Watership Down is an epic adventure. It’s also a story about bunnies.
Admittedly, before reading Watership Down, I didn’t think it could be an epic adventure and a story about bunnies. It could be one or the other, but not both. Bunnies and epic adventures are mutually exclusive.
At least that’s what I thought.
When I actually read the novel, which has been considered a classic for decades, I was amazed at how gripping a novel about bunnies could be.
The story follows a band of rabbits, led by the sensible Hazel, who abandon their warren and strike out into the vast, dangerous wilderness in search of a new home. For these rabbits, the world is a frightening place. Streams are impassable obstacles. Cats are bloodthirsty enemies. Men are an enigmatic menace, setting traps, carrying guns and trapping rabbits for their own sinister purposes. Even other rabbits can’t be trusted. Hazel and his band must depend on their luck, their wits and a few remarkable tricks to survive.
The most remarkable thing about Watership Down is the way it takes a perfectly ordinary scenario—rabbits establishing a warren in a peaceful English countryside—and transforms it into a quest to rival the best myths and fantasies.
G.K. Chesterton, the great British writer, had a knack for taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. As he explained it, it’s surprising to see the word mooreeffoc in a shop window until one realizes one is looking at the words coffee room from the wrong side of the glass. In his writing, Chesterton tried to show everyday scenarios from perspectives that made them amazing.
Watership Down, though not written by Chesterton, is thoroughly Chestertonian. Much like The Borrowers and its recent film adaptation from Studio Ghibli, The Secret World of Arietty (which is superb, by the way), Watership Down makes commonplace things wondrous by showing them “from the wrong side of the glass.”
To the rabbits, men are inscrutable, godlike beings whose guns flash fire and inflict wounds from far away. Trains are terrifying apparitions, appearing out of the night with a flash and vanishing into the darkness with a roar. Everything human beings take for granted is shown through the eyes of the rabbits, and made marvelous through those eyes.
The characters in Watership Down, while not as developed as they could have been, are a likable bunch. Descriptions of the countryside are beautiful, and the novel is written in a vivid, matter-of-fact style.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Watership Down are the stories told by the rabbits themselves, legends of rabbit heroes, which are fascinating and add a greater depth to the story.
It’s a long novel, but Watership Down is over all too quickly. I recommend it to anyone, and particularly to those who enjoy stories about animals—from The Wind in the Willows to The Call of the Wild—or to readers who like myths and contemporary fantasies.
For a book about bunnies, Watership Down is quite the heroic epic.