Britain has always had a knack for writing great stories about animals. After all, the authors of Blighty have produced such literature in abundance for both young and old - Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Redwall, The Sheep-Pig (Babe to you American readers). To count the amount of acclaimed British works that have been produced with fauna in mind, you’d possibly require more than your two hands (or paws). Granted, the acceptance of anthropomorphic creatures as story protagonists has now gone a bit subdued among contemporary, Internet-savvy audiences since the furries showed up. But to overlook some of these works simply because a handful of Internet misfits like indulging in humanoid wolf erotica is to do the world of storytelling a disservice. After all, a crucial component of good fiction is escapism. As long as you can make your story compelling, and your characters relatable, it shouldn’t matter if your cast is human, rabbit or a Cockney-talking shoe. In fact, why isn’t there an epic novel about a Cockney-talking shoe? Money in the bank, that idea.
But if it’s specifically rabbits you’re after, you can look no further than Watership Down, a thoroughly British novel by Richard Adams that emerged in the early 1970s to much praise, even though it had suffered an initially skeptical reception and multiple rejections from publishers beforehand. Books about talking bunnies clearly didn’t appeal to such gatekeepers of literature back then. Nonetheless when it did win out, its tale of great odyssey and daring escapades among a group of lapin wanderers in search of a home earned the accolades of winning both the 1972 Carnegie Medal and 1973 Guardian Prize awards. Kids of the 70s may also remember it in the format of a 1978 animated movie that sits not only closely to the book, but also in history as one of the bleakest feature-length cartoons ever produced. If you’ve never seen it, count yourself lucky. If you have, I’m genuinely sorry for the PTSD trigger.
Watership Down focuses on a rabbit named Hazel, one of a number who spend their everyday lives in the safety and comfort of the Sandleford Warren in the English county of Berkshire. All is as content as a rabbit’s life could be - until his brother, the diminutive yet ominously prophetic Fiver, begins to talk of visions detailing an impending disaster that will wipe out the entire warren. Most of the warren pay little regard to Fiver’s apocalyptic ramblings - being rabbits, they’re unable to read the newly-planted signs of notice announcing the imminent construction of houses right on top of their home. But Hazel, who has long trusted Fiver’s judgment, also begins to believe that all is not well with the future of their earthy abode. After failing to convince the warren’s Chief Rabbit to pay heed to the visions and evacuate their home for pastures new, he decides to join Fiver and make the exodus himself, along with a small band of their warren-mates dissatisfied with life under the Chief Rabbit’s regime. Escaping the clutches of the ‘Owsla’ (rabbit-talk for the warren’s own police authority who are under no mood to let them break ranks and leave), they embark out into the surrounding wild on to a dangerous expedition in search of safety and a new home, one that will test every ounce of their survival instincts as the menace of lurking predators, humans and even other rabbit warrens - all of which promise certain death - is present in every step.
Watership Down is thus an uncanny read. Superficially, it’s a typical heroic adventure about a rag-tag group of bunnies. But as sophomoric as that may sound, this is by no means solely a children’s book. This is a mature tale about struggle, mortality and nature in all its wonder and unflinching cruelty, and manages to juggle all of these themes convincingly without suffering from the whimsicality that could have resulted from it being told through the perspective of small wild animals. If anything, its central characters are what give the story its epic proportion. The aspects of the countryside that we take for granted - woodlands, rivers, farmlands, roads and tractors - take on massive and often terrifying proportions, and the rabbits’ interpretations of their encounters with these things (particularly those man-made) evoke a fantastical, mythical fascination of the unknown commonly found in any grand adventure, or even high fantasy. The novel’s expanse of a mere few square miles of Berkshire hinterland is thus transformed into an alien frontier full of intrigue and fraught with peril, making for a incredibly compelling setting for a reader of any age.
