Friday, August 28, 2009

Watership Down by Richard Adams


I last read Watership Down more than 25 years ago, but it obviously stayed with me as it came to mind when I was thinking up recommendations for the Book Wizards. This is a group of book-loving young adults with developmental disabilities, of which my oldest daughter is a member. I have the good fortune to be a facilitator, and although it’s not my month to lead the discussion I decided I wanted to join in anyway.

So I dug out my copy of the novel, which dates from the 1970s. It doesn’t have the cover shown here, of course, but this was the closest to mine. I was slightly offended at the way the blurb on this cover implies that the writer is American! I wouldn’t be surprised if the editions sold here in the States have been Americanized, a horrible fate suffered by so many British novels. Get the British version if you can.

This is a deeply English book. NOT British, there’s a distinction - yes, I know our island would fit neatly into a corner of Illinois, but it matters to us. It was published as a children’s book, because it’s about bunnies. Never mind that these bunnies are more adult in their thinking processes than the average adult TV watcher, or that they spend their time fighting, killing, mating, or thinking their way out of harrowing dangers. Bunnies are for kids, right?

Oh no, dear reader. By the time you get through this fascinating story you will have a new respect for the common English rabbit. This is “nature red in tooth and claw” indeed. You may also be reluctant to read this one to your six-year-old as a bedtime story.

The plot isn’t too complicated, though. A group of rabbits, led by a buck called Hazel, leave their warren because his friend Fiver, who is psychic (an odd concept for a rabbit, but it moves the story along) has predicted disaster. After a terrifying journey, they set up a new warren on Watership Down. Then it occurs to them that they’re all MALE, and off they go to get’em some women. Unfortunately said women belong to a warren run by the horrendous General Woundwort, and he isn’t going to give them up easily. The resolution of this dilemma will keep you on tenterhooks, promise.

Richard Adams began writing this book when he was 50 (there’s hope for us all yet!) and the writing clearly springs from a deep well of experience, reflection, and familiarity with the classics of literature. You’ll also find many of the marks of a man who was born in 1920 and fought in the Second World War, including, regrettably, the clearly held belief that females are good for breeding and homemaking and not much else. Still, if you can put up with that in The Lord of the Rings, you can put up with it here.

This is one of those books that should make more reading lists than it does, especially if you're looking to improve your writing style (which will be 8% more elegant after reading this book.) It’s superbly written, exciting, and often profound. So grab a nice cup of tea and a scone, and curl up by a roaring fire with this English classic.

5 comments:

moonrat said...

This is on my Gaps list!! Maybe I'll bump it up on my TBR pile :)

stacy said...

I was first introduced to the animated movie version of Watership Down as a child. I loved it immediately and deeply, as it was so different and more adult than any "cartoon" I'd experienced prior to that. Here was an animated film that didn't talk down to kids.

Unfortunately, I didn't read the book until I was an adult, but I love it no less. Great choice for your book club.

Leigh Russell said...

I agree. It transcends the children's story classification, as so many great children's books do. The simple story line makes it more gripping, and the rabbits are convincing characteres. They're definitely not bunnies!

Leigh Russell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leigh Russell said...

Sorry - I managed to enter my comment twice so deleted one.