5 stars. Richard Adams’ recent death motivated me to revisit his beloved classic and a childhood favorite of mine, Watership Down. The tale of a group of rabbits and their quest for survival proceeds in classical epic fashion (on a rabbit scale at least!) for a cracking good read with appeal to all ages.
After Fiver, a young rabbit with the gift of premonition, foretells the doom of their warren, a group of young rabbits depart to find a new home. Their adventures lead them through dangers both apparent and hidden that forge them into a tight-knit group as they seek a place to create a new warren. The tasks necessary for the long-term survival of the new warren will take every bit of their cunning, ingenuity, and bravery.
Watership Down excels in every aspect of storytelling. The plot itself is riveting; even when I know what is coming, it is suspenseful and hard to put down. The style of writing–epic in miniature–is perfect for a tale that appeals to young audiences and gives richness to older readers. The world and life of the rabbits is deep and detailed; Adams creates a believable culture, mythology, and identity for his heroes. (The stories of rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah on their own make for rollicking reads.) The prose itself is straightforward and easy to read, with lovely descriptions of the English countryside.
The book really shines when it comes to the characters: Hazel, the quiet and effective leader. Bigwig, the brave and strong champion of the group. Strawberry, who joins their journeys when he can no longer stand living under duplicity. Campion, the dangerous, competent, and still admirable captain of the enemy. Hyzenthlay, the resourceful doe who wishes for the freedom of promised by the group. General Woundwort, the frightening and almost mythic adversary.
While the author denies any allegories, it’s easy to see how many leaders and historical conflicts could be found by the story. Perhaps that’s the strength of classical archetypes and themes–they resonate because they are fundamental to human nature.
On a personal level, I always appreciate books where intelligence and cleverness are the crux of the story rather than force and strength. The rabbits follow Hazel because his wits and vision lead them superbly. The climax of the story reads like an ingenious prison break, where the hints that Adams gives readers all come to fruition.
Watership Down is a book that has been a delight to read since childhood. Thank you, Mr. Adams, for your lovely tale of home, friendship, leadership, and adventure.