It is hard to say what makes some literature timeless. So much of the word “art” is dependent on each person’s sensibilities. But there are some works that almost everyone will recognize as potent and powerful. Watership Down is such a work.
The book tells the story of a group of rabbits who must leave their home when it is destroyed by the plowing of the fields. Together, they journey to find a new home, facing the dangers of natural predators, human intervention, and other, alien warrens. Originally told as a bed-time story to Richard Adams’ children, Watership Down has a simple tone about it. It is fantasy, but the rabbits themselves are normal rabbits who care about normal rabbit life: eating, sleeping, being secure from predators. This simplicity makes the characters very easy to understand and very easy to empathize with. It also makes their struggles much more personal.
Part of Watership Down’s appeal is that, behind the simple storytelling, there is a massive, living world with its own mythology and history. Though the rabbits live in the normal, everyday world, they have their own history, language, myths, and stories, and the readers come to learn them as easily as they might learn the history of their own home. This lends a natural wonder to the rabbits’ journey, transforming a simple story of survival into an adventure, washed in history.
Watership Down is a wonderful book for children because it is at once simple and easy to enjoy but also filled with the sense of beauty and grandiose of a living, wild, unknown world. It is a story that does not hide the world from its reader. It shows the bigness, the mystery, and the danger of the world from a rabbit’s eyes, but it also provides a band of worthy companions ready to see the journey through to the end.