(A Book Review of Richard Adams’s Watership Down)
The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, The Chronicles of Narnia, Winnie the Pooh and Animal Farm, now what do these books, with the addition of this humble blog’s featured May Author of the Month Richard Adams’s debut novel Watership Down share in common? If you’d already read one or two of the titles mentioned above, well then your answer is as good as mine: they have talking animals playing the lead part or, if you may pardon my self-indulgence for specificity, they are anthromorphised novels, which basically means the giving of human characters to other living creatures such animals, plants, events or even toys.
If, by any chance, you’ve heard about Watership Down in passing, yes, it’s a story about rabbits — an epic fantasy novel anthromorphising rabbits that is! — don’t let that put you off, Gentle Readers, if you’re not into books with talking animals playing the lead part for there is much more to Watership Down that meets the eye as Adams guides us in their world infused with their own culture, language, proverbs, poetry and mythology. We quickly learn the rabbit’s way and easily enter their world as the first few pages introduces us to the brothers Hazel and Fiver having emerge from their warren for their evening grazing. Initial chapters might bog down some looking for some quick action as Adam leisurely build the layers of the rabbit world, to which I would advise Gentle Readers to please give time for succeeding events will certainly get you hooked — Fiver suddenly sees a terrifying prophecy of an impending doom. Vague though he is, his certainty and utter fright convinces his brother Hazel that they must leave the place immediately. In such notice they formed a small group who willingly come with them for either reasons of becoming disaffected with the warren and its present Chief rabbit or because they trust Hazel and believes in Fiver’s ominous warning. This misfit band of rabbits embarks on a quest in search of a new home. They undergo adventures filled with action, terror, insurmountable battle, combat, trickery, daring escapes and form strange alliances amongst the most unusual of creature that is brisk and entertaining.
When I say anthromorphised rabbits above, I don’t mean that they are like the Disney animals we’ve seen in their countless cartoons that go about mimicking the day to day life of humans, in that they don’t ride cars, go to work, or watch TV once at home, lest you have the wrong idea. Adams remains true and grounded to the rabbit’s perspective of the world with no small thanks to Ronald Cockley’s The Private Life of Rabbits, a non-fictional work on the rabbits in the wild, which Adams used in presenting his own vision of the rabbit’s way of life aided of Cockley’s knowledge of them and their behaviors. It’s all interesting stuff and I was surprised at how much I learn much about the rabbit’s manner when it comes to feeding, how their warren is particularly dug by the doe to make it warm and dry and that they are tidy animals who don’t foul up their rabbit-hole.
Reading Watership Down is further proof of my constant love affair with long, thick books, its sheer heft a most effective goad to tackle its pages, in that it lets me spend quite a while with its characters, and characterization, it seems, is one of Richard Adams’s writing’s winning quality. He differentiates each with their own rabbit traits so well, even the villains becomes so memorable than the good guys… err … bucks. There’s Hazel, the trusted leader of the group; Fiver, the runt with strong instincts who can sense danger; Bigwig, the strong rabbit who’s bravery commands everyone’s admiration; Silver, who can be count on at all times and is quick to defend his friends; Blackberry, the intelligent problem solver of the group; Dandelion, the lively storyteller and a fast runner who’s ability comes in handy in scouting; and Pimpkin, small and timid yet whose allegiance is awe-inspiring and encouraging. Lest I forget it, there’s also the seagull Keehar who was befriended by the rabbits and proved to be a most valuable ally helping the rabbits along the way; with Bluebell he provides what otherwise could’ve been a serious novel with light and funny moments specially with his pidgin English and guttural accent (he says “poat” for boat) and unusual phrases that baffles the rabbits, even so the reader.
The rabbits’ adventure captivated me in the same way Tolkien’s books had drawn me into its fantastical world. Like Tolkien he gives his rabbits a set of culture and their own language he calls Lapine that every time I utter the words elil, homba, hrududu, lendri, silflay, tharn, hraka, I can’t help but relish with child-like wonder at this invented speech. But what I take most delight in is the mythology, the rabbit-lore, if I may call it such, and heroic stories of El-ahrairah’s that gives the whole rabbit world a raw quality, how, like the humans, their own tradition and stories are past down by oral storytelling that lifts the book above itself. More than I wish to know what happened to Hazel, Fiver and his friends after I closed the book, I also would like to know about the rabbit folklore further, for the book leave me wanting something so much more.
As much as he mirrors Tolkien’s style, Adams sometimes also indulges his narrative with a picturesque British country side complete down to the details of the land’s flora and fauna. Well, it’s no wonder why Adams renders his setting accurately for Watership Down is a real place located near Hampshire and I think he must have visited place a number of times, got acquainted with its tranquil rolling hills and lush, green meadows it truly shows with his beautiful description of scenery.
Well into the course of reading Watership Down, some of my friends often asked me how I came across the book as it isn’t included in some of the prize-winning lists of must-reads they often refer to in search of a good book. Now this set me thinking hard where I first encountered the book; then memories came unbidden and one word just flashed in my head: LOST! Then I abruptly remembered two of the characters in this TV series (that I had come to love and cherish like a girlfriend on a steady 6 long year of passionate relationship) quarreling over the ownership of the book. And what do you know; this quiet reminiscence is all that I need to ponder about the book’s stroke of genius. For whatever allusions it has to the TV series I suppose Watership Down generally is about what makes or breaks a community in order to survive and thrive. Throughout the book we see the rabbits run into different warrens each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, what sets our heroes apart is how they will build their own in contrast to the flawed societies they’ve been to aided and bolstered with lessons about leadership, the spirit of camaraderie and the rabbit’s sense of freedom.
While many of the books that I’ve enjoyed don’t rely on action or excitement alone to define their experience, those that have an action packed climax manage to through tension building and great writing mechanics that forced me to read faster after I reached the novel’s last part which I count as my most favorite part. By the time you reach the final confrontation, the relationship, the loyalty and trust among this band of rabbits feels real and their victory rightly earned. This part is the one I will say that truly stick to me specially the evocative imagery to illustrate the bonds that form, not only between rabbits, but how they’ve also endeared to the reader as well as Adams builds a stunning climax. I just found myself turning the pages all too fast! The ending, though subdued in tone, has surely left a satisfied smile on my face.
So you see, what makes Watership Down worthy of its place in the top books that I love is not only the fluffy, charming rabbits, but their story of exile and their search for a safe home on hostile terrain that they can call their own, where just about every rabbits roam free. Adams gives us lovable characters we can relate to and shoves them in danger’s way. But the thing with Watership Down is it’s a well-crafted story to begin with; a book whose epic proportions you wouldn’t want to see end. By those alone, it comes with my hearty recommendation.
Book Details: Book #15 for 2011
Published by Scribner
(First Trade Paperback, 2005 Edition)
Started: May 9, 2011
Finished: May 21, 2011