Trigger Warning: I feel that I need to put this up real quick before going on. This post to include a brief personal discussion of anxiety and some of its effects. If you have experienced symptoms of anxiety or any other mental health condition involving anxiety as a symptom itself, I feel you deserve to be made aware of this.
That said, here we go!
Hm… I did this with Gravity Falls and you know what? It’s time to do it with my favorite novel, too.
But, wait a minute! Can’t we just read your review of it to understand how you feel about it?
Technically, yes. But bear in mind that my review of Richard Adams’ masterpiece Watership Down was – literally – the first review I ever wrote, and I think I failed to convey exactly why this story means the world to me. And also, this is not a review. Not in the slightest. This is me trying to convey why this story had the impact it did on me, not exactly what that impact was (although I may touch upon that a little bit). I feel that this is important to do as the CGI reboot of this classic story comes out in America tomorrow and as we close in upon the two year anniversary of the death of Richard Adams. He was 96 years old when he passed away on Christmas Eve 2016.
So, with that in mind, let’s get into it. I’m ready to pry open the door of memories…
Spoilers for the original novel unmarked from here on out! You’ve been warned!
When I was a freshman in high school, I was going through a particularly rough year in terms of my mental health and my overall state of mind due to the change in schools and overall atmosphere of the new place I was in. I was feeling anxious, alone, and uncertain about what my future would hold and felt afraid of practically anything that might serve as a stressor. See, my high school had a special center for freshmen, which isolated them from the rest of their older peers. I felt alone and I struggled with self-hatred and terrible, anxious thoughts that were consuming me from what felt like every side possible with this new, frightening environment. It was easily the hardest year of my life.
Then the end of the school year came. My favorite singer, Adam Young (again, of Owl City fame) had recently released his own personal cover on Mike Batt’s song “Bright Eyes,” originally sung by Art Garfunkel for a movie called Watership Down. Listening to that cover, I remember feeling something clench in my chest. There was a melancholy to the cover that conveyed the overall tragic feeling of the song to me immediately. The lyrics brought tears to my eyes, as I quickly fell in love with the cover and was introduced to the movie adaptation of the story through that song. I also learned that Adam and two of his friends (who, together, were this instrumental group known as Windsor Airlift) had actually made a reference to the story in one of their songs – the song was titled Heroism: Hazel and Dandelion. This all sold me on looking for the source of their inspiration and finding out what was so special about it. I started by looking for the movie, unaware that there was a novel that served as inspiration for that film.
I remember looking for it online, and it was in this search for the movie that I found out about the book. Quickly setting the movie aside, I resolved not to watch it until I’d read the original story (which was published in 1972 with the movie arriving in ’78). I mention in my review of the book that I don’t remember very much about that first day of reading in terms of how I felt. In fact, I don’t remember very much of how I felt while reading Part I, until the agonizing chapter that brought the section to a close, and it was only then that I realized how I really felt: I was hooked.
From there, I couldn’t put the book down.
The writing was lush and beautiful, sorrowful yet hopeful, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I had to go on. It was like therapy for my overwhelmed mind, a welcome break from all the stress that had built up over the course of that terrible year. For a little while, I could get out of my anxious state and visit the gorgeous setting of the 1972 English countryside. And, at the same time, I worried for this band of brave rabbits, but this worrying was different. I cared, and I wanted to care. When the main protagonist, Hazel, was shot during the raid for does at Nuthanger farm, I remember having to put the book down for a bit because I was so shocked and invested. I remember pacing around my house, a new kind of emotional turmoil tugging at my heartstrings. But, unlike my anxiety, I welcomed this emotional reaction. Surely Adams wouldn’t kill off the main protagonist in the middle of the story? It was too early for that, wasn’t it? I picked the book back up, needing to know what happened next.
Adams just never let up on the emotional and dangerous aspect of the story. Yeah, the book lacked a lot of fast-paced action in many places, but that was not always what it needed. And, at the time, it wasn’t what I needed to remain invested. I needed the romantic writing of the story, interspersed with short but incredibly intense sequences of action or violence to keep the story moving and the readers on their toes. Bigwig getting caught in the snare, I remember, was the moment when I fully realized that I cared, as I said.
And then there were the characters themselves. There was just something so simple yet so amazing about all of the rabbits living on the down. In particular for me, I remember reading about the snare and how it had changed Bigwig for the better, but I wanted Adams to show me that he had changed. Then he went into Efrafa (which shocked me – Adams did a great job at keeping the rabbits’ plan for infiltrating that warren for does a secret from the reader) and promised to rescue the buck Blackavar simply because he was severely wounded thanks to the main antagonist, General Woundwort. I loved how, despite doing so adding so much danger to the escape, Bigwig absolutely refused to let Blackavar stay there and be killed by the General because he had tried to run away from the warren.
I remember one day when I was reading the book at lunch at school and my friend at the time was intrigued to learn about the fictitious language (Lapine) that Adams had invented for the rabbits. We spent the entire time discussing the meanings of certain words (such as hraka, which she simply defined as “rabbit shit”) and discussing the origin of the language with me.
