A book for all seasons: Watership Down

Posted February 24, 2019 by Lory in reviews / 36 Comments

Richard Adams, Watership Down (1972)

Lately I’ve been disappointed that my son’s interest in reading seems to have flagged. He happily reads Tintin comics and my old Cricket magazines for hours, but the sustained attention required by a novel has been elusive.

Until I started reading him Watership Down, that is. I thought this 400-page chunkster would take us weeks to read at bedtime, but we’re almost done — because he seized it from me after the first couple of days and tore through a hundred pages at a stretch. And I had to seize it back from him to catch up; I didn’t want to miss a thing.

What is so compelling about this book, that it could enchant equally a twelve-year-old boy and his harried mom? I loved it as a child, but now I have to admire even more Richard Adams’s achievement. He has managed to write a story that is truly for all ages, and that still holds up decades after it became a surprise publishing sensation.

An adventure story about a group of rabbits trying to find a new home might seem a notion whose appeal is confined to the nursery, but there is nothing cute or sentimental about Adams’s writing. There’s a lot that could be considered absurd from a purely naturalistic point of view — rabbits do not have a spoken vocabulary, or tell stories, or have military-police type organizations — and yet Adams somehow manages to convince us utterly of the reality of his world while he is describing it. And the shift in perspective that invites us to consider the world from a small animal’s point of view is enriching and thought-provoking.

It’s not surprising that Watership Down was categorized on publication as a children’s book; one could hardly publish a book about talking rabbits in any other way. Yet there’s no reason why it can’t be read with pleasure by adults, and there are many sophisticated elements which may be appreciated more by experienced readers. The frequent shifts in tone, for example, which could have been incredibly awkward, are deftly handled to bring out the tension between the rabbit and human worlds while simultaneously integrating them into a coherent narrative.

The epigrams to each chapter, chosen from such un-child-like authors as Euripides and Auden, still ring in my memory after many years, while the themes of courage, leadership, brotherly love, and the primacy of freedom made a deep impression. And the brilliant pseudo-folktales told by the rabbits at various points of their journey are as memorable as any handed down by a real human culture. Not just random interpolations, they reflect and interact with the main narrative in significant ways, showing how central storytelling is to our experience of the world, to our very survival.

The landscape and natural phenomena of this very particular corner of England are lovingly, carefully described, but in a way that enhances rather than detracting from the exciting plot. We can’t understand the rabbits at all in disconnection from their context, and this may be the most important message Adams has to teach us. We humans have distanced and disconnected ourselves from the natural world, with tragic results; but through our imagination we have the power to connect again, and that is a source of hope even in the darkest circumstances.

I’m so glad my son has discovered the joys of this marvelously exciting and transformational journey, and that I get to travel along with him. Have you also been to Watership Down? What did you discover?

A book for all seasons: Watership DownWatership Down by Richard Adams
Published by Macmillan in 1972
Format: Hardcover from Personal Collection

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36 responses to “A book for all seasons: Watership Down

  1. I have been to Watership Down (obviously not the physical one!) but many years ago. I loved it then for its saga-like qualities, for the interpolated tales, the rhyming couplets ensconced in the prose and for the emotional release at the end. The film (and the recent TV mini-series) captured the ups and downs of the action but I never felt as engaged as I did with the words on the page.

    I’m so glad your son has rediscovered the joys of reading and has understood the sheer power of the printed word for himself. Makes me enthused all over again! By the way, I was deeply disappointed with his follow up The Plague Dogs and as a result never even contemplated trying Shardik

    • My son is subject to an unfortunate urge for everything to be “exciting,” which I hope he will get over as he grows up. Otherwise, I’m afraid he’ll have to end up as a demolition derby driver or something equally dangerous. I will be interested to see if we find more books like WD that satisfy this desire for thrills but also contain some deeper values.

      I couldn’t get on with Adams’s other books either. This is one of those singular masterpieces, I believe.

  2. I was going to read it aloud to the girls when we homeschooled, but didn’t get to it. Now they are going to school, but I am going to see if I can convince my twelve year old to read it with me.

  3. What a wonderful post! And it gives me hope, my daughter has completely gone off reading anything, even comics, and I am crossing my fingers this is ‘just a phase’…

    I have never read ‘Watership Down’ – like a lot of my generation, I was so traumatised by the film which I watched at too young an age (well, it’s a cartoon about rabbits, must be fine for small children!) that just the sight of the cover makes me feel stressed, my loss I’m afraid.

