Monday, December 7, 2015

Book Review: WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams

Warning: As always, I try to stay relatively spoiler free. But it doesn’t hurt to proceed with caution.

Rating:  Five Stars—ajklsdflk (when words fail to describe how wonderful a book is)


Well, it’s certainly been a while since I last wrote a book review, and it feels like way longer because—in my mind at least—NaNoWriMo lasted about a century or two. But anyway, I’m back to reviews, and today I’m going to cover one of my many all-time favorites—the book that kept JAWS from claiming the much-coveted #1 slot on the New York Times Bestseller List: WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams.

I’ve talked a bit about this book before, but I’ve been wanting to discuss it in more detail. So here we go.

The Main Rabbits. Okay, a lot of fiction I’ve read starring animals as main characters turns out a bit goofy (with the exception of books like CHARLOTTE’S WEB). While the stories are cute and the critters are charming, they’re not real and you know it. With WATERSHIP DOWN, we enter a much different playing field. Here we have rabbits who feel like rabbits, who act like rabbits, who communicate like rabbits. In fact, most of what I learned about rabbits and their behavioral patterns as a child came from this book.

Instead of giving us furry human-like creatures wearing clothes and going on quests, Richard Adams gives us creatures who follow the rules of nature, who fail to understand the human world, and who might even make you wonder what is going on in the minds of all the rabbits ever (or, maybe that’s just me). Sure, these rabbits are super clever, but they don’t rely on human-based smarts. And they always, always process information the way a rabbit would, rather than the way a human would. (For instance, to them, a train is a giant, fiery messenger from their god.)

Above all, they show themselves to be resourceful, daring, mischievous, and more. They have their own rabbit culture with folklore and legend detailing the harrowing exploits of their original rabbit ancestor. In general, they’re just the best rabbits ever, and they’re the type to be taken seriously, not the type to be cuddled.

The Symbolism. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure this book is somewhat of a metaphor for the human existence. As humans, there are many things that we understand about our world, and many things that we don’t. Similarly, the rabbits understand all the details on their level, yet the world is so much bigger and stranger and harder to comprehend than they could ever dream. Like us, they are trying to survive, trying to find a place where they will be safe and well-fed, trying to build good lives for themselves. Along the way, they run into corrupt governments and individuals who are willing to survive at the expense of others. They encounter the caste system, corruption, and lies.

While, like I said, these rabbits are in no way humanized, their struggles resonate with us because they share the same basis, and though they aren’t meant to be us, I think in some way they’re meant to represent us. They are a small part in a bigger world, and we are a small part in a bigger universe. In being their little rabbit selves, they clarify what it means to be human.

Hazel. True, Hazel may not initially seem the most obvious choice for chief rabbit, but despite what he considers to be his lack of qualifications, he does what is necessary to keep his band of followers together and safe. Through it all, he remains humble and gentle, never demanding power and never treating his fellows as though they are less important than him. Instead, he recognizes each individual’s unique value, he helps his friends work together as efficiently and effectively as possible, and he never forgets what the others have done to help him out along the way.

Fiver. Here is where Richard Adams strays a little from established zoological facts by making Fiver something of a psychic or a mystic. But while Fiver’s visions are scientifically improbable, they do make for good storytelling, and the inclusion of rabbits who can glimpse the future and sense hidden sinister motives helps make the book what it is—beautiful and sad and dark and wonderful. Also, Fiver is just plain adorable.

On top of that, Fiver balances out Hazel remarkably well. While it’s true that Hazel is a talented leader, if it weren’t for Fiver, there would be no group of rabbits to begin with. Ultimately, Hazel would not be nearly as effective without Fiver at his side, helping him out, and Hazel makes his biggest mistakes when he ignores Fiver’s advice.

Bigwig (Thlayli). Bigwig is a former member of the Owsla, which is essentially the rabbit form of military/police. (Come to think of it, I’m not actually sure if that’s a thing in real life rabbit warrens, but oh well, it’s cool so we’re just going to go with it.) Hot-tempered and powerful, he is a force to be reckoned with, and yet, once Hazel earns his loyalty, there is nothing Bigwig wouldn’t do for the physically-unimpressive rabbit he has chosen to follow. Despite his occasional surliness and poor judgment, he remains an invaluable member of the team.

All in all, WATERSHIP DOWN is one of the most atmospheric and captivating books I’ve ever encountered. I’ve read it about nine thousand and twenty-three times (numbers not accurate), but it never gets old—it’s still just as suspenseful, just as powerful, and just as incredible as it was the first time I entered the story. And if I had the money, I would buy copies for everyone ever because it would totally be worth it.

Have you read WATERSHIP DOWN, my little coffee beans? If not, what are you still doing here, not reading it? If you have, what do you think about it? Which character is your favorite? Have you read anything else by Richard Adams? Do you think Owl City’s reference to “the crow and the bean field” is a tip of the hat to this book?


  1. This isn't going to be an intelligent comment, but oh well. I'll just flail instead because WATERSHIP DOWN IS ONE OF MY FAVORITES YAS. <3 Not enough people know about it, but it's really fluffy and lovely and I find myself re-reading it every few months because it's just that spectacular. I don't know how Adams got me to feel so many legit feels over rabbits, but he did. And I'll be emotionally invested for life. xD

    1. WATERSHIP DOWN IS SO BRILLIANT AND WONDERFUL AND BEAUTIFUL AND ASDLFJADSFLK. It was very hard to write an intelligible post rather than just a really long flailing session. :P I've reread it so often and every time I go through it I have to wonder why everyone ever isn't flailing about it all the time. THEY'RE ALL MISSING OUT, AIMEE. *sobs* Adams is a writing wizard, and I want to know all his secrets. I don't think I've come across many characters more compelling than those rabbits. <3

  2. I think I may need to re-read this book... It's been a couple of years but it's still on my bookshelf because I remember that it was just plain awesome. I absolutely ADORED Bigwig. The first time I read it I was like in fourth grade or something and it was the first time I'd read a book through the eyes of animals that was actually intelligent (as opposed to Fluffy the Bunny Rabbit who went on a journey to find his carrot) so it'll always stick on both my favourites shelf and Important Impact on my Childhood shelf. And with the Owl City thing, I wouldn't be surprised if it was a reference to WD. I remember reading that it's one of Adam's favourite books. (Man, I must re-read it.)

    1. DO IT. *stares you down until you do* I can't even remember how many times I've read this book, and I'm so glad I finally got around to re-reading it because it had been a couple years. Oh my goodness, I love Bigwig so much. And Fiver. And Hazel. And all of them. *hugs them all* This would definitely go into the Important Impact on Childhood category, because even though I didn't realize it at the time, it taught me so much about what it means to be human and how to be a leader and important stuff like that. Yeah, I think I read that somewhere too, and I've always wondered because every time I hear that song it just makes me think of Watership Down all over again. (Go, do the deed. Re-read the book.)

  3. *Whispers* I've never read the book, only seen the movie... *crawls away with shame* :)

    1. *gasp* That's okay, I suppose I can forgive you. Trust me, the book is way better than the movie. I remember being pretty disappointed with the movie, though it was so long ago, I can't remember an awful lot about it--just pictures and emotions really. But yeah, I definitely recommend the book. *shoves it in your face like an obnoxious person*