speedwell, Buckthorn, brainy Blackberry, Holly and Silver, each of whom have their own distinguishing characteristics.
Fiver has a vision of where they should go, but Hazel is their leader, although he is not the biggest or the cleverest amongst them. Along their journey they run into rabbits from another warren who invite them to join their warren. This turned out to be a mistake, and a lesson to readers as well, in a ‘not to settle for the devil that you know’ type of way.
They eventually made their way to Watership Down, a safe, grassy area on top of a hill where they are relatively safe from predators and they build a warren of their own there. For a while they are safe and happy, but soon they realise their days are numbered as they have no does, and so no continuity for their warren.
The group devise a plan to bring does back to their warren, but put themselves into enormous danger in doing so. I was delighted to read that the rabbits weren’t romantic, but saw their need to repopulate as a practical necessity. The does felt exactly the same way about romance and repopulating.
In between the main story, Dandelion tells the other rabbits myths about Frith who made the world and their Prince Rabbit, the daring and tricky El-ahrairah, whose ways they try to emulate as they find their way in the world, and the Black Rabbit.
There is not a day or night that a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain: what is, is what must be.
Threats to Hazel, Fiver and their group included foxes, stoat, birds and other wild animals, but also humans, dogs, cats and farm animals. Other threats to the rabbits survival were also indirectly caused by humans.
In Australia, rabbits are a pest and are cursed and eradicated accordingly, but Watership Down has changed my thinking. I expect it will be some time before I see a wild rabbit without thinking of Hazel’s courage, Bigwig’s strength, Fiver’s foreknowledge, Blackberry’s brains, Dandelion’s stories and the others in their group as a generous and happy little community.
Watership Down was book four for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.