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What is Watership Down?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 December 2016
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Watership Down is a book written by Richard Adams, his first, and to date his most successful book. The novel was also made into an animated film in 1978, three years after the novel’s release. It also spawned a UK and Canadian series that aired for three years from 1999-2001. The series is now available on DVD, and the book remains popular.

The story of Watership Down is a beautifully rendered telling of the hero’s journey, as explored by rabbits who set out in search of a new warren when their old warren is threatened. The main characters in the novel are Hazel, who becomes the band’s leader, his brother Fiver, who is prophetic, and Bigwig, a tough member of the rabbit police. Interspersed through the novel are stories that constitute rabbit legend regarding the creation of the world and the first rabbit, El-ahrairhah. These stories are definitely gems in themselves, highly amusing and evoke the first rabbit as something of a trickster, similar in some cases to Brer Rabbit.

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The rabbit band encounters difficulty on their journey, meeting strange rabbits that worship death, and barely making it to the top of Watership Down, a hill that truly exists in Hampshire, England. This could constitute the first part of the novel. Having survived dangers to get to a beautiful new warren, the rabbits realize their fatal flaw; they have failed to bring any females with them. This leads them into significant conflict with a warren nearby called Efrafa, run in fascist and militant fashion by the evil General Woundwort.

The rabbit band devises a trick to help some of the does escape Efrafa, where they are miscarrying rabbit babies because of the overcrowding of their warren. However, Woundwort comes after them, engaging them on Watership Down, and they must plan a way to defend against many attacking rabbits. They are successful in this, establishing a peaceful and idyllic warren and making peace with the Efrafans who no longer have Woundwort as their leader.

There’s been some criticism of the novel by feminist critics, who suggest that the does sought by the rabbits are simply sought as breeders. Adams defended his choice to frame Watership Down as he did, citing true sources on the lives of rabbits, particularly, the 1964 book by naturalist Ronald Lockley, The Private Life of the Rabbit. Moreover, though the rabbits are concerned by the lack of mates and the inability to perpetuate their beautiful warren, one of the rescued does from Efrafa has been a principle leader in rebellion against Efrafa. She is a poet, political leader, and intelligent, a worthy character in her own right.

Watership Down is one of the great books for teens, and even some children in their pre-teen years may enjoy it. Adults fond of the English countryside are also likely to be impressed by Adams’ description of the world, of meadows and small grasses, from a rabbit point of view. The journey and engagement with the Efrafans is thrilling, and the book is a worthy addition to the world of fantasy literature.

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