Sunday, August 14, 2011

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down by Richard Adams, 1972

"Hello, Bigwig," said Hazel "You're off duty?"

"Off duty," said Bigwig, "and likely to remain off duty."

"How do you mean?"

"I've left the Owsla, that's what I mean."

"Not on our account?"

"You could say that. The Threarah's rather good at making himself unpleasant when he's been woken up at ni-Frith for what he considers a piece of trivial nonsense. He certainly knows how to get under your skin. I dare say a good mmany rabbits would have kept quiet and thought about keeping on the right side of the Chief, but I'm afraid I'm not much good at that. I told him the Owsla's priveliges didn't mean all that much to me in any case and that a strong rabbit could always do just as well by leaving the warren. He told me not to be impulsive and think it over, but I shan't stay. Lettuce-stealing isn't my idea of a jolly life, nor sentry duty in the burrow. I'm in a fine temper, I can tell you."

"No one will steal lettuces soon," said Fiver quietly.

"Oh, that's you, Fiver, is it?" said Bigwig, noticing him for the first time. "Good, I was coming to look for you. I've been thinking about what you said to the Chief Rabbit. Tell me, is it a sort of tremendous hoax to make yourself important, or is it true?"

is true," said Fiver. "I wish it weren't."

"Then you'll be leaving the warren?"

They were all startled by the bluntness with which Bigwig went to the point. Dandelion muttered, "Leave the warren, Frithrah!" while Blackberry twitched his ears and looked very intently, first at Bigwig and then at Hazel.

It was Hazel who replied. "Fiver and I will be leaving the warren tonight," he said deliberately. "I don't know exactly where we shall go, but we'll take anyone who's ready to come with us."

"Right," said Bigwig, "then you can take me."
--- (pages 28-29)

Watership Down is a great old-fashioned English adventure story, like The Hobbit or The Swiss Family Robinson. It has danger, coziness, courageous heroes, humor, action, suspense, originality and a memorably diabolical villain. It's an entrancing and spellbinding ride into a world that's equal parts alien and familiar. It's a novel that feels magical and somehow handmade. It's a delight from start to finish.

Oh, and it's about rabbits.

When a young rabbit named Fiver has a psychic vision of danger and death, a small group of rabbits leave their comfortable, doomed warren in order to seek out a new home in the unknown wilderness. Led by the level-headed Hazel, the wanderers find themselves beset by foes and perils, none greater than Efrafa, the dystopian warren run by the vicious General Woundwort.

In classic fashion, the plot is loose and episodic until the last half or so, which deals with the war between the warrens. The novel apparently began as a story that Adams told his daughters on a long car trip, and you can almost feel the storyteller inventing as the plot progresses, coming up with new obstacles and storylines. The slight feel of improvisation is another element of the book's considerable charm.

The rabbits' mythology feels anything but contrived, though. Adams gives his rabbits a vocabulary and religion all their own, complete with a Robin Hood-like folk hero El-ahrairah. There are several complete El-ahrairah stories embedded in the book (as the rabbits tell them to each other). This is usually one of my least-favorite literary devices, but these stories are gems, both funny and poignant. I especially liked the way Adams uses the stories to foreshadow future events or to underline important thematic points.

I liked the way that the story grew, too. The novel begins as a simple, fairy-tale-like narrative and slowly morphs into something darker, broader and epic in scope. By the end of the book, what began as a fun Wind in the Willows-esque amusement, has become a thrilling tale of war and sacrifice. The last few chapters are as exciting and pulse-pounding as anything I've read this year.

The characters are not the main event here in general; there's not a whole lot of growth or development, especially the minor rabbits like Acorn and Speedwell, who remain featureless throughout. Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, Dandelion and Blackberry get the most "screen time" out of the main characters. Bigwig in particular seems to be a favorite of the author. Why? Because he's awesome, that's why. I love his gruff courage and street smarts, and his climactic fight with Woundwort should be in the dictionary under "epic." Hazel has some pretty amazing moments, too, and Woundwort is a suitably memorable and nasty villain. What Adams' characterizations lack in complexity and nuance, they more than make up for in strength and consistency.

Adams' flair for descriptive writing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand he absolutely sells his world, down to the smells, textures and tastes (I find his descriptions of burrows and tunnels especially cozy). His world is rich and vivid. On the other hand, passages describing sunsets, flowers and lanscapes can become overly long and far too wordy, slowing the book's momentum a bit at times. It's not that the descriptions are exactly bad, just too bloated.

My only other real complaint is that Adams cheats a bit during the climax by inserting a sudden, random chapter from the perspective of a human. It's a jarring, utterly pointless addition to the narrative that stops the story dead in its tracks. It's quite badly written, too, and just a bizarre interlude in an otherwise breathtaking conclusion. I always hate something that violates the "rules" of a fictional universe.

There's something about Watership Down that just telegraphs 'classic' from the start. The force and passion of the story, the universal themes of courage, loyalty and leadership, and the mind-boggling originality of the premise combine to form a novel that you can feel getting under your skin even as you read. In a good way. Yeah, I know that sounds weird, just go with it.

I love the way that Adams combines innocence and experience, creating a book that sometimes feels like a giddy return to childhood and sometimes provides us with a surprisingly dark view of the world. In the end, it's a real literary journey in the traditional style, running the gamut from terror to hilarity, from tragedy to salvation, all within the confines of a few miles of English countryside. Watership Down is the kind of book you can give your heart to.

NEXT UP: Neil Gaiman's sprawling opus, American Gods.

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