    • The story is pretty violent really. As with many children’s books, I do think this goes down better as a story than in film, which makes too direct an impression. Under twelve would be pushing it, either way.

      I’m sorry your daughter has gone off reading anything. Do you read aloud to her? At first I thought I would stop when my son began reading on his own, but his teacher encouraged me to keep going, and I’m glad I did. Lately this is the only way he reads anything substantial voluntarily himself – I start reading aloud and he gets interested and wants to keep going. And he gets exposed to good books, even if it’s me reading and not him. I hope the will to inner activity will wake up someday as he matures.

      • I’ve even since found an article in the Independent which uses the words ‘traumatised’ and ‘an entire generation’ of the film, so it must be true!

        I used to read aloud to her at bedtime every evening I was at home – I work many evenings so it wasn’t every evening – and sometimes during the day if she was very excited about a particular book. Then once a couple of months ago while I was away she asked my husband if she could play with her toy horses instead – her current passion – and ever since she’s said she prefers to do that. I haven’t actually killed my husband yet as I am hoping that this is just a ‘phase’, and meanwhile I offer to read to her regularly and just once or twice she has taken me up on it. I feel that if I insist she will see being read to as a punishment or something.

        I like your approach, it reminds me of when I was little and my parents would read to me but I would then read ahead because I couldn’t wait, and this would annoy them because they didn’t like missing great chunks of the story, so they would hide the books but never well enough heh heh.

        • Wow, I’m glad I never watched the movie in that case! It’s awful when movies spoil the reading experience, so i tend to avoid those based on my favorite books.

          Good luck getting your daughter back into reading — children do go through so many phases, one has to be patient and definitely avoid having reading be seen as any kind of punishment. Playing with toy horses is at least an imaginative game so maybe the story interest will come back. How about books about horses?

          • I do too! Also television adaptations of pretty much any book these days. Even if it’s a good adaptation it messes with your imagination.

            Thanks, you are cheering me up! The toy horse love is quite weird as she doesn’t ride or in fact spend any time at all with real horses, and shows no desire to do so. Instead it combines imaginative play, her love of making things, and a quite obsessive collecting streak which I do find wearing.

            Her cousin passed on a couple of pony books that she had enjoyed but my daughter hasn’t even opened them. 🙁

            • Imaginative play and making things are great. Almost as good as reading!

              I’m not sure about collecting, but maybe it will morph into collecting books at some point. 😀

  4. My kids read Watership Down at the middle school and liked it. I’d read it as a kid and remember enjoying it.
    When my son was twelve he read the first Rick Riordan books (the Percy Jackson ones), Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and The Schwa was Here by Schusterman. My son’s advice is take your son to the science fiction section.

    • Ender’s Game is certainly an exciting read – I know I couldn’t put it down. Haven’t tried Riordan or Schusterman.

      Our last readaloud was A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones, which he declared his favorite DWJ book, so sci-fi may be a good way to go.

  5. Jerri

    I read Watership Down in my late teens, and agree with all that has been said. I have re-read it at least twice and listened to the audiobook, and find it stands up to re-reads.

    I second the recommendation of Rick Riordan’s books, and suggest starting with The Lightning Thief. As a 60+ adult, I consider these at the top of my guilty pleasures pile. Page turners, plenty of action. But also some issues for serious consideration if you look deeper. And Diana Wynne Jones can be a bit uneven, but at her best are great. Howl’s Moving Castle is a personal favorite.

  6. This was my favourite book as a child and when I re-read it a few years ago I found that I still loved it as an adult too. I’m so glad to hear your son enjoyed it!

  7. Wow, I haven’t read Watership Down iin over 20 years, but it made a big impression on me and now I’m wondering why I’ve never re-read it or given it to my kids. I too remember the terrifying cartoon but I’d already read the book by then, luckily.

    Kids up to 13 or so still comprehend better through listening than through reading quietly. Reading aloud is important for a long, long time! (I have a reluctant reader too and have frequently sneakily read aloud a book I know she’ll love, but that she won’t touch voluntarily. Works every time, heh.)

    • I was such an early reader, I have to remember not everybody is like me. It is wonderful to share the reading experience, too, so I guess I should treasure that.

  8. Watership Down was one of my favourite books as a child! It’s just such a unique book, and although I haven’t reread it in a long time, I can see it being a book I would enjoy reading just as much as an adult. I definitely think I’m going to have to reread it soon!
    I’m glad your son enjoyed it so much! 🙂

    • I’ve reread it several times through the years, but it had been a while. Always nice to revisit an old favorite and find something fresh.

