For our family’s summer reading selection, I picked the mammoth four-hundred-page Watership Down by Richard Adams. Some novels will feel like an endurance test just four pages in. Without fail, whenever I read Watership Down, those four hundred pages feel to me like a summer holiday. My husband, who groaned at the idea of reading such a long book about rabbits, instead has eagerly returned to the book whenever he has a spare minute.
“The rabbits arrived at their new home – but I’m not even halfway through the book,” my husband observed. “What in the world can happen next?” Richard Adams never ceases to amaze me with how he handles pacing. On the surface, his rabbit tale is a fairly simple one: rabbits must escape their doomed warren and find a new home. In less capable hands, Watership Down would have been half as long and packed with chases, storms, brawls, and catastrophes. But Adams never hurries his tale. Often he stops to leisurely describe the scenery or to wax philosophical. Sometimes he even dedicates an entire chapter to a rabbit folktale. Yet these interludes rarely feel like interruptions; rather, these interesting descriptions, musings, and stories of the rabbit god Frith and the great trickster El-ahrairah increase the momentum. Adams also never resorts to implausible plot twists. Instead he is perfectly content to tell his simple tale and trust his readers to listen—and so we do.
I am astounded at how imperfect and yet captivating are Adams’ rabbits. Take Fiver, a runt who has been blessed with the gift of prophecy. Then there is Fiver’s older brother, Hazel, whose greatest strength is his ability to identify and trust the strengths of others. By speaking with conviction of his trust in his brother’s visions of doom, he convinces a small band of rabbits to leave the warren and seek a new home. Yet even he also makes errors in judgment. One day to prove his greatness as a leader, despite desperate warnings from Fiver, Hazel sets out to rescue pet rabbits from a nearby farm – and almost meets a violent end. Darker characters also exist. For example, let me introduce you to Strawberry who lives in a different warren. He hides a dark secret, which almost becomes the downfall of one of Hazel’s companions. Despite his betrayal, he eventually joins Hazel’s warren and becomes a great asset. And then there is Captain Holly. One of the powerful elite at the Sandleford warren, he attempts to arrest Hazel and his fellow rabbits to prevent them from leaving the warren. After failing to do so, he later seeks refuge at Hazel’s new warren and becomes a valued contributor. These rabbits are fallible, allowing Adams to present many stirring moments of heartache and redemption.
Adams considered the Berkshire countryside to also be a character in Watership Down. He certainly lavishes great attention to it. In a random survey which I conducted of twenty books for young people, over half of them dedicated their first paragraph to introducing character. And by character, I mean a human being or least an animal. Half of the books didn’t refer to setting until the second paragraph or even the second page. And when they did, they often only dedicated one sentence to description. A particularly generous author may perhaps devote an entire early paragraph to setting. In contrast, Adams spends the first three paragraphs on the landscape. That’s not to say Adams wastes time waxing poetic. In each paragraph, he details the scenery but also the place of the rabbits within it: “The May sunset was red in clouds and there was still half an hour to twilight. The dry slope was dotted with rabbits—some nibbling at their grass….” Those paragraphs might be long, but they effectively establish a tone of peace, which within a few pages is quietly interrupted. Readers are all the richer for how saturated in reality Watership Down really is.
“No author today would think of writing a four-hundred-page book about rabbits,” my husband observed. Adams himself did not begin with such an audacious goal; Watership Down started out as story told by Adams to his daughters on car rides. As the years went on, his daughters encouraged him to share his story with the world, and finally he took the plunge and set the tale to paper. But Watership Down received so many rejections that Adams considered publishing it himself. Then a small-time publisher named Rex Collins accepted it for a two thousand copy run. Since that time it has rightfully sold millions of copies.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?