Watership Down by Richard Adams

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Cannonball Read V: Watership Down by Richard Adams

By BlackRabbit | Book Reviews | January 25, 2013 | Comments ()


It's not just about bunnies.

Well, they're included, but it's so much more than that, at least to me. This is a book that deeply shaped my outlook on life to a large extent, and given that I figured it also inspired my name online discussing it was only logical. So this isn't as much a review as it is a recommendation. Skip this down to the 5th paragraph if you just want the review.

I've been a lifelong and voracious reader for as long as I can remember, back to when I started outstripping my mom when she would read to me at night. It got so I'd not be able to tell where we were going on yearly family vacations because I had my head in a book. One of the most repeated phrases I heard growing up was "Put down the book. Try to do it with two hands." I walked with books nearly everywhere (and still do, which is not always wise). Hell, if I could figure out a way to cheaply laminate them, I'd shower with them too. I'm also fast, which means I go through them quickly. Just eat 'em up. Mostly Hardy Boys mysteries, a few comics, pretty forgettable stuff, except for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, King (Eyes of the Dragon was my first all-night reading binge).

But Watership Down was different, and I'm still not sure why. when I started it, I really got sucked in. It was my first can't-put-it-down. The story just grabbed me and didn't let go. I think it hit me so hard because I was just entering my teens, when I was getting aware of a wider world and the struggles that could face me. I'd made good friends, and recognized the bonds of the characters in the book. Moreover, the viewpoint of the rabbits was so unlike my own in other ways, and yet similar, that it forced me to look around my own surroundings as they did. I'd seen rabbits before, of course, but I'd not thought about what life as prey might be like. It was an eye-opening experience for a young man.

As far as reviewing it....I'd almost say I'm not qualified, but that would be easy and unfair to anyone, myself included. The writing is simple and vivid. Every scene is painted in strokes that can be quickly visualized. The characters, too, are sharply drawn and tidy. Everything fits neatly within the framework of the story and its larger picture. You never once forget that they are rabbits, animals with an alien view and reaction to the world, and yet they are made sympathetic enough that you can (hopefully) understand their fears, struggles and triumphs. Individuals together can accomplish amazing things is also a central theme, and one that likewise influenced my thinking for years to come. Heady stuff for a teenager.

The story also made me reflect on my theological beliefs as well. In the rabbit's world, everything is out to get them. Everything could be a risk or an enemy, and that's a cornerstone of their psychology. I'm not, and have never been, a religious person by any means, but reading this book also made me understand the reassurance faith can have for those in difficult circumstances. Given that I've gone to religious schools all of my life, this was an eye-opener. In essence, this book awoke my empathy for other people to a large extent. It also made me want to live underground, but that's probably not a common reaction.

Watership Down is at the top of my book recommendation list. I push it (gently) on anyone I meet who I think would be interested. I've reread it multiple times and never gotten bored or disappointed, the way you do when you come back to a favorite to find it's changed for the worse after time. Perhaps those old feelings and revelations are coloring my view of it. Possible. But I'll still maintain it's a great read, a classic, and will put it up against anything else.

(A fun note I did not know till later: all the geography is accurate and the paths and landmarks described can be found and walked.)

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and for more of Black Rabbit's reviews, check out his blog, Magpie Writing.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • BlackRabbit

    Not to keep poking my own fire, so to speak, but I'm curious what you all thought of the movie of the book? Gave me a few nightmares.

  • Salieri2

    Love Watership Down; somewhere I've got an edition that--hilariously--bends over backwards trying to avoid mentioning in the teaser that it's ABOUT RABBITS. "A prince leads his people from their doomed city"--something like that. What a fantastic book, full of extremely useful lessons, padded just a bit by displacement and the engaging story.

    There are a lot of painfully adult themes in this book, built into a really moving, fast-paced story, but clear all the same. I was too young when I first read it to absorb its more depressing, realistic nuances equably. The unfairness and horror of parts of it hit me pretty hard, as did the upending of traditional support structures. Seeing Hazel and Fiver's warnings ignored by their leaders was learning that sometimes grownups are wrong. Sometimes grownups do wrong. Sometimes pointing out danger is made more horrible by the betrayal of learning that other people knew about it all along, and collaborate in it.

    There's a very conservative British feel to Watership Down; it's hard for me to resist reading it politically even though Adams claimed no allegorical intent, but try, because as apt as the parallels are, they suck some of the joy out of reading it. The only toe I want to dip in that water is this: below, Onetwothree mentions writing about Bigwig's unconventional leadership while at a military academy. It strikes me as a central argument of the book is the importance of civilian control of the military for a functional democracy. Bigwig's larger than Hazel, and a better fighter, and at least intelligent, though in a different way, but he's a specialist, a superbly focused professional. Hazel's the better leader for the whole warren because he couples Fiver's insight with a broader understanding, a nimble pragmatism, and the ability to contextualize and prioritize, to build alliances and maintain relationships.

