I will start out this review by admitting that before I started this novel by Richard Adams, I struggled with the question, ” how interesting could the everyday life of a rabbit actually be?” I mean this book is a classic and highly-praised, but still, rabbits? I finally sucked it up and started Adams classic novel of adventure and I was not disappointed. Adams has done his research on both rabbits, and the English countryside. The way Adams describes scenery and the titular watership down makes even a city dweller such as myself want to live there. Adams writes lovingly about the countryside and you can tell that he has a deep appreciation and connection to the English countryside. I also appreciated how Adams did his research on rabbits and he was able to fit many of their real world instincts and mannerisms into the story without anything seeming too far fetched. Again, Adams describes the most mundane details of the rabbits daily lives in a way that draws you in and also helps you to appreciate the minutia of what they do daily.
In the spirit of honesty, I will again admit that I took this book in two chunks, which structurally I think it lends itself too. Roughly the first half of the book is spent following Hazel, Fiver, BigWig and the rest of their rabbit nomad crew leaving their original burrow and trying to find a new home. The first half of the book was not my favorite, it dragged a little bit to me. It did handle a lot of the exposition work of establishing how the rabbtis communicated, the layout of their burrows, structure of community hierarchy, and also how the typical idea of a nervous rabbit was going to be dealt with. One tool Adams uses to do this is through chapters where we are narrated “ancient” rabbit stories about their rabbit prince. I actually found these very entertaining and well crafted. The lesson of the story was often repeated back through the main plot line, sometimes so obviously so that it was a little distracting.
A highlight of what I will call part I, ” The Journey”, is when the rabbits discover a mysterious warren full of huge rabbits with really good food, but a dark secret. It is a good moment of suspense that differentiates itself from the suspense generated by the rabbits being exposed. We also get our first glimpse of what I would say is commentary on the ideals of leadership / government. The rabbits of this warren essentially blindly follow old rules because the negative effect that occurs is only on a small portion of their population. They willing to sacrifice this small portion of the population to keep status quo and keep living a comfortable good life. I believe this provides very contemporary and universal commentary on the idea that being content with a broken, evil system can be just as revolting as actively participating. Also, the book also examines how most people in systems such as these, do not notice until their is the presence of a 3rd party to question their actions or at least try. Malevolence rests just below the surface in this warren and I appreciated Adams delineating from the repetitive scamper and hide theme of the first half of the book.
Spoiler alert, the rabbits do eventually find a new home and settle in. This was my favorite section of the book and what I will call, Part II “The New Warren.” Part II continues Adams themes regarding leadership. In the first half we saw an example of leadership that revolved around maintaining a cushy life for the many and living with terrible loss for the few. It was a cult set up, nobody was really in charge, it was just firmly suggested that you follow “the rule” and the rabbits actually reacted violently to questioning. I would characterize this group as a loosely based on a theocracy, the rabbits worship and follow the rules of the humans who deliver them food and keep the area clear of rabbit enemies. The rabbits have rules for worship and *spoiler alert* they accept the random deaths of rabbits (the humans keep the rabbits well-fed and safe so they can harvest them using traps) as merely the cost that their god exacts from them for the cushy life they live. Hazel’s group notices the flaws and flees the warren. In the second part we are introduced to General Woundwort who runs a massive warren with a combination of dictatorship / totalitarianism. Again, the rabbits of Woundwort’s warren subject themselves to his cruel rule because they maintain a rather safe lifestyle and the upper class levels of his society have a great life. Woundwort also deals brutally with uprisings and questioning of his style of rule. Both styles of leadership are juxtaposed next to Hazel’s leadership of the refugees. Hazel leads in more of a democratic and compassionate way and anytime that he does not take advice from rabbits beneath his standing, it backfires. A clear example of this is Hazel’s hubris in wanting to free does from a nearby farm for no reason and ignoring Fiver’s advice to not go near the farm. I think the leadership comparison’s are interesting could be a fun school assignment if that is what your into.
Part II also contains some pretty epic battle scenes and marks the only time in my life that I have teared up at the prospective death of a fictional rabbit. This review as dragged on so I will try to wrap up concisely. I think Adams love and appreciation for the english countryside is evident in this book and he succeeded in getting me to think a rabbit was actually badass. This book has a little bit of everything for anyone who likes a good, dare I say epic, adventure story. Reading Adams book will give you a deeper appreciation of the struggle of our smaller animal friends. After finishing you may even find yourself staring at that squirrel outside of your office window and wondering how he got there, where is he from, and has he been in any battles to protect his home lately?