Saturday, March 19, 2016

Watership Down (Richard Adams)

Watership Down
Richard Adams
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When little Fiver has his strange visions and unaccountable feelings, his brother Hazel long ago learned to heed them... but the Chief Rabbit of their warren refuses to believe a premonition of doom. He even sets his Owsla, the chief enforcement guards, after them when they try to flee on their own. Along with a handful of other bucks, Hazel and Fiver make good their escape - but surviving isn't easy for homeless rabbits in the English countryside. Aside from men with guns, there are elil - the "Thousand" predators - not to mention injury, illness, and exposure to contend with. Fiver's visions insist there's a safe haven to be found... but even if Hazel and the rest reach it, will they be able to build a home, not just for themselves but for does and kittens for generations to come?

REVIEW: In a special anniversary edition of this title, Richard Adams talks of how he conceived this tale in a series of car trips with his children, stories of rabbits and their adventures in the English countryside to entertain and pass the time. Since publication, however, it's been hailed as a modern classic, inspiring numerous other "animal epic" fantasies (including one of my all-time favorites, Tad Williams's Tailchaser's Song - which borrows quite heavily from this book) and additional material, not to mention generations of fans more numerous than rabbits on the downs. Others insist it's a profound work, a symbolic examination of civilization and humanity (er, animality), or otherwise worthy of display on literary pillars of ivory and gold. When I started reading, therefore, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, aside from having once seen the movie (and suspecting a fair bit was cut from the script.) It moves at a fair pace, with some lulls and rough patches now and again, as the characters slowly grow from simple names and flat descriptions to more rounded beings... beings who don't always think or act as a human would, limited by lapine mentalities that preclude much abstract thought (beyond their numerous myths of the creator Frith and the first rabbit El-ahrairah, not to mention the Death figure, the Black Rabbit of Inlé), the bucks often reducing the does to vague entities required for breeding. (I admit this last point grew subtly irksome over time, despite does playing some part in later events of the novel.) They can learn, though; indeed, the balance of tradition with novelty, good new ideas with bad ones, makes a running theme through the book, as Hazel and company encounter various problems and warrens who have fallen into snares of their own innovation. The omniscient narration, though, tends to float above and beyond the rabbits, often contributing human observations and trivia of little use or concern to the rabbits themselves as they travel through the countryside. Sometimes, the descriptions get too detailed for their own good, thick with wildflowers and grasses, though Adams does an interesting job describing the flow and character of light. There are moments of tension and lightness, heroism and cowardice, cleverness and blundering. Ultimately, it may not be the great epic novel of the ages that some make it out to be, but it's a decent story, best thought of as Adams himself describes it: an adventurous tale of English rabbits, told to while away the hours.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling) - My Review
Tailchaser's Song (Tad Williams) - My Review
Watership Down (Deluxe Edition) - Amazon DVD link

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