    And, uh, I sense the need to ramble. Quitting now.

  • marya

    I love this book. Thank you for reminding me why. It's just brilliant writing - it's one of the best exercises of literary imagination I can think of. The rabbits are anthropomorphized, yes, but their world view is still alien. "Happily ever after" is defined differently for rabbits - but it's still happy, in its own rabbity way. The stakes are so high for these characters. I remember the final action sequence being just heart-poundingly tense. More excitement in a rabbit on rabbit chase scene than in a hundred Michael Bay movies. I can't say enough good things about this beautiful, unsettling, thoroughly entertaining book.

    JC can suck my embleer hraka.

  • Onetwothree

    I went to a military academy and I used this book as a basis for a leadership paper I wrote during my third year. The end? When Bigwig says that he can't leave b/c his chief rabbit told him to guard that spot? What an amazing example of unconventional but gifted leadership.

  • Sophia

    Thanks for the review. I've read this book a couple times and loved it. Since I already know the plot, I liked all the personal details of how the book affected you.

  • poopnado

    I read this recently, thinking I would really enjoy it, but I found it fairly boring. The mythology was fun, but it seemed too simple and straightforward. I think that was a lot of the point, but I found it a struggle to finish.

  • JC

    @mswas, @BWeaves Fair enough re: playing nice. But, volunteer effort or not, if it's packaged as a review, it should at least talk about the source material somewhat. It's not "Cannonball Use A Book To Talk About What I Felt When I Was A Teenager."

  • mswas

    point taken. See BlackRabbit's reply to me below

  • wsapnin

    This is my favorite book of all time. The wsapnin clan has even adopted some rabbit language as our own. We sometimes have to explain ourselves to the general public,

  • marya

    Mine too! Growing up we called our vacuum the hrududu.

  • Guest


  • seth

    Our kitties are named Hazel & Fiver, but we call Fiver Ivy.

  • JC

    A "review" that talks solely about the author's relationship with the material while failing to address any concrete aspects of the book itself...for the love of god, TRY HARDER.

  • mswas

    @BWeaves:disqus has it right. As noted at the end of the review, this is a volunteer effort. Find out more here: http://cannonballread5.wordpre... and consider joining us next year for (dare I say it?) Cannonball Read Six, where you can see how well you do in the challenge of reading and reviewing 52 books in a year.

  • BlackRabbit

    He has a point, though. Rereading it myself, I can see where I should have discussed the book more and myself less. I'll try to do better.

  • mswas

    It's hard to separate yourself from something you hold so close to your heart. It generated a good discussion, and that's always a plus with CBR. I thought it was great.

  • BWeaves

    JC, play nice. The Cannonball Read reviews are not like the movie and TV reviews on Pajiba. It's just people who are trying to read as many books as they can during a specific period of time, and they can write anything they want about the book to either interest us in it or warn us away or just give us their feelings about it.

    Now, go stand in the corner with your nose to the wall until you can play nice with the other kids.

  • Zirza

    I read it when I was thirteen and don't remember much of it, apart from the fact that I sort-of liked it, but thought it was rather scary.

  • anon

    A description of the plot, the premise would make this a better review.

  • John W

    The story centers around the rabbit Hazel and his brother Fiver. One day Fiver has a vision of impending doom. When Hazel fails to convince their chief rabbit to leave their warren, Hazel, Fiver and a few other rabbits leave to find their own warren. On the way they face many dangers including other rabbits who aren't to keen on strangers.

    One of the cool things about the story is that the rabbits have their mythology and folktales that is interwoven into their own story.

  • John W

    Read it, liked it.

  • BWeaves

    My teens and early twenties seem to have been filled with animal stories masquerading as humans -- Animal Farm, Watership Down, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Some I was forced to read in school, and others were hot and everyone was reading them. Watership Down was not bad, but do NOT read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I still don't get the hype for that stupid book.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I read it and don't even remember it. I always link the book in my mind with Barbara Hershey's name change to Seagull. Remember that?

  • This book had me completely addicted when i read it in my early twenties. I was missing meals because I was so desperate to know what would happen. I've since recommended it to a few friends who couldn't get into it at all. I was really surprised.

    Oddly enough, I tried to read "The Plague Dogs" by the same author, and I couldn't even get through it. There's a time and a place, I suppose.

  • manting

    Love this book - its the Odyssey with rabbits - the movie is pretty sweet too - the art Garfunkel soundtrack is pretty damn good. BEWARE the Black Rabbit of Inle!

  • TSF

    Great review. I have only seen the cartoon, I must admit. A girlfriend recommended it several years ago and as we began watching it I realised I'd seen it as a kid but suppressed the memory because it was so fucking terrifying and depressing. Then, about a year ago, I found a copy of the book in a pile of (mostly terrible) books that someone had dumped in the middle of the street. I must remember to read it.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I remember reading and loving this book when I was a teen as well. It was a lot more brutal and violent than I was expecting though, definitely not a children's book as I've seen some claim.

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