Book Review: Watership Down, by Richard Adams

I read Watership Down when I was in primary school, and it was a haunting, profound novel. I’ve decided to reread it as an adult, to see what my response is now after two decades.

Some books have lost their immensity and wonder, simply because I’ve grown older, have seen more of life, and live in a bigger and less ingenuous world. The Chronicles of Narnia was one such: the magic was not so profound when I reread it as an adult. I remember Watership Down made a huge impression on me as a child: it was haunting, and full of mystery, and the world was as wide and fell and “awe-full” as the rabbits saw it. Now, reading it almost 20 years later, the hugeness of the rabbits’ world was somewhat diminished (because I have seen and felt more of life), but the wonder and mystery was equally powerful as in the first reading.

There’s a quality in this novel that I’ve only felt in a few other
books. A fraught tension, an atmosphere of hugeness and terribleness, mixed with a profound and solemn melancholy. I think it comes from a sense not merely of the vastness of the world, but the profundity of existence. This makes this such a meaningful novel. While I didn’t feel the scope of the rabbits’ world as much as I felt as a child, I experienced the same mystery and profundity of life.

Watership Down reveals mystery and awe — not in intellectual, human ways, but in simple ways of the rabbit. For the rabbit, being is already wondrous as it is. Sometimes I need to come out of the heights of thought and return to this mere feeling of wonder. This is how the novel remains magical and completely worth reading.

I remember as a child, wondering why the story was so centred around Hazel. From the beginning I sympathised with Fiver, and always wanted to read more about him. But why was Hazel the focus of the story, why did he become Hazel-rah in the end?

I have some more insight now: Hazel is the everyman. Fiver is the visionary, and Bigwig is the protector, but Hazel represents the average person struggling to face and overcome his circumstances, trying to be a leader and encourage those who look up to him. He may not be as farseeing as Fiver, or as powerful as Bigwig, but he is the centre and the heart of the warren. It’s his everyman status that makes him honoured and well-rounded.

The years haven’t changed my love for Watership Down. it’s such a simple story, yet reveals the wonder and profundity that life is. Certainly a story for all ages.

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