Watership Down was the first grownup book I ever read. I was startled to realize that it didn’t have any pictures, not even for the chapter divisions, so I wound up drawing my own illustrations in the margins. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t a library copy.)
When I was eight, it was a very cool story about some bunny rabbits who get into a lot of adventures. And really, no matter what your age, this is a fine and satisfying interpretation: These bunnies pack a lot of action and suspense into their lives.
But then I read the book again as an adult. Turns out I’d missed out on some of the subtleties that first time around. Yes, it is true that the protagonists are bunnies– you know, cute little furry things with twitchy noses and pointy ears–but this is a deep, thought-provoking novel. If you’re uncomfortable with the thought of reading an action book, or a fantasy, or anything that seems juvenile, don’t worry: It’s perfectly acceptable to call this a work of literary fiction.
Long story short: when their warren is fumigated by men, only a few bunnies escape alive. They travel long and far to find a new, safe, home, ultimately settling at Watership Down — which would be the end of the story, except that all of our bunny heroes are boy bunny heroes. With no girl bunnies around, the new warren doesn’t face very optimistic prospects for the long-term, though it takes rather a while for this to dawn on our heroes. But once they realize their peril, our boy bunnies go out to battle some other boy bunnies for the purposes of stealing girl bunnies.
The rabbits’ misogyny COMPLETELY escaped me in the third grade.
Read this as a commentary on war and conquest and dominion, if you like, or as an indictment of the encroachment of humans upon nature. Read it for the fascinating characters and the excellent world-building, complete with bunny religions and bunny mythos and bunny language. Or skip all that deep stuff and just read it for a thumping good time.
Check the WRL catalog for Watership Down