The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog's mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow. A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half choked with kingcups, watercress and blue brooklime. The cart track crossed by a brick culvert and climbed the opposite slope to a five-barred gate in the thorn hedge. The gate led into the lane. (p. 3)
Summary: Hazel and Fiver are rabbits in the Sandleford Warren, but Fiver has a vision of terrible death coming on the warren. Unable to convince Chief Rabbit, they head out with a number of others to find a safer place to live. The way is long and perilous, and they are nearly destroyed in a treacherous warren where death continually looms, but eventually the come to Watership Down, an excellent place for a warren, and settle down to address their next problem: they have no does. They manage to liberate some hutch rabbits, but they still need more. With the help of a seagull that they befriend, Kehaar, they learn of a large warren to the east with plenty of does. An embassy fails miserably, and they discover that the warren, Efrafa, is a terrible place under the iron rule of a mighty warlord, General Woundwort. With ingenuity and a lot of luck they pull off an extraordinary doe raid, but Woundwort is not the kind of rabbit who simply gives up.
I cannot recall who said it, but someone said that the twentieth century gave us two great prose epics in English: The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down, and I think the latter certainly is a legitimate candidate for such a role. Everything in it is epic in scope, and the work has repeated echoes of the Odyssey and the Iliad. The fact that its characters are rabbits does not harm this at all. We in fact get an excellent sense of the characters and temperaments of the different rabbits: quiet and unassuming Hazel, with that extraordinary talent for cooperation with others that in a difficult situation becomes leadership; Fiver, a runt who lives half in this world and half in another; Bigwig, stalwart, an extraordinary fighter as long as someone else is developing the strategy; brilliant Blackberry, his mind always running quickly down another track; all-around rabbit Dandelion, very swift and the one to whom you go when you want the old rabbit folktales told right; timid but passionately loyal Pipkin; ever-joking Bluebell. In some ways it's very much like the story of a military unit, a bunch of disparate people welded together by adversity, able to accomplish more together than any of them could achieve alone, in some ways very ordinary and in some ways the stuff of legend.
There are many passages throughout the work that are brilliantly done. Coming to Cowslip's warren, we are quickly struck, as are the characters, with the creepy, eerie, unrabbity air of the rabbits there. The great doe raid on Efrafa is as exciting as a battle in an epic should be, and the constraints of rabbit life, far from dragging this down, makes the solutions seems all the more cunning and triumphant. Woundwort is a well-rounded villain, and both of his face-offs with Bigwig are extraordinarily painted. But the scene that I think most consummately captures the skill with which it is all done is the one of which I've put part below, when little runt of a rabbit Fiver, as unimposing a rabbit as you could ever find, faces down Vervain, one of Woundwort's toughest and most ruthless captains, and the latter breaks and flees at a quiet comment from Fiver -- and it is, given everything we've been following in the story up to that point, entirely plausible that he would, because Efrafa has been outmaneuvered so many times in ways that have often seemed practically supernatural, and here is a rabbit that everyone had thought dead a few moments ago quietly telling him, "I am sorry for your death," in a voice that cannot be disbelieved. It's a beautiful weaving of plotlines that brings us into the climax of the story.
I also watched the classic 1978 animated movie, which has John Hurt as the voice of Hazel. The movie is one of the great animated movies of all time, and deservedly so. One thing that was very noticeable is that it moves very, very quickly; there are certainly many parts of the book that are shortchanged in the movie. Yet the movie works. The abridgements are in general extremely well-chosen. And I think another reason it works is something for which the movie was actually harshly criticized: it does not shy away from the violence of the book. In a very short time we see rabbits killed in all sorts of ways, and rabbits keep dying. But the result is that it makes every victory really and truly significant. For after all, this is a story about rabbits in an epic adventure, doing heroic things. But rabbits live in a world of danger; it is not for nothing that their folk hero is El-ahrairah, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And how do you present rabbits as heroes, whether to children or to adults? In the same way you present men as heroes, and in the way the book presents them: as facing, with courage and cleverness, a world of woe while never being conquered by it.
"Blame you?" answered Vervain. "Blame you for what?"
"For your death. Believe me, I am sorry for your death."
Vervain in his time had encountered any number of prisoners who, before they died, had cursed or threatened him, not uncommonly with supernatural vengeance, much as Bigwig had cursed Woundwort in the storm. If such thing shad been liable to have any effect on him, he would not have been head of the Owslafa. Indeed, for almost any utterance that a rabbit in this dreadful situation could find to make, Vervain was unthinkingly ready with one or other of a stock of jeering rejoinders. Now, as he continued to meet the eyes of this unaccountable enemy -- the only one he had faced in all the long night's search for bloodshed -- horror came upon him and he was filled with a sudden fear of his words, gentle and inexorable as the falling of bitter snow in a land without refuge. The shadowy recesses of the strange burrow seemed full of whispering malignant ghosts and he recognized the forgotten voices of rabbits done to death months since in the ditches of Efrafa. (pp. 452-453)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
Richard Adams, Watership Down: A Novel, Scribner (New York: 2005).