On Watership Down

At some point in middle school, I was browsing through some boxes in our garage. They were old, dank and musty, having apparently been forgotten. Our garage served the purpose of an attic or a basement in a suburban house whose attic was narrow and full of insulation, and whose basement was furnished and lived in: the garage was the place we put things we didn't want to have lying around, but which we also could not part with. I liked to poke around in the garage looking at old furniture, knickknacks and snooping in boxes.

This particular box had books in it. Novels, actually, which is surprising because the only kinds of books I was used to finding stashed away like that were dull university textbooks. Black Beauty was one of the novels I uncovered, A Wrinkle in Time was another, and there were a few others that were appropriate for the age I had been at that particular time. In short, I had found a fantastic treasure. I've always been a voracious reader, and I quickly devoured the books I found.

Except one.

It was in much worse condition than the others - dog eared, creased and worn. I remember staring at the title and then staring at the cover art and then idly setting it aside as "a grown up book."

My tiny child mind read the words Watership Down in the most literal sense - that of a boat sinking - and a quick glance at the cover seemed to enforce that idea. I did not want to read about boats sinking. I wanted to read about talking animals going on wonderful adventures. The irony is deliciously crisp, isn't it?

"You didn't read it because you thought it was about a boat!?" T laughed at me.
"Yeaaa...," I replied. "I was a very literal-minded child."
"You were also a bit dense," he added lovingly.
"... The boat has teeth. And there's grass," He said a few moments later.
"I can't believe you almost didn't read your favourite book because you thought it was about a ship."
"It's called Water. ship. Down. If it were Spaceship Down or Airship Down we'd all know what it's about. "
"If it were called "Watership Down" and was about a boat sinking it would have to be written by the most retarded author ever"
"YES! EXACTLY! So I didn't read it!"

Fortunately for me, the book did not remain unread. Years later, I was sitting in my room bored out of my skull. I eventually made my way to my book shelf to see if I could find a book to reread that I hadn't already read five times before. My finger paused over the spine of Watership Down and I realized I hadn't read it yet. I was so bored that I was perfectly fine with the idea of reading a book about a sinking boat. I pulled it off the shelf and stared at the cover for a moment before realizing with sudden clarity that I was a huge fucking idiot.

That was a rabbit on the cover.

"I wonder if they talk?" I asked myself, thumbing through the first few pages.

"'Oh, it's only Fiver,' said the black-tipped rabbit, 'jumping at bluebottles again," the book told me. I was sold.

Since that first reading, I've lost count of the number of times I've read Watership Down. It is definitely my favourite book - and that's something, coming from a girl who doesn't know what her favourite music, movie, colour or ice cream is. It's a book about rabbits, and they talk and have an adventure and tell rabbit lore and have their own language. But, here's the real magical part about Watership Down: It's not childish. It's extremely well written in proper English, with lovely long English descriptions of the scenery and to-the-point dialogue that I can completely imagine rabbits speaking.

In my last rereading I noticed two things.

The first is that I imagine my own rabbits as being the characters in the book. I picture Buster as Bluebell, a happy-go-lucky pun-spewing minor character. I picture Thomas as both the stoic, smart and rational main character Hazel and as his brother Fiver, the runty seer rabbit. And I picture Nobbers as the steady, aggressive Bigwig. I still don't know how I feel about the fact that I do this. I mean, there's anthropomorphizing, and then there's imagining your pets as the main characters of a novel.

The second thing I noticed is that there's one part of the novel that really disturbs me. (Spoiler warning!)

It's the small arc when some of the rabbits go to raid Nuthanger Farm to bring the domestic hutch rabbits back to their warren. In the drama of the breakout, one of the hutch rabbits gets caught and returned to its hutch, while the others escape. The part that disturbs me is the thought of poor Laurel living in the hutch for the rest of his life, completely alone and without his mate and friends. As the plot moved on and away, my thoughts kept returning to poor Laurel, completely alone and cooped up in his hutch. I very much wish the rabbits had returned to fetch Laurel, or that he had never been caught in the first place. Hell, I'd even be okay with him having been caught and killed by a cat... The only way I was able to stop thinking about it was to tell myself that the little girl who owns the rabbits would have made her parents buy another bunny to keep him company. Bleeding heart much?

Watership Down has had a bit of fame even in recent memory. There was a newer TV series and an older movie based on Watership Down. When the TV series took off, they started occasionally playing the movie. I suspect the thing most people remember about it is that it was terrifying. There are several highly dramatic scenes that, when rendered visually, were very disturbing to children. I remember watching small bits and pieces of the TV show and movie when it aired on YTV and thinking the combination of talking rabbits and viscous fighting was a bit strange. Watership Down as a novel is quite dark, and rendered as an animated series it drew in unsuspecting children and proceeded to frighten the wits out of them.

Some of the scenes from the movie

Disturbing images aside, it's certainly no wonder to me how Watership Down is a classic novel, and I am alarmed at the thought that I almost never read it. I suppose that's how most of us find our most treasured books - by stumbling upon them in unexpected ways, where a slight change of fate could have us completely missing it. While I adore many other writers and novels, Watership Down has a certain quality that just makes me come back to read and reread it over and over again.

4 things about

On Watership Down
  1. I remember watching this when I was younger! It sounded wicked familiar when you were discribing it, but the video made it all click. The images of the fight scenes echoed in my nightmares for a long time after seeing the movie. XD

    I actually just watched another creepy children's movie that I haven't seen in years last night, The Secret of NIMH. Makes you wonder what they were thinking when they made these children's movies.

  2. I love that book, dearly. However, I never owned it and have since struggled to find a copy of it at the library in my adult years. Yes, I could not be a cheap-ass and just BUY a copy but well...I'm a cheap-ass.

  3. Haha, I know... I finally got around to watching the movie a little while ago, and it was just as dark as the book. Having those scenes rendered visual - things like tearing to bits - was very.... powerful!


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