Retro Review: “Watership Down”

Apparently this is my week of talking about old books that most people have read and liked, as if they needed another review, because here I am, talking about “Watership Down”. And why am I talking about “Watership Down”? Because I just finished it. Like, two hours ago. No, I had never read it before now. It’s probably less odd than me having first watched “The Empire Strikes Back” about a month ago, so there’s that.

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Admittedly, it does look pretty sweet

So what did I think of the book? Well, what do you think? It was, of course, outstanding. For those unaware of the plot, it takes place in the English countryside (a real place you can presumably find on a map, though I haven’t tried).A rabbit known as Fiver gets a terrible premonition that a horrific disaster is about to befall their warren. When the Chief Rabbit of the warren doesn’t believe him, Fiver, his older brother Hazel, a member of the rabbit Owsla (council) known as Bigwig, and several others decide to escape together before the disaster strikes. And thus begins their journey from the Sandleford warren to the hills of Watership Down, which Fiver describes as an almost mythical place, like the land of milk and honey from Exodus.

This is pretty much the first half of the book. The second half concerns itself with the establishment of the new warren on Watership Down. The principal concern is finding does so the warren can propagate. The main plotline centers around a rabbit warren known asĀ  Efrafa, lead by the tyrannical General Woundwort, a vicious but cunning leader who rules the warren with an iron fist. Hazel (who has become Chief Rabbit) and the gang run afoul of Efrafa, culminating in a climactic battle that involves two rabbits in one on one combat and a dog. It’s much more suspenseful than it sounds.

So, about the book. People love to insist that it’s just not, not, NOT a children’s book. Well…sorry, but yeah, it kind of is. The only thing that might turn kids off is length, and after “Harry Potter” that’s not really a big concern anymore (perhaps at the time it was published?).

Awwwwwwww

But think about it. It’s about rabbits. I know, I know, there are hobbits in “Lord of the Rings” and all of that, and Aesop’s fables, and I’m sure lots of other stuff, but…the main character is a bunny named Hazel. The “Warrior” rabbit is Bigwig. One is called Pipkin. Come on. They’re adorable.

And what content would you object to showing kids? Here’s a spoiler for you (for a who-knows-how-many-years-old book): None of the main characters die*.

Not. One.

The only sympathetic characters who ever die are a couple of does rescued from the Efrafan warren, and before they even make it to Watership Down. I don’t even remember if we learned their names.

There were really only three times in the book I was ever concerned they might die. One was when Bigwig got caught in the trap early on. One was when the group nearly left Dandelion behind after the raid on Efrafa. And the last one was when Woundwort’s men found Fiver lying motionless in the warren (Yes, I broke out in a huge grin when Fiver popped up and started uttering dire prophecies against the invading Efrafans).

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The movie is really not helping my case here.

Are their fights? Sure, but nothing I thought was too gruesome. People like to point to Bigwig’s fight with Woundwart at the end, but I actually thought the scene where Bigwig escapes from the snare was more graphic, and even then Bigwig is well enough to escape from Cowslip’s warren. It’s certainly MUCH less disturbing than “The Hunger Games”.

No, this is a children’s book. It’s appropriate for children to read, it stars talking rabbits, none of the characters we really like die, and, of course, it’s incredibly superversive. This ranks up there with some of the most superversive books I’ve ever read. I grinned the whole time I read it.

Was it flawless? No. The book went on much longer than I expected. This isn’t bad in itself, and I wouldn’t cut out any specific section in full, but there were times I half-read, half-skimmed pages to get to the real action. I don’t think we needed as many stories as we got about El-ahrairah. A couple were interesting, but I don’t think we needed more than that. The one with the fairy dog was amusing but unnecessary, and just took up space. That was one of those skim-read scenes.

The flip side of this is that yes, there is action, and yes, it is superbly suspenseful. The highlights, of course, are the escape from Cowslip’s warren, the raid on the hutch, the raid on Efrafa, and the final fight with General Woundwart and the Efrafans.

