As a kid, I remember watching the film Watership Down. It was somewhat disturbing. These aren't cute bunnies in little blue jackets getting into mischief. These are real rabbits- some of them nasty- dealing with real rabbit problems like day to day survival. The film is as gritty as the novel.
Watership Down by Richard Adams starts in the Sandleford Warren where rabbits are divided into the outsiders and the Owsla, the group who runs the warren and gets all the good stuff. The warren is lead by The Chief Rabbit, a tough old rabbit who likes things the was they are. Brothers Fiver and Hazel are small outsiders living on the edge of the warren. One night Fiver has a vision; a terrible thing is about to happen to the warren. Hazel insists on telling The Chief Rabbit who sends them on their way. Hazel knows Fiver has a gift and that what he says is true. Instead of staying within the warren, Hazel makes a plan to leave and find a new place to live.
Hazel gathers a few disgruntled rabbits willing to take a chance and face unknown dangers in the wilderness beyond the warren. He gains the respect of this group through his bravery and cleverness even though he isn't the toughest, strongest rabbit and becomes Chief Rabbit. Hazel wishes to make a rabbit utopia where every rabbit is free from bullying and everyone has plenty. After peril after peril, the group finds Watership Down and plan to make their home there.
Unexpectedly, a couple of injured rabbits from the Sandleford Warren stumble into the newly formed warren with a terrible tale of destruction and death. They are the only survivors. Hazel finally realizes something- not one female is among their group. Without mates, Watership Down is doomed. Hazel searches for a warren willing to give up a few females and comes across a warrior of a Chief Rabbit. His fierceness and cunning might be too much for the little group- even with Hazel as a leader.
What an amazing story Watership Down is! The rabbits aren't over anthropomorphized, they behave the way rabbits would, but they do have distinct personalities. Think Meercat Manor. Fiver is a prophet, Hazel brave, Bigwig tough, Pipkin loyal. I was attached to Hazel instantly. He always thinks of his group first before himself. He makes a true heroic leader.
I was totally enmeshed in the story. The rabbits have to navigate through so much danger and peril. The natural terrors are enough but the hand of man is horrific. During the telling of the Sandleford horror, one rabbit says "...we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves." The story is tense and the pacing quick even though it's 400+ pages. There is a large amount of bunny on bunny violence at the end, just to warn you.
The novel has some heavy themes: ecological destruction, the warren is destroyed to build houses. There is also the theme of freedom versus tyranny. The warrens the group both leave and discover have a type of enslavement, forced upon them either by man or other rabbits. Some deep issues for a so-called children's novel. The rabbits also share a type of spiritual leader, El-ahrairah. They tell each other stories of his adventures which parallel their own and also provide guidance. I really liked these tales.
A fun fact: Watership Down is one of the books read by Sawyer on the TV show Lost. I can see why it's an important book on the show. A group of people facing danger and encountering 'warrens' of strange people who aren't what they seem.
Read for The Eco Reading Challenge.