  9. Oh what a wonderful shared reading experience! I didn’t read Watership Down until I was in my late teens, I think — I thought I was too good for bunny adventures. How wrong I was! It’s one of my favorite books now. I just acquired a nice hardback first edition at a book sale and I am feeling very happy about it.

    • I avoided reading it too for some time, but I thought it was about rabbits on sinking ships which sounded weird. Score on the first edition, I have the hardcover but not that one. I’m coveting a nice illustrated edition now.

  10. Lizzie Ross

    Check out Brian Jacques Redwall series — medieval animals at war (mash-up of Cadfael and Wind in the Willows).

    • Yes, we’ve read some of those too and they’re fun. I find them soporific to read out loud though! Some books just have better rhythm than others when read aloud.

  11. I read this in high school expecting something like the Redwall series and I was pretty horrified by how dark it was! It’s possible I’d find it more tolerable now, but based on how I remember my reaction, I feel surprised it’s considered suitable for children.

    • It’s a really interesting phenomenon — I experience the same thing as I read or reread various children’s classics. So dark and violent! Yet I myself loved some of them as a child. I’m not sure what to make of that.

      In this case, I actually think it could well have been published as an adult book, and maybe in today’s publishing climate that might have happened — because there’s more respect and appreciation of fantasy. But at that time, “talking rabbits” would automatically shunt you to the children’s section.

  12. Somehow, I never encountered this one in my childhood, or even adulthood – but you’ve got me thinking about tracking down a copy. And how great that your son was so engaged with it! Have you thought about what you might tempt him with next?

    • I’ve started reading The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, which certainly has lots of excitement, but it doesn’t seem to grip him in the same way. Oh well, someday something will catch his interest again.

  13. Susan

    One of my all-time favorites! My (NC Washington) library system categorizes WD as adult fiction, appropriately enough. I love how unique and varied each rabbits character is, and how they are thus each uniquely suited to play a crucial role (in one way or another) in their quest, inspire each other to rise to the occasion as needed and how much respect and appreciation they gain for each other. Their varied challenges reflect universal themes that we as humans continue to grapple with. And their folk tales, which manage to be so funny, charming, and even deeply spiritual at once, are priceless.

    • I love all those things about the story as well. And I think it should be categorized as “all ages” (or nearly) — but libraries don’t have a section like that!

  14. I ADORED this book when I was a child, but when I tried to reread it with my kids a few years ago, they just couldn’t get into the story. And then I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it either (I guess I was affected by their disinterest?), which really disappointed me. I vowed to try again when they were a bit older, and now I’m afraid I’ve missed the boat. Maybe the audiobook would be a good option. (My daughter LOVES the Warriors books by Erin Hunter, so I thought WD would be perfect for her—but she just never got excited about it).

    • I was surprised actually that he did get so into it. I think he may have skimmed over the more descriptive or philosophical parts (as was my own tendency when younger). I’m not sure why it made such a hit, but I’m glad it did!

  15. My sister got this for Christmas when she was in college, and I, a second grader, read it before she got a chance. So in my mind it was a “grown-up” book that I was super cool for having read on my own. I mean, if Jonathan Livingston Seagull could be taken seriously as an allegory for adults, Watership Down certainly didn’t have to be a kids’ book. Of course, YA didn’t exist as a named niche yet either, and fantasy leapt from Narnia to MIddle Earth without much in between.

    • You were a pretty advanced reader at that age! It’s fascinating to see how great books have layers and can be profitably read at many different ages. I loved Jonathan LIvingston Seagull when I was about twelve, but I wonder what I would think of it now?

  16. Watership Down is not just a novel. It’s an adventure. It’s one of the greatest pieces of lit ever written, as far as I’m concerned. The bunny folktales and mythology, as well as the pounding adventure, made this a book that I couldn’t put down.

    On another note, your son loves Tintin? Awesome. Tintin is fantastic and I wish he was more popular in the States.

    • I was impressed all over again when I read it this time. It truly is a great piece of storytelling, and it’s also about the power of stories to shape our lives. Gotta love that.

      Tintin was my son’s gateway to reading. He was on easy readers and then suddenly it was all Tintin, all the time. I think they are great too, but I got a little disturbed when he wouldn’t read anything else. However, I think we are past that (thank you, Richard Adams).