Watership Down is a children’s story, claimed by the author to be based upon stories he told his daughters on long drives through the English countryside. However, the sheer length of the tale and some of the themes written therein lean more towards what I would call the old masters – Tolkien and Melville and company – than the children’s stories of today. Perhaps this is due to a changing of the perception of maturity in children in today’s society. Where before I remember being encouraged to read Moby Dick at ten years of age, most books I see geared towards fifth-graders today are no longer than one hundred pages, and are certainly not overly technical.
The story revolves around a group of rabbits who leave their home and seek a new warren. Hazel is the leader of the group – level-headed and a thoughtful tactician. His brother Fiver is gifted with visions, which both inspires and unnerves the others by turns. Each member of the group has their particular strengths: Bigwig is tough and strong. Dandelion is fast and the best story-teller. Blueberry brings laughter and is uncommonly clever. While individually they may seem lacking, it takes all of their particular skills to ensure the survival of all. Hazel knows this and uses each rabbit to the best of his ability.
However, to say the story is “just a bunch of bunnies” is selling the tale extremely short. There were times when I paused to wonder if some parts of the novel were too much for young minds. To illustrate some of the common dangers to rabbits like dogs and foxes and the interference of men was one thing. But some themes hit harder, including chronic depression and suicidal tendencies, fascist regimes operated by insane dictators, rape and the entitlement of the strong over the weak to name a few. The author insisted that the story was really just about rabbits and that any similarities to historical events or ideals was unintentional, but those themes shine through none-the-less.
My favorite parts of the tale, by far, were the bits of folklore. Written into the novel were stories of the first rabbit, El-ahrairah, the “prince with a thousand enemies”. Sometimes these stories worked as a sort of oral history, others as fables explaining how rabbits grew their long back feet and fuzzy tails. Through them, parts of the larger story were reveled or portrayed in a new light, offering new understanding on old situations. These, coupled with the use of words spoken only by rabbits, made the world of Hazel and his companions seem real and whole – a place I could dwell within and understand if only I could reach it.
By the end I was sobbing – as I was several times throughout. Only a true craftsman could make the journey of a mile seem exhausting, or the thought of a dog strike terror into my soul. Adams took the most plain, unassuming of creatures and gave them dignity, allowing me to feel empathy with them in a way I did not imagine. Watership Down is truly a classic, one of the best pieces of literature for people of any age.