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Watership Down - Richard Adams
Member Name: Jake Speed
Watership Down - Richard Adams
Advantages: A cult classic
Disadvantages: Slightly dated of course
Watership Down is a cult 1972 novel by Richard Adams. The book revolves around anthropomorphised rabbits struggling for survival and looking for a new home in a landscape that is continually being challenged and altered by those pesky and annoying human beings with their dreaded machines and "hrududul". In the Sandleford Warren, a rabbit named Fiver has a nightmare vision that their home is about to be destroyed and that everyone will die. When Fiver and his brother Hazel fail to convince the leader to take heed of the mystic warning that they must all evacuate, they set off with a small collection of rabbits on an epic quest to reach their proposed new home at Watership Down, a hill in Hampshire. But the journey is fraught with danger and even the end of the quest may not necessarily mean that their troubles and problems are over. This is sort of like The Hobbit with rabbits but better than that description would suggest. Anyone expecting a twee and old fashioned book might be in for a mild surprise. Adams got the genesis of the story from countryside tales he would make up to amuse his daughters and also drew on his experiences of World War 2 where he served in the the Netherlands at the Battle of Oosterbeek. He based the personalities of some of the rabbits on the friends he made while in service. This is much more than a children's fable and many passages here would probably be unsuitable for young children anyway. Although these rabbits can speak and have their own language (which we come to learn more about as the book progresses), customs and myths, the danger, cruelty, wildness and sadness that is a constant part of their world at the sharp end of nature is not flinched at by Adams (who used the book The Private Life of the Rabbit by naturalist Ronald Lockley as a major part of his research). The rabbits heading for Watership Down fall under the leadership of Hazel and must travel through dangerous terrain to reach their destination.
Their epic journey through the English countryside is wonderfully and compellingly conveyed by the author and his flourishes on nature and the eternal elements are very evocative and atmospheric. "The full moon, well risen in a cloudless eastern sky, covered the high solitude with its light. We are not conscious of daylight as that which displaces darkness. Daylight, even when the sun is clear of clouds, seems to us simply the natural condition of the earth and air. When we think of the downs, we think of the downs in daylight, as with think of a rabbit with its fur on. Stubbs may have envisaged the skeleton inside the horse, but most of us do not: and we do not usually envisage the downs without daylight, even though the light is not a part of the down itself as the hide is part of the horse itself. We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight. Water is necessary to us, but a waterfall is not. Where it is to be found it is something extra, a beautiful ornament. We need daylight and to that extent it us utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms." The novel is set in real places that Adams knew very well himself and so his eye for detail and the atmosphere of the downs is always very keen. Like all great books, the author creates a distinct and fascinating world for the characters to be a part of. They have their own language (Lapine) which is complex sounding and exotic and they also have their own legends and beliefs.
The rabbits worship Lord Frith, a luminous light that travels in the sky. The storyteller is Dandelion, a most brave and shrewd rabbit with a gift for oration. One of the themes and messages of the novel is that the rabbits on a quest to find a new home must learn to build alliances with themselves and other creatures and break away from rigid doctrines and rules of the past. They must learn to trust each other and to listen to all views. The novel has many twists and you find yourself becoming increasingly drawn into the story and the plight of the main characters as this ramshackle group looks for safety and a new home. One of clever constructions of the novel is the way that we get a rabbit's eye view of the world and human beings only feature fleetingly as these strange creatures with an equally strange language who seem to bring nothing but destruction in their wake. Humans are forever destroying nature and blighting the landscape with their noisy machines. They are a pain in the neck for nature's many wild creatures and (given their dominance over the other animals) lack a very basic compassion for the welfare of the other creatures they share the land with. "Animals don't behave like men. If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality."
It sounds a trifle corny but the book does give one a new perspective on rabbits, such is the intricate nature of the fashion in which Adams creates a little universe for them to live in. It also makes you think about how arrogant human beings are to presume that the world is theirs to do as they please and can take blood splattered dominion over other creatures on the planet as a right. Leave the bunny rabbits and animals alone I say. If you read this book you will be given a unique glimpse into a little world within a world that belongs to rabbits. While the novel is unavoidably somewhat dated in places, it still retains some timeless themes and despite what appears to be a small scale and old fashioned setting the story actually manages to attain a very epic feel with the world the rabbits must survive in a very strange and frightening place sometimes. One does get a great sense of character and personality from the individual rabbits and we come to care deeply about their fate. Not only Fiver and Hazel but characters like Bigwig, the largest rabbit in their group and one who will be needed if they have any hope of defeating General Woundwort, the tyrannical leader of the dictatorial Efrafa Warren. The skirmishes and scheming is very Tolkien at times.
The development of the characters is very nicely done too. Hazel is an unlikely leader at the start of the story but we see how he must quickly adjust to the responsibilities that have been placed upon him. I like the philosophical tracts that run through the book - "Rabbits (says Mr Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now. A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass" - and also the mysticism that Adams infuses into the story. The rabbits have their own Gods, ghosts and legends and it makes both them and their society more believable. This is not a short book (nearly 500 pages in my paperback copy) and some readers might possibly have wished for some of Adams' flourishes to have been more restrained in places but I think the scope of the book is one of its greatest strengths and I loved the descriptive passages as an essential part of the aura that surrounds the novel. This is certainly a clever and inventive book and well worth reading if you've never got around to it yet. You'll never look at a bunny rabbit in the same way again.
Summary: Heroic rabbits on an epic journey