By Richard Adams
I have a confession to make. I had never read Watership Down before. It’s odd, considering how much I read. I was a little tharn at the idea of confessing I haven’t read such a basic book. But I realized that rather than reading it with the nostalgia of childhood hounding my perspective, I had the clear-headedness of a first time read. So, what did I think of the classic tale of a group of hlessil? I loved it.
At the most basic level, the prose was excellent. The language Adams used was absorbing and interesting to read. Speaking of language, the fact that he provided any number of lapine words for the audience was, I thought, a perfect touch in developing the rabbits as their own separate society. More on this later.
The plot wended to and fro, putting the rabbits in a variety of situations (some good, most bad). In a way, the plot felt less like a plot and more like life than most stories I read. This made it believable in a way that it never would have been otherwise. Yes, you have to accept that rabbits have their own consciousness and societies, but that is hardly a leap for someone who believes that the fay exist. My favorite part of rabbit society was the story telling. It was not only fascinating to see another culture’s mythology. It also allowed me to see into and through the mindset of a rabbit.
Speaking of the rabbits, there are hrair. The various characters do fall under some main archetypes (leader, follower, prophet, muscle, brainiac, etc), but they break with those types fairly often. First and foremost, they are rabbits. Only secondarily do they take on their various characteristics. They grow and evolve as people but they are always rabbits. This brings me to an interesting point. Watership Down is one of the least anthropocentric books I think I have ever read. The narrator may or may not be a rabbit; I’m not sure. He simply explains more of what’s happening as though the audience might be rather uneducated rabbits. There is never a hint that the rabbits are inferior to other creatures, humans in particular. Instead, the rabbits are seen by both themselves and the narrator as smart and clever animals who have their own perspective. When a giant thundering hrududu goes by, the rabbits attribute it to Frith as they should from their own understanding of the world.
That world is literally kill or be killed. This story was so much darker than I was expecting. I went into it thinking “This is a children’s book. There probably won’t be much peril.” I was very, very wrong. The rabbits are constantly in fear of their lives, whether that be from homba, pfeffa, or other elil. In fact, other rabbits are also more often a danger than an aid. The concept of being killed while going for silflay is perfectly normal in the rabbits’ mind. And why wouldn’t it be? Rabbits are prey animals and should behave as such.
The one rabbit who doesn’t follow this rule is General Woundwort. He is strangely unafraid of elil and seems to desire to become more elil-like. He has built up his Owsla specifically to terrorize any predators that may come around. If there was any part of the book I found unbelievable, the General’s character was it. He seemed a trifle forced in his delivery. If that’s the only negative thing I can think to say, I can safely repeat: I loved it. Everyone should read this book – especially if you, like I, have not previously had the pleasure.
P.S. Sorry about all the lapine. I couldn’t resist.