I picked up Watership Down by Richard Adams earlier this summer because I wanted to read a book that didn’t involve people or romance. My father had recommended this classic to me years ago, so when I saw it on the library shelf I figured I would give it a try. Upon turning to the first page I thought I was beginning to read a quaint, cute, heart-warming novel of rabbit adventures.
Anyone who has read Watership Down knows just how mistaken I was.
This is not an innocent, light-hearted novel about adorable rabbits living in harmony; instead, it’s the story of pain, conflict, loss, risk, and even some rabbit cults. The most ironic part of this surprising twist is that in his introduction to the novel Adams makes it clear that Watership Down began as a story he used to tell his daughters during car rids. Were his daughters scarred for life? Did he tone it down for them and ramp it up in the novel? So many questions!
The story itself was suspenseful, gripping, and captivating. Once I got about a third of the way through the novel I found it hard to put down because I wanted to know what would happen next so badly. Yet as much as I found it entertaining, an aspect of the story also rubbed me the wrong way: in essence, it was about a bunch of guy rabbits trying to figure out a way to get girl rabbits to mate (read: have sex) with. And I get that this is the way rabbits work, and that Adams made it clear in his introduction that the novel isn’t supposed to be a parable for anything. But am I the only one who gets the sneaking suspicion that, boiled down to its core, Watership Down is mostly a story about a bunch of rabbits who just really want to have sex? (And, you know, further the longevity of their new warren and stuff…)
As soon as I started thinking about this I had a hard time taking anything in the book seriously—it all just became so comical. Look at the lengths these guys were willing to go to in order to have sex! The risks they took! The lives they lost! Is this an oversimplification? Absolutely. But one could definitely argue that the seeds are there. It also certainly didn’t help that girl rabbits were valued solely for their “readiness” to mate. Again, does this make sense in the context of rabbits? Yes; however, this book also isn’t written for rabbits, meaning that we are obviously going to be tempted to apply the rules of our society to that of Hazel, Fiver, and the other rabbits in this book. Personally, I don’t think “it’s a book about rabbits” excuses the novel’s sexism. I’m not saying this book shouldn’t be read; rather, I think readers should just be aware that the ways guy rabbits view girl rabbits in these warrens is sometimes how men view women in our own society, and it’s not okay.
Apart from that issue and the book’s wild thwarting of my initial expectations, I did otherwise enjoy Watership Down. Adams was often very clever with how he described things like train tracks, cars, headlights, and other human technology, framing it as a rabbit would see it. He obviously did a lot of research about rabbit behavior beforehand, working elements of their feeding, digging, and mating habits into the story. I admire Adams’ meticulous attention to detail in this novel. I also really liked the ending—it gives a rare sense of closure and made me feel as though reading all of the tumultuous, suspenseful events that came before it was worth it.
Overall, although Watership Down was drastically different from what I expected, I did end up enjoying it well enough. I’m not sure that I would read it again in the future or recommend it wholeheartedly to someone, but I’m glad that I gave it a go and read it.
Have you ever read Watership Down? Did you have any of the issues with it that I did? Let me know in the comments section below!