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  • Writer's pictureChris Russell

S3 E5 - Watership Down

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

I’ve been trying to fill in the egregious gaps in my reading history. Yes, there are important books, or even significant books I haven’t read.

Even though I am a voracious reader and am in firm possession of the finest prep-school, liberal arts education I still find important books I haven’t read.

One of the places I find these gaps is on the ever-popular listicles like “100 books everyone should read before they turn into a pumpkin” and the ilk.

A couple weeks ago I was perusing one such list on the inter-webs. I was looking for my next victim. As I scanned down the list smugly placing bright green check marks next to each entry. “Read that one, check, read that one, check…”

I came upon, at number 59, sandwiched between Anna Karenina (check) and Memoirs of a Geisha (check) the entry of Watership Down.

I paused.

I had not read Watership down. The title of the book puzzled me. What was a watership? Was it like some sort of spaceship? And why was it down? Did it get shot down? Did it crash? And there were rabbits on the cover.

I remember this title popping up on science fiction lists. So, were these alien rabbits that crash landed their watership?

Seemed like something I should look into. I duly clicked, and bought a nice used paperback to see what the story of these alien bunnies and their mystery ship would bring.

Turns out this is one of those English vs American language things. As the playwright George Bernard Shaw is attributed to having quipped Britain and the US are "two nations separated by a common language".

It turns out there are no spaceships or aliens involved. Watership Down is a place in Southeastern England.

It’s about rabbits.

Rabbits having an adventure.

Watership Down was written by Richard Adams and published in 1972.

Let me stop right here and say I liked this book. I liked it because it is different, but at the same time universal.

It’s one of those books, of which you will find many examples on the top 100 lists, that we are lucky got published at all.

Because it’s different.

Different is good, but different makes it hard to publish.

It is the first book written by Richard Adams. The genesis of this work is from stories that he improvised to tell his daughters on long car rides. Eventually his daughters insisted he write them down. He did and that became Watership Down.

Every publisher in London turned down the manuscript. Except, one small, independent publisher who took a chance. The book took off and became a classic and the rest is, as they say, history.

Why did this book resonate? Well, like I said it’s different, in the sense that it chronicles the journey of a group of rabbits. But within that story there is a universal sameness that resonates with us.

It is a story that was fermented in the mind of a British scholar in the way only British scholars’ minds can ferment.

Love it or hate it the classical British education makes for interesting authors. They are strapped to medieval oaken desks in preparatory schools at a young age and force fed the Western Codex from Homer to Shakespeare to Churchill and this spawns greatly entertaining hallucinations like the Hobbit and Watership down.

The universal themes in Watership Down, whether intentional or not, call back to every great Hero’s Journey story since the Aeneid.

There are themes of power corrupting, of leadership and cooperation. There is bravery and trickery. On the one hand it’s all very obvious, but when you drive these themes through the anthropomorphic viewpoint of rabbits makes the obvious themes fresh and feel less obvious. Its somehow contextualizes the storytelling in a wonderful way.

At times I was reminded of Tolkien, at times I was reminded of Homer and at times I was reminded of veiled British political commentaries like Alice in Wonderland or the Animal Farm, and at times I sensed the religious story telling of the Screwtape letters or The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

It just felt like I was comfortably ensconced in an old cottage in the Cotswolds with a roaring fire surrounded by all these literary voices.

That’s what this book is like. Even if Adams didn’t intend all of these impressions he can’t help but let them bleed through.

Adams said in interviews that none of this was intentional. He was just telling stories for his daughters.

I think that’s what makes the universal themes in Watership Down so wonderful in this story. They come through as guileless and even accidental, and in that way are even more universal!

Watership Down. Well written with descriptive prose. Nuanced in its unintentional references.

A good story to read to your kids.

I don’t know how I missed it for this long.

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