Author: Richard Adams
Genre: Middle Grade/Young Adult Fantasy
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When the prophetic rabbit Fiver believes that his rabbit's warren is soon to meet its demise, he convinces his brother Hazel to lead an exodus of rabbits to form their own new warren. But rabbits aren't great at distance traveling, and there are many dangers along the way. And even if the rabbits do find a home, can they maintain the peace with rabbits from nearby warrens?
Originally published in 1972, Watership Down was the late Richard Adams' answer to writing a children's story narrated by animals that would be entertaining and fun. In this attempt, he certainly exceeds.
There were a lot of things that surprised me about Watership Down. I was expecting something that was a lot more tragic, after all rabbits in the wild that live longer than a year are pretty lucky rabbits. And while there are certainly moments of tragedy, it wasn't the bloody rabbit massacre I imagined.
The worldbuilding was also surprising. Adams has crafted a rabbit origin story around a mythical rabbit named El-Ahrairah. El-Ahrairah is a trickster and a rabbit legend who's adventures are used to lift the spirits of modern day rabbits, usually told by the rabbit clan's greatest story teller Dandelion. Rabbits also have their own language, important words of which pop into the story every now and again. There is also a class system that includes a chief rabbit, a warrior class called the Owsla, and finally there's the rest of the buck and doe rabbits. In effect, the worldbuilding was a lot more fully realized than I expected.
Fiver, the rabbit catalyst that sets the plot in motion, also diminishes in importance after his dire warning is spread, almost to the point where it's like the character's not even there at all. A lot of the secondary characters are one dimensional. Dandelion is good at telling stories, Blackberry is the clever one, Bluebell is the funny one, Pipkin is the loyal one, Buckthorn the warrior in training, and Holly is the rabbit that learns to reform. That leaves most of the significant development for Hazel, a rabbit of no significant importance until the exodus, and Bigwig a former member of the Owsla.
Bigwig and Hazel become fairly sympathetic characters, as they are both looking at the bigger picture: the survival of all the rabbits and creating a new warren that can last. Both rabbits display a reckless sort of bravery, and both are willing to sacrifice themselves to help others. Basically when this story needs some adventure, enter Bigwig or Hazel.
While Watership Down starts off as a kind of unpredictable story, it will eventually come back to settle into a traditional good vs evil type of fantasy, which was all too common in the genre in the immediate releases following Lord of the Rings. That being said, Watership Down's characters, plot, and themes are of it's time, but the voice Adam's gave to animals will certainly have you looking at rabbits like you've never looked at them before.