Monday, May 7, 2012

Watership Down by Richard Adams

First published in 1972

I love this book. When I first read Watership Down (once again, a result of the fantastic children’s library at my old uni), it rose immediately to the top of my favourite books list and it has never really shifted. When I read it again recently, for the purposes of this blog, I was as hooked as when I read it the first time. None of the charm, the magic, was lost. I skipped gym classes because I had to keep reading. I was as invested and caught up in the story of Hazel and his rabbits as if I had never met them before. In fact I’d say Watership Down is one of the defining books that made me want to write my own stories for kids.

The level of invention here is inspiring. I feel like this book matters. And not just because of the supposed parallels between the world of Watership Down and what it might be saying about contemporary political and social states, especially at the time of publication. For me, the allegorical nature of the book has never been a deciding factor. All that stuff about tyranny and freedom, utopia and dystopia, the individual and the corporate state – yes, I can see where it might come from. But I don’t think Watership Down has these at its heart.

For me, it was always about the epic nature of the quest. I love a good journey story. I love all those epic themes of exile and survival and heroism and the banding together of all the character’s individual qualities to create something much larger than just a story about a group of rabbits. Watership Down has all this in droves. Every new scene, every new set-up, every new complication, is as compelling as the last. Who will make it through this time? Which rabbit will shine? What will be won, and lost?  I think Watership Down is far closer to Homer and Virgil than any political statement. This, for me, is where the book draws its power – by tapping into old myths and making the story about the heroes – who, in this case, just happen to be rabbits.

And what a fantastic bunch of rabbits. Out of the main bunch, we certainly get to know some more than others, but Adams still gives each rabbit a distinct personality, a quality, that enriches the story and the colony as a whole. I’ve always loved Bigwig. Who doesn’t? He is, quite simply, awesome. He is tough and no-nonsense and fierce, but also loyal and clever. He beats General Woundwort, mentally and physically. He has great spirit – I love his line: “silflay hraka, u embleer rah”. I also have a soft spot for Blackberry and Dandelion, and love that they get a chance to really shine in the final plan to defeat Woundwort. And the gull character – Kehaar – he is pretty awesome aswell.

And what I also love is that Adams, while clearly making Woundwort the enemy, does not make him a clear-cut evil character. Adams writes of him with admiration and dignity. He gives him reasons for being the tyrant he is, he makes Woundwort brave and clever and strong. At the end he is defeated, but there is the sense that he hasn’t really lost. And what a great choice to turn him into a ‘bogeyman’ (bogeyrabbit?) character at the end, still capable of frightening and drawing-into-line when need be.

I also love me some antrhomorphised characters. I love when an author can take a distinctly non-human character, and make them so familiar and so compelling. Adam’s rabbits live in their natural environment and do very rabbity things, but Adams gives all these rabbity things a very human reasoning. I love that they have their own language, culture, and mythology. It is fascinating. The figure of El-ahrairah (a sort of folk hero), looms large, and the inclusion of his many feats and tricks (as told by Dandelion) serves the main story well.

I also love Watership Down because it is so seamlessly plotted. The seeds of many events are planted chapters and chapters before; a small detail can pack a lot of meaning and interest the first time it is given, but then later on it will come to factor in such a large way and the pay-off is so rewarding. And none of it is clunky. Just clever and brilliant. And the love Adams had for the English countryside is also apparent, too.

Personally, I just think Watership Down is near perfection. The narrative is compelling on its own – both emotionally and suspense-wise. But then you add in how consistent, comprehensible and enthralling Adam’s world is, and the scope of it all is of the finest quality. Watership Down has my heart. You will never meet a more awesome bunch of rabbits. An absolutely beautiful story.

Previous entries, my fav Children's Books:

Number 20:  Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

Number 19:  The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Number 18:  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Number 17:  The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt

Number 16: The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

Number 15: The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

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