World building. Let’s talk about it. It’s the process of, well, building a world. World building is what happens when you think about the details of your fictional universe, the beliefs, the social order, the diversity and governments and interactions. Some authors, for the record, are really really bad at this. And some are really good.
You generally hear the phrase “world building” in the context of fantasy or sci-fi. But Watership Down isn’t really a fantastic universe, unless you count the occasional clairvoyance that pops up. Yes, it’s from the point of view of rabbits, but it’s so real and detailed that it doesn’t seem strange at all.
Hazel is on one of the lower rungs of the social order at Sandleford Warren. When his brother, Fiver, has a vision of devastation, and the chief rabbit won’t listen, Hazel, Fiver, and a few others set out to form their own warren. The first half of the book follows their journey to their eventual destination, and the problems they encounter. As rabbits, they have rarely wandered far from their home, and it takes all their bravery to face the woods, cross the river, and climb numerous downs to make it to the warren of Fiver’s vision: Watership Down. Through this journey, Hazel becomes de facto leader of their group and learns more of himself and the others.
The second half of the book focuses on the problems they have after establishing the warren: mainly, the lack of females. Their attempts to find females to help grow their warren lead them into danger, but also gives them a chance to exercise their wits. In this process, they encounter two different warrens: one feels quite free, and has constant access to food without having to search for it. The other is extremely strict and violent. Both demonstrate two bad ways of handling danger and fear.
Richard Adams based this book around the actual countryside of England; both Watership Down and Nuthanger farm exist in real life. It was also nice to see places where the plot was inspired by mythology. My first thought about Cowslip’s warren was that it was a kind of Lotus Eater trap for the heroes.
But the fictional mythology is what makes this book so rich. Every so often, the main story is interrupted for a tale from lapine mythology, usually centered around the trickster hero El-ahrairah, clearly inspired by trickster figures such as Brer Rabbit (although in-universe, it is said that he inspired our stories). The tales range from funny to frightening, and usually mimic the mood of the main story, or even outright inform it.
The characters are rich and well-realized. Adams does an excellent job of making them relatable, while still keeping them strange enough that you remember that they’re animals. The ending was perfect-bittersweet, but an excellent ending to a story so steeped in real world and fictional mythology.
It’s a long book, but well worth the time it takes to read it. It has a slow build, and is the type of story you take your time with, savoring each bit.
So long as you’re not offended by Adams’ politically incorrect treatment of female rabbits. (No, really, there are people out there deconstructing the gender politics of animals and complaining that they're anti-feminist. You can't make this stuff up.)
So give it a go, but make sure you have plenty of time cleared out for reading. You won't be able to put it down.