Finally, a book that tells us the honest-to-goodness truth about rabbits. All this time we thought rabbits were just cute, floppy-eared carrot-eaters with a penchant for hopping. But as Richard Adams's Watership Down teaches us, rabbits are actually violent, adventurous creatures, with a complex culture and mythology.
Okay, maybe you shouldn't use Watership Down as a textbook to pass that important rabbit exam in Biology class. This book has as much to do with rabbit biology as does the legend of the Easter Bunny. Rather, this puppy reads more like one of those ancient epics, like Virgil's Aeneid or Jim Henson's Muppets Take Manhattan (only with rabbits instead of people or Muppets). Richard Adams's novel tells the story of a group of furry characters who leave their comfortable (but doomed) home and try to make a new, better one, over the river and through the woods. They face dangerous predators, like dogs and humans; make unlikely allies; and fight a war against another group of rabbits led by the bunny equivalent of Hitler or Mussolini.
If you're saying to yourself, "a book about violent bunnies—who would want to read that?" then pat yourself on the back (or get a bunny to do so), because you're as smart as all the publishers who originally rejected this book. Of course, they're poorer and less famous for having given this book the ax, so don't pat yourself on the back too hard. History has proven those guys oh so very wrong, even though we're betting the average Joe probably would have agreed with them at the time.
See, a rabbit epic is not typically bestseller material. And nor was it meant to be. Originally, Richard Adams made up this story for his daughters as they were driving around the English countryside. (See "Setting" for more on that.) When Adams finally got around to writing the story down, a bunch of publishers passed saying that (a) only young kids liked bunnies, but (b) the book was too violent for young kids. Eventually, a small publisher called Rex Collings sent the book to the presses in Britain in 1972; and then the book was published in America in 1974.
How'd it do? Very well, thanks for asking. In fact, it was an instant bestseller and has never been out of print since. (So take that, publishers who don't like violent epic adventures starring bunnies.) The truth is, on all those road trips with his daughters Richard Adams was onto something. Something good. So good in fact, that Watership Down won the Guardian Award for children's literature (1972) and the Carnegie Medal (1972).
And yet you're still wondering: a book about rabbits? What makes it so well loved? Shmoop's got two theories:
It's super realistic. Adams set the story where he lived in Southern England, using the names and descriptions of real places. And many of the characters are based on people (not, sadly, bunnies) that Adams knew, mostly from his experience in World War II. And the rabbits—except for the war, politics, and myth telling—behave a lot like real rabbits, which Adams researched extensively, using R. M. Lockley's book on rabbit life, The Private Life of the Rabbit.
It's super fantastic.When Adams wrote his story about rabbits facing rabbit problems, people (we mean "Americans") were facing people problems, like the Cold War and the Vietnam War and the War against Bell-bottoms. Judging from the outfits people wore, the 1970s weren't a great time to be alive. So rather than read about human wars and the horror of disco, how great would it be to escape into a story about rabbits having rabbit adventures?
And once you've read about it, how great would it be to wallow even more in rabbit warrens? Watership Down was made into a movie (1978) and a TV show (1999-2001); and Richard Adams later published a sequel of sorts—a book of nineteen short stories titled Tales from Watership Down (1996).
But Lapine literature ain't the only thing this guy had up his sleeve. Besides his rabbit stories, Richard Adams wrote several other books, most of which have to do with animals and the environment in some way. For instance, Shardik (1974) is about a mythical giant bear; The Plague Dogs (1977) is about two dogs who escape from a laboratory; and Traveller (1988) tells the story of the US Civil War through the eyes of Grant's horse, Traveller. So we can pretty confidently state that Adams liked clean air and wild places. In fact, Adams showed his interest in the environment beyond writing books: he served as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals from 1980 to 1982; and he has fought to keep the actual Watership Down safe for rabbits. But you'll have to read the book to truly understand why it was worth saving.
We can say this because we're just about to have an election in America or have just had an election (which is kind of always the case here—there's always an election somewhere): you should care about Watership Down because it's about what sort of world you want to live in, just as an election is. In Watership Down, Hazel and the other rabbits have to figure out who they want leading them; whom they trust; what they want their home to be like; and what they're willing to sacrifice in order to make their world the way they want it to be. See? Just like an election.
Even if you don't vote (or don't care about politics), this is a book for you, because this isn't just political in the sense of elections and voting. The question of "What sort of world do I want to live in?" goes beyond voting once in a while. That's the question that Hazel and his rabbits ask themselves when they go out to start a new home. And it's a question that each of us has to ask and act on as we go out and try to make a life for ourselves, especially when we're young and questing out into the world to find (or make) a place for us.
This isn't just some abstract philosophical question that we ask ourselves while sitting around in smoking jackets playing gin rummy. (Or however you spend your Friday nights.) In Watership Down, this life-or-death question gets asked whenever Hazel's rabbits meet a group of rabbits who are living according to certain choices. And these are choices that we have to face as well:
Should we stay in Efrafa, where we can be safe and secure but not free? Should we enjoy the luxuries of Cowslip's warren and ignore the potential death that could get us at any time? Should we listen to the powerful rabbits and just stay in Sandleford Warren, no matter what the little rabbits like Fiver say? Or should we give up everything that we know and risk everything we have for the chance of a better home on Watership Down?
We may not face the exact dangers that Hazel's rabbits face—no farmer is going to kill and cook us (we hope). But we do have to ask ourselves these questions about our values and which values we value more. What's most important to you: freedom, security, luxury, authority, power?