I’m not sure I was a fan of the deus ex machina with the girl finding Hazel and returning him to the warren. Besides the fact that any type of solution involving a deus ex machina will always seem a bit cheap (admittedly lessened by Fiver’s prophecies from earlier), the fact is that it took what we had been reading and cast it in a distinctly comedic light. I think this was a mistake. Up until then Adams had done an exquisite job at making the exploits of the warren seem dangerous and important, but by reminding us that, hey, these were just bunnies, I was taken out of the story, and not in a good way. Better to either have humans remain a grim and terrible force of nature rabbits are forced to accommodate for than to have them intrude comically into an otherwise serious story.

Another point: The rabbits talk about how humans are far worse than other elil, because they hunt for sport and other animals hunt for instinct (and stuff along those lines), buuuuuut…what about rabbit villains? This only makes sense in real life, where animals *aren’t* sentient. In Adams’ world this makes his rabbit logic nonsensical: Why are bad humans any worse than bad rabbits? There’s no particularly good reason. A little bit of intrusive message fiction stuck in there, and the story is worse for it.

But I’m really nitpicking now. This book was outstanding. I’m not going to say that Adams was as good with his characters as L’Engle, Lewis, or T.H. White. That would be a step too far. But he was very, very good. Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig in particular are extremely well-drawn. Bigwig was definitely my favorite, and had my favorite character arc in the book, from arrogant bully to stalwart soldier. He is humbled by Fiver and Hazel, who end up in the right, contrary to him, more than once – and to Bigwig’s credit, he accepts his humbling with good grace, and becomes Hazel’s most dependable rabbit. If Hazel is the most heroic and selfless of all of them, Bigwig is certainly a close second. And from the beginning of the book to the end, that’s a heck of a character arc.

Oh, I forgot one: General Woundwart. What a magnificent villain, complex and frightening. Woundwart has just enough admirable qualities that right up until he refuses Hazel’s parlay for peace you feel just a little bit bad for taking him down. After that, you want vengeance…and the warren gets it.

I’m going to defend the book from charges of sexism. Roughly the second half or so of the book is heavily concerned with the rabbits finding does so the warren can grow properly. I think many of the criticisms leveled at the book on this point are unfair. First off, none of the does are kidnapped. All come willingly and of their own accord. Neither the does from the hutch or the does from Efrafa are forced to leave. For another, Adams makes it a specific, explicit point to say that rabbits think differently than humans about this subject; propagation of the warren is looked at as a duty rather than a romantic undertaking, and the does seem to accept this arrangement as well as the bucks.

It’s also helpful to note that one of the does even asks Bigwig, before the escape, if going with him means that she will be able to pick her mates, and Bigwig replies in the affirmative. And, of course, the doe Hyzenthlay is instrumental in forming and executing the escape plan. Feminist criticism is wrapped up in looking at the rabbits as humans. When looked at as rabbits, their actions are logical and entirely reasonable, and the actions of the does are entirely consensual throughout the novel.

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I’m starting to get the “not for kids” thing, actually

To close this out, I will note that I have yet to see the movie. However, looking at the plot summary on Wikipedia, I think I know why many people don’t think of this as a children’s book. The movie is a lot darker (Hazel going to join the owsla of the Black Rabbit of Inle?** That’s like asking Hazel to join the high council of Satan. What the heck is that? And killing off Blackavar? Why is that necessary? Ugh).

“Watership Down” is an excellent book. Children’s book or not, this is a well-deserved classic, and has jumped up high on my list of all-time favorites. Not that it really needs it, but I highly recommend it.

Once I see the film, I promise you that I will post a review of it on here as well. I’m curious now. Anybody else excited for the remake?

Me neither.

*And no, I’m not counting Hazel going into rabbit heaven with El-Ahrairah after living a long and happy life, nor should you.

**I noticed some dispute about whether or not the rabbit spirit at the end of the movie is the Black Rabbit of Inle or El-Ahrairah. Well, in any case, the movie ALSO added a character, specifically so they could kill her off. Still on thin ice.