Classic Book Review – Watership Down

This month, I am going wild and doing a lot of animal books for my reviews.  Though I ended with a classic last month, I absolutely have to start with Watership Down this month.  If you’re going to read any animal book, you kind of have to read this one first as reference material.  In fact, I read The Wildings first this month, but I realized I couldn’t review it without talking about Watership Down, so I quickly read through Richard Adams’s classic so I could put this up first.  Take this review with a grain of salt – Watership Down is one of my all-time favorite books, and I have so few problems with style or substance that you’ll probably never see such a glowing review from me ever again.  I highly recommend this book to literally everyone, especially if you haven’t read it before, and also especially if you have read it before.  This book is probably not for young children, though, as it does contain some graphic scenes.

You can also watch the 1978 film.  Show it to your children if you want to scar them for life.

The Book

Watership Down Watership Down
Author: Richard Adams
Written in 1972
Harper Collins, New York, New York
ISBN 0-380-00293-0

I have had a copy of Watership Down ever since I totally did not steal it from my middle school when my class read it in 7th grade.  Your local library probably has it if you want to read it for yourself.  Hint: You do want to read it for yourself.  Go get a copy.

Non-Spoiler Review

The book is going to remain a classic for a reason.  It’s referenced readily in pop culture, and knowledge of Watership Down is nigh essential, in my opinion.  Why is it so good?

First of all, Richard Adams did his research.  Although there are discrepancies between his representation of the fantasy rabbits and real ones, even after discounting the fantasy elements, he writes with enough authority and reference to scholarly work that the lay reader who isn’t OBSESSED with this book wouldn’t know the difference.  This added sense of realism draws one into the world of the rabbits instantly, and the consistency remains throughout the book.  Just in the way he incorporates his rabbit language – Lapine – one can see how well planned and lovingly crafted this work is.

The story, though it contains 4 separate plot arcs and many more mythological tales about the rabbit hero El-ahrairah, contains a constant thread throughout that makes it feel like a continuous story.  I didn’t like the El-ahrairah bits when I first read the book as a kid, since I felt it interrupted the actual, interesting bits of the story, but I have come to truly appreciate how well the stories build the culture of the rabbits.

Since this is a review, and even though beloved Richard Adams has passed, I do think it fair to raise a couple criticisms of the book.  The primary one is that there are several places where events are glossed over, told rather than shown, and I think that only served to cut down words and number of speaking characters.  The acts of coincidence, as well, happen in the favor of the protagonists enough that sometimes it feels a bit cliche and out of place.

But the book is amazing.  If I ever write something even half as fantastic as Watership Down, I’ll have considered my endeavors to improve as a writer successful.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS AHOY: Plot Review

A group of male rabbits leave their home warren at the behest of a small rabbit, Fiver, who prophesies of a coming doom. After encountering several adventures and pulling through dire circumstances, their leader Hazel manages to bring the crew to Watership Down and begin their new warren.  In their search for mates, they must cleverly invade a rival warren – Efrafa – and defeat vicious General Woundwort with acts of bravery, intelligence, and deception.  At last, Woundwort is defeated when he decides to attack Hazel’s warren at Watership Down, and both warrens remain at peace once he disappears into the ether.

In my last classic review of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, I noted how the change of different plots felt disjointed and sudden.  Where Twain failed in tying together disparate plots, Adams succeeded.

Each time I read it, I catch more foreshadowing up to and during the tale about Cowslip’s warren.  It’s cleverly hidden, even though some of it (Fiver’s warning to Bigwig) seems quite explicit.  The poem from Silverweed is echoed in slightly different fashion many chapters later by Hyzenthlay,   The brief encounter with the crows foretell of Kehaar, perhaps even inspired Hazel’s acquisition of the ally,   There’s the excellent Checkov’s gun about crossing the river, and I do love the Checkov’s gun literary device.

Each step of the way, the rabbits make simple plans that can be followed by the reader and understood well.  One of the reasons I love Watership Down is that massive effort was obviously expended to make the story so easy to read.

There’s only one plot hole that has always bugged me.  Why didn’t they talk to any does about leaving Sandleford in the first place?  It seems like a big thing to glance over, even if one is a rabbit.

SPOILERS AHOY: Characters

The main characters are stunning.  It’s rare to read a book where the group leader isn’t either the smartest, bravest, strongest, or anything, but it’s still obvious that qualities of leadership exude from them.  Hazel’s collaborative leadership style is to surround himself with the best possible allies and make perfect use of their talents.  By the end of the book, when they’re fighting General Woundwort at the warren on Watership Down, the reader can almost pick out which rabbits Hazel is going to choose for which tasks.

Bigwig, as well, is a fantastic character.  When I first read the book long ago, I had pegged him as a bully who would cause problems later in the book.  He was so much more sensible than that, though, and I loved him for it.  His transformation from ‘bully’ and ‘boss’ to an excellent, creative, brave officer was astounding.  Very well done.

Woundwort was a pretty good villain.  In his thirst for power and dependence on physical strength, he wrote his own ends.  At the same time, he felt cartoonishly evil a couple times, something like a propagandized version of an evil dictator.  I get the feeling Adams based him on Hitler and Stalin, given his charisma and unconcern for anything good.

I could go at length with other rabbits like Fiver, Blackberry, Dandelion, and more, but suffice to say that most of these characters were very well done and quite distinct.  The lesser spoken of rabbits – Acorn, Speedwell, Hawkbit, Buckthorn – blended together somewhat, and that was a shame.  I believe it may have been better to have combined them into a single character or gotten rid of some of them.

The does, as well, were weak characters.  Their spoken lines and conversations were often summarized, and thus their personalities were flat as pancakes.  They are halfway between objects and characters.  If one reads the book with the does as objects, it’s actually a much better way to enjoy Watership Down.  The emptiness of the does was one of my biggest regrets of the book, and after looking it up online, I don’t think I’m alone.

SPOILERS AHOY: Setting

The book feels fantastically English.  Only one other book I’ve read – Remains of the Day – feels even more desperately English.  I get the feeling that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, which I plan to read one day, will give similar Britishness, but I have not made my way around to that one.

One of the things I simply cannot pass up talking about is the rabbit-ness of the settings.  The way the natural world is described, the way that Adams focuses on things that are mere inconveniences for humans and enormous difficulties for rabbits, is what sets this book apart from other animal books.  He weaves in rabbit folklore and religion somewhat less seamlessly than the rest of the setting, but the presence of it adds to the overall feel of the story.

I love this book.

Next week:

Stay tuned next we turn to an indie book – Longtails: The Storms of Spring – as we investigate animals in literature.  I hope that the book is good – we’ll find out soon!

7 thoughts on “Classic Book Review – Watership Down

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      What happened was I actually lost the copy of the book on the first or second day after it was handed out. My parents made me buy a replacement copy for the school, as was actually right and just, but then… well, it never really made it back into the ‘return’ pile and somehow I was never caught.

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