I have to say, given my extreme allergy to and so general dislike of rabbits, I hardly expected to absolutely love a book about them. What’s more, I definitely wasn’t expecting to like such hardcore, dramatic rabbits. However, this book came to me as a recommendation from my uncle, whose taste in literature I trust almost completely, and I’m so, so glad I picked it up.
What’s the Book?
If you hear rabbits and think “Aww! So cute and fun and happy!” This is not the book for you. Seriously. These rabbits are not light and happy. Fluffy, yes, but the fluff covers no small amount of battle scars.
The story surrounds a group of young rabbits who, on the advice of a rabbit with prophetic visions, abandon their home fearing that it will soon be destroyed. Hazel, the brother of Fiver (our futuristic bunny), becomes the leader of the group and together they set out to find a home that Fiver believes exists.
In the first half of the story, the rabbits fight to establish that new home for themselves. And what a brutal fight it is, dogged by injury, predators, hostile rabbits, and more, the motley crew struggles to make it anywhere worth living. On top of that, they have to struggle through their dynamics, learning how they work with each other and what roles each rabbit holds in the group. In the second half of the story, the rabbits learn what it means to fight for their newfound freedom and face off against a horrible dictatorship of rabbits that would like nothing more than to squash our rabbit champions beneath its paws.
Life for our rabbits starts to become impossibly narrow once again. But now they have the choice to fight for themselves and use the bonds they’ve created to stand up to those who would crush them.
Why It’s a Top Ten
In many ways, Watership Down can be a bit of a brutal read. By the time I finished reading this book all I could think was that every single character was going to need some serious therapy after all they’d been through.
From the very get-go, the book doesn’t pull any punches when Fiver’s horrible vision comes true and the group of rabbits learns that their old home was in fact destroyed and they and two other rabbits are the only survivors. It doesn’t get much lighter. In the course of their bid for a better life, rabbits are maimed, killed, shot, and otherwise put under incredible mental strain. And if you’re familiar with the old cartoon film version of this story, you know just how gruesome it gets at the climax of the book.
So why does it make the top ten list despite the heavy material? Because the way the characters face each trial and tragedy speaks such volumes of perseverance and fellowship that the weighted nature of the book all becomes worth it. The characters are nothing short of incredible and absolutely shine in Adams’s almost folklore style of storytelling.
We see Hazel, a frequently passed over rabbit rise to be a kind and courageous leader of the new warren. Bigwig, a tough, militaristic sort of rabbit, transforms from one step shy of a bully to a humble but fearsome defender of the weak. Even the rabbits who don’t go through huge changes of character shine in the way they interact with their fellow rabbits. Dandelion tells rabbit folklore stories to the other rabbits throughout the book in a valiant effort to keep them connected to their animality. Bluebell, in a scene I found profoundly emotional, uses his humor to encourage an exhausted and near-death rabbit to hold on just a little longer until they can find help.
It’s these moments of loyalty and brotherhood amongst the rabbits that make the story unforgettable. Time and time again, these rabbits chose to weather the storms of their world together and the dynamics and relationships this choice spotlights is nothing short of fascinating. No matter the horror of their circumstances, the rabbits of Watership Down always manage to hold together and face whatever trials come their way with unity and courage. We don’t need human characters to appreciate those kinds of literary themes.
Let others have their fluffy, cutesy bunny rabbits. These are my kind of rabbits.