Partnered with this is the effort that author Adams has taken into giving this world of rabbits its very own culture. These bunnies don’t just sit around munching grass and carrots all day - no, they got their own language (Lapine), their own social structures and their own religious beliefs system under the guise of the monotheistic deity Frith, and the messiah-type rabbit figure El-Ahrairah. The latter individual is part-inspired by Arabian Nights fables and folk heroes such as Robin Hood, and in a nice nuance of giving this culture depth, has his own escapades of trickery and cunning told by the rabbits of the story, with even whole chapters being dedicated to his legends. While there may be one or two too many that get told throughout the course of the book, they never fail in keeping this curious rabbit civilization immersive and believable. Whether you come in to reading this with an open mind or not, Watership Down will convince you that rabbits could conduct as rich a society as us humans - and it might even make you like that too.
However, while depth and mystery has definitely been put into the novel’s pastoral realm, the same can’t be universally said of the characters themselves. It is in this area perhaps that Watership Down reveals an expected naivety. The main protagonists of the group are interesting enough - Hazel is a solid lead hero, shrewd and courageous in his leadership of the rabbit troop, yet vulnerable to a boastful pride that can land both he and his friends in peril. Bigwig, a larger, tougher rabbit so-called because of a darker tuft of fur on top of his head than anywhere else, emerges as the warrior of the group through not only proving himself as a sturdy second-in-command but also being the key figure in the story’s most pivotal moments - freeing a group of does from a police state-idealed rival warren and then confronting the warren’s tyrannical leader, General Woundwort, in the story’s bloody, brutal climax. Comic relief meanwhile comes from the black-headed gull Keehar, who after nursing his injured wing back to health, the rabbits gain as an ally despite his lack of patience for rabbit customs and his half-intelligible (yet always amusing) Norwegian inflections. Beyond that however, the characters are significantly more basic - Fiver, upon whom much of the story’s development rests on, remains esoterically gloomy. Other rabbits such as Dandelion like telling stories and little else, and Blackberry has a knack for solving problems and little else. It would have been nice to see a few more of these characters evolve more complexity as the plot wore on, but unfortunately this doesn’t arise, leaving the book a little bare from a character development perspective.
The novel also suffers from a fundamental lack of urgency and drama at times. There are still a number of tense memorable scenes - the telling of the Sandleford Warren’s confirmed destruction and the final battle with General Woundwort’s warren are particular highlights. But when these aren’t happening, Watership Down can be frightfully dull. The rabbits’ journey itself is hobbled with a Tolkien-esque compulsion to describe almost every plant and natural feature that’s around them, leading to more paragraphs about riverside flowers, hedgerows and dew upon grass than is bloody necessary. When the book isn’t overtly elaborating on these items, it also runs the risk of being too quaint and obscure. The prose is victim to many a garrulous metaphor, and often comes across as too smugly erudite for its own good. One particular sentence (unintentionally, I’m sure) hilariously depicts one rabbit’s attitude as ‘much like the Duke of Wellington at Salamanca’, which is great if you’re a Peninsula War enthusiast, but not so much if you just want a clear description of how this sodding rabbit is acting without needing to consult your history books. And then there is the dialogue - every rabbit character sounds the bloody same. They all have a dreadful habit of talking in rigid middle-class English manner, politeness and affable euphemisms a-plenty, even during times that the story is supposedly taking a dramatic turn. It’s an irritance that pulls down the emotion and gravitas of the book as a whole - after all, it’s a challenge to stay invested when almost every flashpoint and confrontation is accompanied with conversation about as thrilling as the small-talk on your visit to the country village cornershop.
Even fantasy prose has changed significantly since the years that Watership Down was in its peak of popularity though, and these compositional shortcomings may just be a sign of the times that the novel was written within. In many ways, Watership Down flows just like a walk through the very countryside it sets itself in - all charming, very pleasant, utterly enthralling at times, but also long-winded, meandering and packed full of annoying encumbrances you have to clamber over to get anywhere. But if you can negotiate such obstacles, you’ll find an enjoyable adventure novel that remains startlingly original to this day; one that successfully straddles the line between adult and child literature to be accessible to all, and one that’ll make you realise that even rabbits can have man-sized adventures in literature epics.