Friday, July 17

Watership Down - Richard Adams

Were it not for his odd brother Fiver, Hazel would have been someone of importance in the warren. Always unusual, Fiver became convinced that a disaster was about to fall upon their community, and though he couldn't explain exactly what was going to happen, his certainty was strong enough to persuade Hazel that he should approach the community's leader. Unsurprisingly, Threarah was unconvinced that he should evacuate the entire populace on nothing more than a feeling, and that from a nobody like Fiver, and he had the brothers evicted, though not before a few other members joined them, a band of rabbits in search of a new home.
Watership Down is a classic epic novel that combines adventure, heroic fantasy, intrigue, nature and anthropomorphised animals. Unlike less successful imitators (like the woeful One for Sorrow, Two for Joy), though rendered more human than real rabbits in terms of culture, intellect, communication and planning, Adams' rabbits exhibit rabbity behaviour, have a cohesive and unique language (Lapine), and when they do behave in human-like or non-rabbit ways there's a good and sinister reason.
Released in 1972, and an inspiration for first-time authors (the manuscript was rejected by thirteen publishers before finding a home and being on continuous print since its' initial release), Watership Down was turned into an animated film in 1978 and an animated BBC television series for three seasons from 1999.
Watership Down is large both in size and scale, but eminently readable. It can be read in a multiplicity of ways - as a monomyth in the tradition of Joseph Campbell; as an heroic quest like those of ancient Greek and Roman legends; as a religious (or anti-religious) allegory; as a pro-nature/anti-expansionist appeal; and as a gendered portrayal. I'm sure there are other academic viewpoints I've overlooked.
Most often, though, Watership Down is read as the children's book it creator intended. Originally created as a story to distract young daughters on a long car trip, it's ideal for a chapter-a-night bedtime book both for older readers and younger children being read to. There are stories within stories, including the rich mythology of El-ahrairah, the trickiest rabbit who ever lived, and his aide Rabscuttle, and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, the Lapine version of the Angel of Death. There are heroes and villains, cooperation and treachery, character development, birth war and death, triumph and defeat, shades of grey and strong morality, and beautiful descriptive passages that reflect a deep love of and appreciation for the British countryside.
As an Australian it's a little difficult to let go of the rabbit as an introduced scourge and appreciate it as part of a natural environment, but Adams' writing is so bewitching this happens almost instantly. He combines description, from both omniscient and Lapine perspectives, with convincing dialogue and a strongly plotted pace. Each chapter opens with a quote - some from his inspiration, RM Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit, and others from a variety of literary sources, including one of my favourite poetry fragments from Sidney Keye's Four Postures of Death.
If you haven't read Watership Down, do. If you have but it's been a while, read it again. And bear in mind the joke, popular shortly after the film's release: you've read the book, you've seen the film, now eat the cast! - Alex

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