This has been one of my favorite books since I was 13. In the past, when people have asked me what this book is about, I’ve always said, “Rabbits.” But that’s kind of a crappy answer by itself. So I try to elaborate: “It’s kind of a fantasy novel… the rabbits are anthropomorphized… it’s kind of a Hero’s Journey?” And then maybe one in eight people I tell about it will end up reading it.
But reading it again this year (probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read the novel), I realize what I should really be telling people is that it’s a book about Badass Rabbits. No, seriously.
Okay. Maybe not quite this badass. But still. The rabbits in this book have their own mythology, and their folk-hero is El-ahrairah, a rabbit with the wiliness of Brer Rabbit, the resourcefulness of Odysseus, and the strategic foresight of Ozymandias. Throughout the book, the characters, who you will care about more than you’ve cared about 90% of all the human characters you’ve ever read, continually evince this kind of resourcefulness to the point of fist-pumping, knee-jerking satisfaction. Think of Neo catching Trinity in “The Matrix: Reloaded”: “Holy shit he caught her!” Yeah. It’s like that. Only with rabbits.
But it’s not an action novel, either. When I say it’s “kind of” a Hero’s Journey, what I mean is it’s exactly like a Hero’s Journey. Not only does the plot more or less follow the usual points of such a journey as described by Joseph Campbell, but it self-consciously introduces sub-stories in the form of myths about El-ahrairah and his many tricksy exploits. Hazel, a young rabbit in an established warren, is destined to become a kind of El-ahrairah to his friends after he is warned by his brother, Fiver, that doom is about to befall their home. Yes, Fiver is psychic. A psychic rabbit. Look, it just works, okay? Together they gather a scrappy band of adventurers and leave in search of a new home. They being their travels envisioning home as a physical location, but when they finally reach Watership Down, they have begun to learn that “home” also refers to a way of life, one that they will have to nourish and defend.
Though the book is frequently critical of human beings and their wasteful and violent tendencies, it is also stalwartly hopeful in its characterization of the rabbits, whose strengths and weaknesses correspond to those of humans: they are physically vulnerable and bound by habit, but forced by circumstances to overcome fears, learn new skills, and transcend their formerly limited notions of what is possible.
Watership Down is often characterized as a children’s book because the main characters are rabbits, but I find this description bafflingly reductive. It is as beautiful as Charlotte’s Web, with a similarly quiet narrative voice and with the same appreciation for nature, but darker and more threatening in its indictment of the baser human tendencies. As with all my favorite books, I find myself torn between wanting to linger over this book and being visually pulled along the lines of every page.