Sep 1, 1975
“Watership Down is a story about a profound paradox, a paradox arising from the very nature of conscious life.”
I started Watership Down with a sense of extreme skepticism. I knew that it had been an astounding popular success—a number-one best-seller for almost a year—and that serious critics had given it almost unbelievably extravagant praise. Yet—I thought—a novel about rabbits? What possible depth, drama, or emotional power could there be in a story about a bunch of bunnies?
From the first page, however, I felt my absorption growing. By the fiftieth page, I was in love with the book. And when I finished the last page, I knew that this had been the most wonderful and, in some sense, the most profound novel I had read in years.
But why? The fact remained that author Richard Adams had started with material that seemed absurdly unpromising. Why—if his goal was to write a novel as exciting and moving as this one—had he chosen as his subject timid creatures that most people think of only as garden nuisances or, at best, as cuddly but rather unintelligent pets? Why not wolves, or elephants, or dolphins? And, given his material, how had Adams succeeded so well?
The answer, I think, is that, despite appearances, the material is essential to the success. Watership Down is a story about a profound paradox, a paradox arising from the very nature of conscious life. Every organism, against the backdrop of the whole universe, is terribly small: its lifespan is a flicker, its relative size is that of an atom. In this sense an individual life is utterly insignificant. But most humans find this fact intolerably hard to accept; thus they invent gods and “higher purposes” to give them the feeling that, in some universal, permanent sense, they matter. The point ofWatership Down is that no such higher purposes are necessary. Life is an end in itself. Conscious life matters because it is conscious life, because it offers experiences, excitements, beauties, meanings. Viewed from inside, every life—even that of a rabbit—is a thing of unutterable importance, and that is all the justification that any life ever needs.
Reading this novel, one is caught between two emotions: an aching sense of how humble these creatures are, how little the events of their life matter in any larger scheme of things—and a loving awareness of how much their lives do matter, simply because they are alive, and conscious, and struggling to remain alive.
Watership Down is a libertarian novel, both in the relatively minor sense that it gets in some effective satirical digs at the welfare state and militarism and in the far more profound sense that it is a litany to the importance of the individual life. This, I think, is the key to its strange and gigantic appeal.
At least that is my hypothesis. Read the book and see if you agree. Whether or not you do, I guarantee you won’t regret the experience. Reviewed by Robert Masters / Fiction / LR Price $2.25