June 5, 2017
This book is, quite simply, one of the great popular novels of all time. This is the fourth time I’ve read it, and I’m never prepared for how engrossed I’ll become. Sure, it’s about rabbits, but these rabbits are maybe more believably human than any other anthropomorphized animal characters I’ve encountered. But they are still rabbits, and Richard Adams gives us many interesting insights into rabbit life—and animal lives, in general—along the way.
In addition to the wonderful cast of characters, from the main three (Fiver, Hazel, and Bigwig) to their dozen or so loyal rabbit friends (Dandelion, Blackberry, Pipkin, and the rest) to their feathered ally Kehaar, the adventures this group of brave, innovative, and caring individuals undertake are thrilling and meaningful. Adams also supplies the reader with a perfect mixture of predictable and unexpected plot developments, while staying true to the overall “quest” arc of the classic human narrative.
As a teacher, I also appreciate the fact that this book can be taught from both a political science and an anthropological perspective. Adams said that he did not intend for the story to have political content, but it unquestionably does. The three major “societies” of rabbits encountered in the book can easily be identified as having fundamentally different ways of governing themselves: one could be classified as a democracy or a meritocracy, another a theocracy or flawed utopia, and the last a dictatorship. To a young person just starting to think about such things, this is a perfect introduction.
Watership Down is also infused with the oral tradition, especially the trickster trope. The rabbits tell each other long stories—myths, really—that take up whole chapters. I appreciated these stories more on this reading than ever before. They are clever and thought-provoking in their own right, and they provide reflections of current events in the story as well as clues as to what’s coming.
All in all, this is certainly among my top ten favorite books that I’ve read, and I look forward to reading it again in another three four years. It’s pure joy.