I often have some preconceived ideas about books before I read them, especially since I almost exclusively read classics or suggestions from friends. But I think that I have never been more wrong than I was with Watership Down by Richard Adams. Before I read the book, I had only heard people's reactions to it and not a summary of it. One of my friends told me that she was completely entranced and swept up in the story. Another friend told me that it had tremendous symbolic implications, including deep religious insight. Another friend indicated that it was an exciting adventure story with a plot that moved along quickly. And the title itself - Watership Down - sounded ominous and full of heavy implications to me. So what is it? Well, it is the journey of a group of rabbits, written from their perspective. That was not what I expected. But were my friends wrong? No, I think they were right on target.
In a way, I am reminded of Lord of the Flies when I think of this book because it is another story that appears to contain children's content but is not written for children. This is not the Velveteen Rabbit or the Peter Rabbit stories. Each of the rabbits in this story have depth in their character, and they represent a variety of viewpoints. After a dangerous encounter, Adams sums it up well: "There was no more questioning of Bigwig's strength, Fiver's insight, Blackberry's wits, or Hazel's authority." Again, each of these traits is very important to the characters and plays a critical role in the story. I think it's especially meaningful that the characteristics are divided up among several rabbits and not devoted to one all-powerful leader. Yet although the characters are enjoyable, I don't think that adequately explains why adults like the story so much. We can feel strongly about characters without praising the story quite so highly. So why do we love Watership Down? Why do we get hooked into their story?
A significant aspect of the novel's depth exists because Adams was very thorough when he created the world of these rabbits. He established a history for the warren, a language unique to the rabbits, and a number of mythological stories shared in the rabbit culture. The hero of these stories, El-ahrairah, is an interesting piece of the story and should not be overlooked. The rabbits have a deep connection to these stories, and they listen with their whole hearts. The legendary stories provide them with courage, humility, and loyalty when they need it most. I think that's the underlying message of Watership Down in general: a story can move us. We are inspired by rabbits, the most meek and quiet creatures, and we can get attached to their story. Even fictional stories hold great power, for they can often be the best way for listeners to really hear wisdom and truth.
Moreover, the implications of this story go far beyond the novel itself. Thus, I was surprised to read Adams write in his introduction: "I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car." Yet whether he meant to do it or not, the story contains powerful symbolism that has fascinating connections to various philosophies, theologies, and components of pop culture. Renowned theologian Stanley Hauerwas has extensively studied Watership Down for its reflection on the Christian life. Often comparing it to Animal Farm, many read it as a political allegory that exemplifies the problems of leadership made of pride, over-indulgence, and totalitarianism. The brilliant TV show Lost references the book multiple times, and there are some fascinating comparisons and clear influences from it. When I read about District 13 in Mockingjay, it immediately reminded me of Efrafa, the underground community whose inhabitants are given strict schedules and heavy limitations for their own "protection." I could go on with many more examples, but I don't want to overdo it. I am simply amazed by how many people are drawn to this story and connect with it on so many different levels, especially since Adams never intended for it to be more than a good rabbit story. I believe that it has deeply embedded itself in popular culture, but I don't think we are fully aware of it.
I think that Watership Down exemplifies the power of great literature. Somehow the work itself has far exceeded the author's ambitions for it and impacted people on a grand scale. This story seems so unlikely to hold such great influence, but I believe in the power of narrative. Even though the plot is about a group of rabbits who face trials and start their own warren, we connect with it. We may not have to fight off cats and foxes, but we have our own challenges. And we must reflect on our own race when we witness the terror that man can bring. Watership Down is one of the most unlikely classics, and yet I think that is precisely why it makes for an extraordinary piece of Classic Literature.