My reading the novel in school attracted a little attention from a staff member as well, who was curious about the book that had me so invested at lunch. She let me know that it was her favorite book and, I can’t explain why, but I’d felt proud when she said that. All of a sudden I was slowly becoming aware of the fact that I was reading a modern classic that had touched many hearts over the years. Maybe I was able to sense that at the time…
I also distinctly remember the fear I’d felt when the main antagonist, General Woundwort, was introduced in the story, and how much that fear heightened when he threatened to kill Bigwig by himself for betraying him. At that point, in the back of my mind, I knew what was coming, and waited anxiously to see how everything would unfold.
I think that kind of tension was what kept me so hooked on the story. Seeing Hazel and Bigwig have to deal with this legitimately-terrifying enemy made Part IV of the story, particularly when the Efrafans break into the warren on the down, impossible to put down. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how the cliffhanger at the end of the first part of Bigwig’s final confrontation with the General had me thinking, it being late at night when I read it for the first time, “Damn it, Adams! I’m never going to sleep!”
The often-brutal nature of some of the animals (and even humans) in the story made it all feel so real, and it opened my eyes to the darkness of nature, and how it really can be a dog-eat-dog world at times. To this day I still can’t believe Cowslip and his rabbits attacked Holly, Bluebell, and Pimpernel simply because they were looking for the Watership rabbits after the destruction of the Sandleford warren.
When I finally finished the book, I remember distinctly the feeling that was eating away at me. I hope my words do it justice, because I’ll never forget it.
Simply put, I was in awe. I didn’t know what to think, and I didn’t know how to articulate what I’d felt. The story had left me awestruck.
I’d loved books before. Hell, I’d even had some favorite series growing up. I’d enjoyed stories for how relatable they were, the plots they offered, the tension within them, and the wonderful rides they took me on.
But I’d never fully understood what it meant to be blown away by a book.
I’d picked up other books after finishing the story. Alice in Wonderland. The Gift of the Magi. Peter and Wendy.
But Adams’ work was never far from my mind. I always found myself going back to it. There was something about the story that just kept pulling me back in.
Maybe it was the romantic writing. Perhaps it was the incredibly intense and engaging fight scenes, raising the stakes and making me worry for the heroes. Or maybe it was simply the fact that, for a little while, I could visit a beautiful place and spend time with characters that I loved. It’s just that that love was the most powerful, intense love for a book that I’d ever felt.
The intensity of that love was unbelievable. As much as I’ve read other stories and loved them, none of them have been on the level of this incredible book. As I said, this is my go-to novel when I want to reread something, and I don’t do that with any of my other books, the only exception being if I’d just read a book and had parts I wanted to revisit.
As I said, I was ending my freshman year of high school when I read this story. And it just so happened that, that year, my school wanted to experiment with the Summer Reading assignment, allowing students to pick any book and communicate why a certain quote from that story held meaning for you.
Out of all the stories I’d read over that summer, Watership Down was the only one that communicated a powerful-enough message that I wanted to share. I’d considered other stories to write about, but I remembered the feelings I’d had after finishing the book. I knew that none of my other books had left me feeling so passionate about the stories they’d told months after reading them.
My teacher thought a book of talking rabbits was a silly thing to write about. He gave me a good grade on the assignment, because objectively my essay was good, but it was obvious to me that he hadn’t read the book and didn’t understand my fascination with it at all. I admit, I felt a little sad hearing that from an English teacher.
Fast-forward to today, every now and again, I see something that reignites my love for the original story, whether it be information on the new BBC miniseries coming out, or the new song Sam Smith recorded for said series. I may be in the minority, but I think the song stands as a testament to the power of Hazel and Fiver’s relationship and I’m excited to see it in this new adaptation. I’ve heard mostly good things about the adaptation so far, so I’ve got my fingers crossed. And even if I end up thinking it sucks, at least it could open up more people to the idea of reading the original book and seeing where it all started if they hadn’t read it before.
Speaking of the book, about a week ago I ordered yet another copy for my collection (making this the third physical copy I’ll soon own) because of how I’ve been remembering this wonderful story lately. I’m particularly excited to receive this copy because it’s not just a special edition, it’s also the most-recently published edition of the book, so it’s exciting to see if they’ve added anything to really make it stand out, even if it’s just a new set of illustrations.
Sometimes I wonder if the story was really what helped me get on the road to mental and emotional healing. Yeah, I did more to heal after finishing it, but Watership Down very much felt like the first time I’d really been free in many months. I was able to be in my own mind and enjoy it because I was in a place where I could care about something so different, so beautiful, so profound. For the first time in a long time, I was in a place where I could care without being overwhelmed by my mind.
I wish I could have gotten the chance to thank Richard Adams for writing this story down. By the time I’d read the story the first time, he was already 92 years old and it never even occurred to me until it was too late.
All that being said, this is easily my favorite novel of all time and I’m waiting with bated breath for the new adaptation (again, fingers crossed!) and my new copy to arrive.
“Underground, the story continued.” -Richard Adams, Watership Down.