Let me tell you about a friend of mine. She was a huge fan of the “Lord of the Rings” films, the recent Peter Jackson imaginings. She loved the films so much, she owned the extended editions and would occasionally have movie marathons with her family. But anytime she tried to tackle the books, it was to no avail. The language seemed too dense, or the world-building dragged, and she couldn’t engage with the text as she did with the movies. Then my friend discovered Watership Down. Okay, just kidding, it wasn’t my friend, but this was actually me.
Back in middle school I loved the “Lord of the Rings” films so much. All I kept hearing was how much I would love the books, but just couldn’t enjoy it as much. I was struggling to find an epic journey tale that I would love, to stoke that fire. And then there was Watership Down: it fell into my lap by chance, a randomly selected book from a summer reading list that I picked solely to get the report out of the way. But I read this book and fell hard for it. It filled the hole that Lord of the Rings had left behind, an adorable, but still epic journey that spanned the land and featured all sorts of nefarious characters.
Our Adorable Heroes
Alright, let’s just get it out of the way: yes, this band of heroes are rabbits, and yes, they are cute to the imagination. But they’re also characters with families, culture, heritage, and drive. The story of Watership Down is about a group of rabbits who set out from their home warren, in search of a new home (something that’s unheard of for rabbits to do). From the get-go the band of travelers understand the risks involved: not only are they leaving the relative safety of home, but they are searching for allies in a natural world that’s against them, and need to build their new home from scratch.
Hazel is the de-facto leader of the group, and has a little brother named Fiver. Hazel is very much like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, minus the combat skills: he’s honest, puts others before his own needs, and makes rational decisions for the betterment of the group. Fiver would be Frodo, burdened with a great, but terrible gift: for Frodo it was the Ring, but for Fiver it’s the gift of foresight.
Fiver convinced Hazel and their friends to leave the home warren because of a vision he had of death coming to the warren. Not leaving anything to chance, Hazel takes Fiver away and they’re accompanied by a ragtag group of side characters: Bigwig, Pipkin, Dandelion, Silver, Blackberry, Hawkbit, Acorn, and Speedwell. Aside from Bigwig, the other accompanying fellows have small roles, but each has their time in the spotlight and serve a purpose. As the rabbits journey on, more join their group.
I particularly loved their culture as well. Richard Adams created this whole mythology behind rabbits and their habits, which stemmed from their folk hero El-ahrairah. Periodically throughout the journey, the rabbits would swap stories of El-ahrairah and his great trickery. These breaks were well-placed, and brought a nice reprieve from the constant danger of the journey. It explained their superstitions and why rabbits behaved the way they did, an overall nice touch to the world we’ve been introduced to through these rabbits’ eyes.
A Perilous Journey On a Smaller Scale
In my copy of the book, the inside pages include a map of the area where the rabbits traveled. It’s laughably small, only a few miles in distance altogether. But the gift of the storytelling is to make that small area seem bigger and more dangerous than it may seem from above, and Richard Adams achieved this wonderfully. But, just like Lord of the Rings, overcoming nature’s obstacles is only half the journey. The other half are the characters and enemies you meet along the way.
I was gripped by every tense-filled chapter. The group encounters not one, but two other rabbit warrens that have their own nefarious motives behind them. Each warren is like it’s own little province, with leaders and armies and organization. Even after Hazel’s group find a place to build their new home, they encounter other problems like a lack of female rabbits for breeding, other predators in the woods, and the possibility that their enemies (or even the death that Fiver predicted) would come upon them at any moment. Every chapter is engaging and dramatic, and doesn’t focus on world-building too much. Rabbits inhabit our world, so we already understand the landscape that they’re inhabiting and how they interact. Instead, Adams focuses on the drama between the rabbits. Rest assured that these are characters, and they go through their own doubts, near-death experiences, and thoughts of turning back for the entire journey. But Hazel’s leadership and reliance is what keeps them going through every obstacle they encounter.
Baby Steps to Tolkien/Martin
George RR Martin and J.RR. Tolkien are two writers who’ve shared epic fantasy works with the world. But not everyone can dive headfirst into these epic fantasies without dipping their toes in first. I highly recommend Watership Down to get your toes wet with the genre. While not on the same epic scale as the aforementioned, Watership Down follows a familiar formula of an epic journey, without the relentless language barrier and pages upon pages of world-building. Give it a read, and let me know what you think of this classic.