"El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed."
When Fiver, a seer, is overcome with a vivid dream of mass destruction. He tries to convince the rabbits in charge of the validity of his vision. They are dismissive, but one rabbit named Hazel does believe him. They convince nine other bucks to leave the warren with them. Driven by fear and curiosity they begin an odyssey that if Homer had been fortunate enough to hear about, would have given him another epic story to tell for a few more copper coins in the town square.
Hazel finds out he is a natural leader and through courage, luck, and Macguveresque skills manages to bring his troop through the thickets of a new and dangerous world. They meet other warrens of rabbits with society aberrations that made them unpalatable for amalgamation. Given the way that Richard Adams portrayed these rigid social constructs I came away with the feeling that he was somewhat anti-government. He seemed to be advocating that a looser structure of co-existence will lead to happier rabbits/people.
Speaking of that, even though these rabbits did take on some human characteristics, I never really thought of them as people. I was convinced I was reading a book about rabbits not rabbits with human faces. That to me is a major achievement, and at the same time in the early pages made me feel like I was reading a book at a reading level below my comfort zone. Rabbits are relatively simple animals and Adams adhered to that principle for most of the book. Cleverness was a revered trait among warren colonies and is reflected in their stories of past accomplishments by legendary rabbits. These stories passed down orally from generation to generation provided a collective source of cunning skills that are applied to situations beyond the natural experiences of our erstwhile heroes.
It doesn't take long for the all male colony to realize that if they want kittens.
They must have DOES
They were in such a hurry to escape the warren that they forgot to bring the mystical other half necessary for reproduction. They came to the same conclusion that tribal units have come to for thousands of years. If they don't have something they need than they need to liberate it from someone else. The Efrafa warren is governed by General Woundwart. He is a brutal, militaristic leader who rules his burrow with an iron fist. The Efrafa happen to have a plethora of DOES and Hazel and his band of intrepid bunnies believe they are clever enough, with the help of some unusual allies, to coax away enough DOES to insure the survival of their fledgling society.
This sets up one of the most pulse pounding showdowns I've read in a long time. Displaying the courage of the defenders of the Alamo and the steadfastness of the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae I found myself glowing with the pride of a participant, white knuckles and all, as the Watership Down rabbits defend their home.
The thing about this book is that you have to hang in there. I have started and stopped this book a handful of times, but several reviews on goodreads convinced me I was giving up on the book too soon. At about page 70 I could feel my eyes looking over with longing at the stack of books waiting in the wings. As the pages stacked up I started to care about this band of brothers. I wish that I had read it in time to have shared it with my kids. There is much to be discussed especially in regards to how societies are structured, about courage, about friendship, about thinking outside the box, and about the importance of how we conduct ourselves within our own warren/township. If you have kids young enough, read it to them. It will heighten the experience for you and them. I've already got this logged as a book to read to my grandchildren...some day...in the distant future...after my kids graduate college...get great jobs...meet their soulmates...and have kids that love to curl up in their grandfather's lap for a tale that may help shape the people they become.