BY SEAN CLARK
[This novel is a C4 Great Read.]
1972, Rex Collings
Every so often we like to go back and do a quick mini-review/reminder of a great book. I’ve done it before with Frankenstein and Lolita, and I now I’m doing so with another of my all-time favorite books. I’ve read Watership Down close to as many times as Lolita, which is to say many. I know it backwards and forwards, and it holds up just as well as a book for adults as it does a story for children.
This book is about a bunny rabbits. Physically they and the world around them are realistic; in fact, all the locations of the books are real places in England. There is no sword-swinging or clothes-wearing, the rabbits are anthropomorphized only in that they are given language, reason, culture, and names. Fiver is the runt of the warren, bullied and ostracised. He often sees visions, but only his brother Hazel ever takes him seriously. When Fiver foresees the destruction of their colony (by real estate development), and the chief rabbit ignores the warning, Hazel organizes a ragtag group of exiles, made up of mostly weaker rabbits, but with a few tough guys, including the badass Bigwig.
In their search for a new home, the group encounters perils and dangers (the fatalistic poet-bunnies of a rabbit farm, who do nothing when one of the travelers is caught in a snare, stand out in my mind), and not all make it alive to the hill called Watership Down. There they dig their new colony beneath a large tree. It doesn’t take them long to realize they are all males, and that it’s pretty tough to have a successful colony that can’t reproduce. With the help of an unlikely seagull friend named Kehaar, they begin scouting for other warrens in the hopes of finding some mates.
The second half of the book concerns the gathering of some bunny babes. There’s a raid of some hutch rabbits from a nearby farm, but the addition of mates is primarily approached through a daring jailbreak of unhappy does at a overpopulated warren called Efrafa. Efrafa, ruled by the gigantic and vicious General Woundwort, is a totalitarian police state run with ruthless, brutal efficiency. Woundwort isn’t into sharing.
Hazel’s rabbits are cunning and endearing. Their characters differ wildly, but combine to form a lovable and lasting cast. There is plenty of adventure in this book. At times it can be quite gripping. I also love the Lapine language (not enough to be annoying or cumbersome, just rabbit words for, say, “badger” or “car”–lendri, hrududu), and the mythos of rabbitkind depicted in the legends of creation and the trickster rabbit, El-ahrairah.
It’s a wonderful book, entertaining and playful, at times suspenseful, at times quite deep. If you’ve never read it I suggest you do so; if it’s been a while, now’s as good a time as any to revisit.
Similar Reads: Animal Farm, (Orwell), Charlotte’s Web (White), Redwall (Jaques), Frisco Pigeon Mambo (Payne). Also, check out the Watership Down movie; it’s a pretty solid (and at times dark) old school animated film–with Zero Mostel as Kehaar the seagull and some sweet Art Garfunkel tunes.