Who knew bunnies were so violent? In Adams's parable, Peter Cottontail's brethren show their dark side as they struggle to escape the destruction of their warrens and find a new home and.....have more bunny babies. He doesn't make them human (though they speak and think), but the story has serious human implications. A cautionary tale about preserving local ecologies and a study of conflicts that arise in a group striving for survival, Watership Down is adult fantasy of the first order.
Don't be fooled by the furry creatures on the cover—this is gritty, dark and violent, often disturbing, sometimes horrific. When a warren in Southern England is threatened by humans, its inhabitants migrate toward Watership Down where there's a rumored dwelling free for the taking. Led by Fiver (a prophet/seer) and his older brother Hazel, the rabbits travel through rural England and its dangers, a journey reminiscent of The Aeneid and The Odyssey. They fight bad rabbits, get shot at, find does to increase their tribe, and tell mythic tales of the illustrious rabbit Prince El-ahrairah.
Adams' description of the rabbits' culture has drawn comparisons to Tolkien's Middle Earth, but the analogy is misleading. Adams simply collected and wrote down stories he'd told his daughters, as opposed to consciously formulating a mythos with languages, histories and religions. Watership Down, while a deeply serious novel, is not the academic work Tolkien's was. However, Adams' novel surpasses The Lord of the Rings in one important and often overlooked regard.
Tolkien saw mythology as an organized cultural output meant to reveal something about the people who form it. Real mythology is sloppier. It develops over time and isn't cohesive. Because mythology is pragmatic and psychological rather than strictly religious, it's often disjointed and contradictory, like the humans it portrays. Thus, the Greek pantheon are humans on a grand scale—and the Greeks were the ultimate humanists, worshipping man's glory in place of God's.
By making the effervescent El-ahrairah a being to be remembered and imitated rather than a deity to be worshipped, Adams gets at the heart of mythology and the purpose of literature. The rabbits' folk beliefs are reflections of existence, meant to alleviate the burden of a dark, unhospitable world. This is the purpose of literature—not to order our beliefs, but to help us survive when survival seems most unlikely. As tales of El-ahrairah thus serve the rabbits, Watership Down serves us.