1. It was alien in an appealing way. From the first sentence -- "The primroses were over" -- it's clearly not your garden-variety kids' novel. When I was 11 I wasn't entirely sure what a primrose was, or how it could be over, but I was a budding Anglophile. Watership Down was an invitation to learn more about a foreign world (the rabbits' world) inside a foreign culture.
2. It is full of real-world truths about getting along with other people. Bigwig and Fiver are never going to be best buddies, but under Hazel's influence they can transcend the bully/bullied dynamic that plagued the Threarah's warren. Blackberry is an object lesson for smart kids: sometimes your peers aren't going to get what you're saying, but that's okay. They'll appreciate you later.
3. It is full of real-world truths about leadership. The Hazel/Woundwort contrast is drawn so skillfully and its message is clear without being preachy: Vision demands humility as well as determination. Woundwort does himself in, really, when he assumes that Bigwig's chief rabbit must be bigger and stronger than he is.
4. It illustrates the importance of being a citizen of the world. The rabbits' attempts to befriend the other hedgerow creatures are repaid richly. And Kehaar! Who wouldn't love Kehaar?!
5. I love the way it talks about the value of freedom without talking about the value of freedom. There's never a moment when Adams says, "And oppression is BAD, kiddies," but the regimentation of Efrafa is clearly not the way rabbits are meant to live. Freedom and security are in tension, and an overemphasis on security can wreak havoc on the heart. It's true for people as well as bunnies.
6. I am a SUCKER for books with invented languages. Sometimes in my most exasperated moments I still think to myself, "Frith in a fog!"
7. I love the structure of it, the folktales interspersed with the narrative. I've never been a big fan of trickster tales, but El-Ahrairah is irresistible. I still get the shivers thinking about the Black Rabbit story, and the bleakness of his realization that even his most desperate plans have been foiled. And oh, the hope he carries in those starlit ears!
8. There's no mistaking the difficulty of lapine life. A world in which a homba and lendri can seize you by the neck without warning is a grim world, to be sure. But there's also no mistaking the rabbits' certainty that someone is watching over them. That perfectly timed train is my favorite deus ex machina ever.
9. One of the blurbs on my school library's edition came from the London Times. It said, if memory serves, "I announce with trembling pleasure the appearance of a great story." And you know, that's exactly right. It's just a great yarn. (But can you imagine a reviewer writing that today??)
10. It was mine. Watership Down seems to occupy a strange space: there's a contingent of kids who adore it, but it's rarely taught in schools despite being accessible and suitable literary fiction. I never had to analyze its structure or write an essay about Hazel vs. Woundwort, so I was free to plunge in deeply. I can't remember when it dawned on me that the book ended with primroses, but I still find it deeply satisfying. It makes me sigh a heavy and contented sigh as I close the book, already planning when I will read it again.