Watership Down by Richard Adams (Anthropomorphic Fantasy Novel, 1972).
I’ve been reading (and reviewing) a wide range of mostly recent books of late and will continue to do so. But I felt the itch to tackle a recognized classic and got hold of this famous, wonderful book. I’m happy to report that this much-honored fantasy adventure proved as good as I’d heard.
The plot is outwardly familiar.
In fact, the epic journey and/or quest story is perhaps the signature form of traditional fantasy, and this glorious classic novel has many of the expected elements and more besides. A seer’s premonition of impending doom causes his big brother to lead a handful of followers from their doomed homeland. The brother is outwardly a rather average fellow–and no great warrior. Yet Hazel (yes, that’s his name) proves a steady, resourceful and ultimately even heroic figure. The little band sets off on a long and dangerous trek into the unknown. They have numerous adventures, encountering strange lands, making helpful allies, and running afoul of deadly enemies along the way. Skin-of-the-teeth escapes from all sorts of dangers abound.
In the process, the group grows close and comes to respect each other’s special strengths and skills. They finally locate a potential new home. Yet their determination to establish a sustainable community brings them into conflict with a distant, murderous dictator. Led by their most stalwart warrior and the seer, they make a bold yet seemingly hopeless last stand against this ruthless individual’s army. Meanwhile, their unassuming yet wise leader and a couple other loyal friends embark on a wildly risky plan to bring unlikely reinforcements. They trick what they consider a monstrous enemy into helping them defeat the crazed dictator. The last-minute scheme works, the evil ruler is defeated and those who replace him in power make a just peace with our heroes, benefiting all concerned.
Yes, this all sounds like a fairly familiar story and it has plenty of magical wonder, courage and adventure. The culture depicted here feels somewhat medieval, although with interesting and appropriate variations that set it apart from more run-of-the-mill fantasies. There’s suspense, epic escapes, numerous believable characters finding more courage in themselves than even they knew they possessed in this wise and deeply satisfying story line. There’s even unique folklore, as stories of a legendary culture hero are frequently employed to inspire our understandably uncertain heroes.
And you know what? The mere fact that all the central characters are rabbits–yes, long-eared, furry, cottontail bunny rabbits and that the setting is rural England–in no way makes the novel any less outstanding, mature or fascinating. In fact, Adams’s attention to the norms of rabbit society helps to make the plot doubly unique and the characters even more memorable than I expected.
It’s a truly wonderful novel, with sincere heart and much poignancy. I’m glad I finally read it and recommend it wholeheartedly. Just don’t go in thinking it’s a book for the little kids. The subject matter is mature–with plenty of life and death issues; tragic losses as well as triumphs.
And by the way, it’s still available in pretty much all formats (paperback, hardcover, audio, ebook).