This in-depth examination of “Watership Down” by Richard Adams is the second entry in “Climbing the O’Fallon Library’s Stairs, a Deep Dive into the Classics with a Librarian.” The first step was Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
I’d like to invite everyone to read along with me as I “climb the stairs” by reading the classics listed there. The goal is to share the books our community deemed important enough to preserve in our library space for all time.
Imagine my surprise when my daughter told me she had read “Watership Down” and I had not. “That’s the one with all the rabbits, right?” she asked.
I affirmed her idea, then asked what she remembered about it. “Just that it had a bunch of rabbits,” she replied.
“Did you like it more or less than other books you’ve read?” I asked. She shrugged and settled into the silence of a teenager who isn’t going to share anything else.
This book about rabbits, as my daughter would say, has won multiple awards including the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Prize.
It is made all the more impressive as this was Richard Adam’s first book. He says he first told stories of the Watership Down rabbits to his daughters as he drove them around in the car. They helped convince him that the stories needed to be written down.
And isn’t the world grateful that they did?
Adams credits classic mythology and the work of Joseph Campbell as influencing this writing. A few of these themes will be discussed later in the book summary.
A brief summary, for those who haven’t read the book:
The story begins when Fiver, a rabbit gifted with special powers, foresees the destruction of his home warren. He shares this information with his brother, Hazel. Together, they convince several rabbits to come with them to escape the impending doom Fiver foresaw.
Unfortunately, not every bunny in the warren believed Fiver. (This plot device has been compared to everyone ignoring Cassandra in “The Odyssey,” a classic that I HAVE read.)
Together, the rabbits brave the world outside the warren and come into contact with other bunny groups. One, situated near a farm, has plenty of food and warm tunnels. The group decides to stay there, despite Fiver’s vision against it, until one of their number is caught in a snare set by the farmer. (This particular plot twist has been compared to the encounter between Odysseus and the lotus-eaters.)
It then becomes clear to all the rabbits that they need to move on. One of the rabbits from the farm warren, Strawberry, joins them.
The rabbits’ wanderings seem to be at an end when they find a beautiful field in Watership Down (which is a real place, see here https://bit.ly/3t5l63N).
But they realize they have no female rabbits in their group in order to carry on the warren to successive generations. The group befriends a bird named Kehaar, who helps them locate another close warren in order to find mates.
That warren, called Efrafa, isn’t like the home they left. It is cold and cruel under the leadership of General Woundwort. Hazel makes a plan to break into Efrafa to bring some female bunnies home. It is a terrifying mission, but he does find a female named Hyzenthlay who agrees to go with him. Together, the group escapes Efrafa with General Woundwort on their collective tails.
Woundwort gathers the bunnies of his warren and goes to attack the story’s hero bunnies. One of the Watership Down rabbits, named Bigwig, fights General Woundwort in one-on-one combat and triumphs. Meanwhile, Hazel concocts a scheme to free the farmer’s dog in order to fight off the Efrafa bunnies. His plan succeeds and he almost dies when he’s caught by the farmer’s daughter.
She lets Hazel go.
In the end, the two warrens end up forming a new warren that lies halfway between Watership Down and Efrafa. And they all live happily ever after.
That’s the plot. Now, what does it mean?
According to the Guardian, Richard Adams’ believed it was a fairy tale and not an allegory. “‘Rubbish!’ he always said. ‘It’s just a story about rabbits.’”
In a May 2020 article, Penguin Publishing had this to say: “Part of the reason why Watership Down has endured is because the story it tells has gained new resonance with each passing decade.
And yet, to the frustration of many, Adams maintained that ‘it’s only a made-up story, it’s in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls.’
Yes, despotic baddie General Woundwart’s origins really are that prosaic: Watership Down started on long car journeys as a means of entertaining Adams’ two daughters. The eldest, who was eight at the time, requested: ‘a completely new story, one that we have never heard before and without any delay. Please start now!’. And so Adams responded: ‘I just began off the top of my head: “Once upon a time there were two rabbits, called eh, let me see, Hazel and Fiver, and I’m going to tell you about some of their adventures.”’
Personally, I think the story can contain however much or little meaning readers put into it.
Watership Down, though perhaps not intended as an allegory, works well as one. It can be about fighting over resources or political movements.
I think it is about working together with the resources we’re given in order to best prepare the next generation to continue on.
Perhaps I’ve over-simplified it. But that is my right as a reader.
I hope you read it and make up your own mind too.
“You know how you let yourself think that everything will be all right if you can only get to a certain place or do a certain thing. But when you get there you find it’s not that simple.” ― Richard Adams, Watership Down
The next step in the series is “Charlotte’s Web,” a classic that I first read in grade school. Thanks for reading!