“Watership Down” by Richard Adams
As C.S. Lewis once said, “Sometimes fairy stories say best what’s to be said.”
Great stories have the capacity to shape us in a way that few other things can. They give us characters who exhibit virtues worthy of emulation. They show us how to persevere in the face of conflict, against villains, nature, and our own fears and failures. They inspire us to dream big, and to pursue our dreams against all odds.
In Watership Down, Richard Adams has given us a fairy story of the highest order, and one that would certainly have pleased Lewis and his friends. Indeed, it now occupies a space on my bookshelf alongside The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and The Man Who Was Thursday. Like those books, it is sure to be pulled off the shelf many, many times!
Would you believe me if I told you that this epic adventure full of heroism and suspense was a story about rabbits?
Whereas most fairy tales immerse us in a place outside our own world, this one actually re-introduces us to a world we already know well (Watership Down is a real place in rural England), but in a totally different way. Told from the perspective of a colony of bunnies, this typical countryside is transformed into a vast and alien place! The several brief glances into the bizarre world of men add to the realism of the story, while often providing a chuckle as well (how would you describe things like cars, cigarettes, and boats if you had never seen them before… and you were a rabbit?).
Besides the completely believable setting, Watership Down contains another vital element to a great fairy tale: well-rounded characters to whom readers can relate. Hazel, the main protagonist, lacks remarkable wit, intelligence, or strength, but possesses key leadership qualities, such as kindness and the ability to delegate authority and trust his friends. Bigwig is the impetuous sidekick who is good in a fight and loyal to a fault, but whose rash decisions often backfire. Blackberry sees the world differently; he can figure out how stuff works, and can devise a plan for just about any scenario. Bluebell is the jokester; Dandelion the storyteller. General Woundwort is a wonderfully detestable villain, but even he occasionally draws the sympathy of the reader.
To round out the tale and draw readers fully into it, Adams has provided the rabbits with their own language (the book includes a Lapine glossary) and history. One of my favorite elements of the book were the stories-within-the-story, often told by Dandelion. Rarely do these stories actually advance the plot, but they reinforce the power of storytelling itself. They also reveal what passes for the rabbits’ “religion”, including a creation myth (complete with a “Fall” after El-ahrairah, the first rabbit, angers Frith, their “God”) and an afterlife for rabbits who have “stopped running”.
A reader could enjoy this novel on many levels. As a simple story (which is all Adams ever claimed it to be), it is a pure pleasure to read. Yet, as with any truly great story, there is much to ponder here. As they seek to make a new home for themselves, the nomadic heroes encounter two vastly different rabbit civilizations, each portraying a society that has in some way sacrificed liberty for security, health, and wealth. The moral dilemmas our heroes face are familiar ones; how might we react in similar circumstances?
Whether for intellectual fulfillment or “mere” reading pleasure, I commend this book to you highly. Tolkien’s mark of a “true” fairy story was a sense of joy imparted upon readers. Watership Down certainly meets that criteria! Buy it here.
“Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories