Most of my friends look back to JRR Tolkien or George Lucas as the authors of the greatest epic fantasies ever created, but for me, it is Richard Adams. His Watership Down is the epic fantasy to which I compare all others. What’s that? You thought Watership Down was just that cute book about rabbits? Just one of the first in a long line of anthropomorphic fiction? No, it is so much more—more than the allegorical implications of Animal Farm, more than the quest and adventure of Erin Hunter's various series, and more than the rich characterization and world-building of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows. No, Watership Down is complexly written, intricately plotted, and emotionally nuanced novel about a bunch of rabbits. I swear it’s awesome.
Richard Adams’s book is about a quest as epic and enormous as that of Virgil’s Aeneas— that of the rabbits Fiver and Hazel, and their brave and desperate search for a new warren. The plot falls naturally from the actions of the characters, all stemming from a mysterious beginning. Fiver, the runt of his litter, has a premonition: the warren where they all live will soon be destroyed. Fiver is small, and often ignored, but his brother Hazel believes in his brother’s visions. Hazel and Fiver and a few others leave to found a new warren, one that is safe and promising. It is their quest to find a new home that establishes the backbone of their epic journey. Along the way, they encounter rabbits good and bad, terrifying beasts, and struggles nearly too much to bear.
There’s actually lots to be made of the mythic qualities of this book—the comparisons to the Aeneid is justified by more than surface comparisons—but I hate to lean on that too hard. This isn’t a literature paper after all, it’s a review. However, the book resonates with old themes, and that’s why it isn’t simply a bunny adventure tale. No, the risks these characters take, the pains they feel both in body and mind, their triumphs and failures are about as human as they come. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but the book is just so good. I haven’t really re-read much of the fiction I first encountered in high school, but this book is one I go back to again and again, and discover new riches and depths every time.
Find it at your local library, or here.
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