1970s Classics

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down

Five words from the blurb: rabbits, leave, warren, journey, danger

I wanted to read Watership Down as a teenager, but several friends warned me about how sad it was and so I avoided it. Even as an adult I’d been scared to read it or watch the film. Recently I realised how ridiculous this aversion was, especially given the number of disturbing books I read, so I bought a copy and settled down to read it in the sunshine.

Watership Down is the story of a group of rabbits who decide to leave their warren and set up home in a new field. Along the way they meet numerous dangers, including foxes, owls and people.  It is a wonderful story for children, but unfortunately it didn’t have the same impact on me as an adult.

The main problem was that it was a bit predictable. It quickly became obvious that they would encounter every threat possible, suffer mild peril, but ultimately be OK. I’m afraid I became a cynical reader and started looking for the patterns, groaning as each new predator approached and they escaped AGAIN!

I also found the plot too slow and meandering. It probably didn’t help that I already knew the ending (a sign that this classic book has become so important to our society) or that there were so many rabbits it was hard to bond to any of them individually.

On a positive note, the writing was good and there were some lovely ideas about rabbit mythology.

Rabbits (says Mr Lockley) are like human beings in may ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not  be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now.

I’m glad I’ve read it, but I wish I’d done so as a fourteen-year-old.


20 replies on “Watership Down by Richard Adams”

I’m re-reading this right now for a book group I’m involved in. I remember loving it when I read it as a kid, so I’m interested to see if I have the same issues with it now that you did. I’m definitely seeing the predictability, but I’m really enjoying the story.

Annabel, I LOVED Duncton Wood when I read it aged 15/16. I have thought about re-reading the series, but worry I wouldn’t like them any more and don’t want to taint the wonderful memories.

I didn’t read it when I was younger for similar reasons (though I read other sad books so I’m not sure what the distinction was). I didn’t think of it being more predictable as an adult, but yes, one to get around to reading at last.

I haven’t read Watership Down yet but do wonder if I would find the same as you, although I don’t normally have a problem with reading books written for a younger audience. I wonder if writers today have less of a problem presenting younger readers with genuine peril.

Louise, I don’t know. I have a very mixed response to children’s books. I haven’t noticed much difference between modern authors and older ones, but I probably don’t read enough of either to really tell.

Well, I did love this one, but I first read it when I was a teen which seems to be about the right age. I fell head over heels for it, actually. It’s stood up to quite a few re-reads but I think ten years have passed since I last opened its pages so I’m wondering how it will be for me next time…. I did like the characters but it took quite a while into the book for me to “feel” them as individuals. For me it was the descriptions of nature and place that made the book come alive, that and the mythology of the rabbits.

I read this book three times in a row when I was 12. I’ve tried to give it to my students, who are 12 to 14, but very few of them will even consider reading a book about rabbits. Last year, I re-read it and had basically the same reaction you did. I don’t think I even bothered to finish it.

But I’ve very glad that I read it when I was 12.

Note: For years I thought the book had a glaring editorial error in it because in the opening chapter the character Bigwig says he has to report to the leader rabbit who is going to “bite his head off” over a mistake he made. I was horrified that rabbits would bite each other’s heads off, but Bigwig then reappears in the following pages, gully alive, with his head. I kept reading, but I always thought that the author or the editor really should have caught that mistake.

I really could have used a footnote for American readers.

cbjames, I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my adult reaction to this one, but am surprised modern pupils aren’t willing to try it. I didn’t realise they had bad thoughts about rabbits. 🙁

I love your comment about biting heads off! I had no idea that wasn’t a common phrase in the US. You learn something every day! 🙂

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