Sunday, July 23, 2006

Watership Down by Richard Adams

I hadn’t read this book since I was a teenager, which is a lot longer ago than I care to admit. Though the idea of a band of rabbits running away from their warren to save their lives and establish a new home sounds like a children’s story – and on certain levels, this is a children’s story – Watership Down has much more going on than that.

From a story standpoint, however, the tale is endearing and extremely accessible. To his credit, Richard Adams keeps his characters from having too many extraordinary attributes. Yes, they can talk to each other and other animals, which must be accepted in order to keep reading, but that’s not too tough for any reader of fiction. And, the rabbit known as Fiver has keen awareness – some might call it an extrasensory perception – that is really the genesis for the story. But beyond that, the rabbits embark on adventures through which they learn to rely on one another, to rely on their innate talents and skills, and to take risks in order to advance their society. These are human characteristics, but that’s what anthropomorphism is all about. And without them, the story is meaningless to the only beings that can actually read it.

As Adams explains in the introduction he gives in the 2005 Scribner edition I read, Watership Down began as a story he told his young daughters, and it was not intended to be about World War II, though the images of Efrafa and terms like “Owslafa” seem to suggest Nazi Germany. Moreover, the society the rabbits of Watership Down create is inclusive. They befriend mice and a gull and lead hutch bunnies into their group (in order to have a couple of does; hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.) And their reason for venturing to the harrowing warren of Efrafa is to convince its leaders that they can spare some does for the new warren.

Yet, all that aside, Adams’ storytelling keeps the story moving along. At 474 pages, Watership Down is not something an average reader knocks out in a weekend, but it’s easy to start the novel and soon find oneself 100 pages in. By that time, the “hlessil” (rabbits without a home warren, living above ground, in the Lapine language) have not only escaped their home warren of Sandleford but lived among a warren of rabbits that are the equivalent of the lotus eaters from Homer’s Odyssey. Indeed, the tale has epic heroes among its characters. Hazel is the crafty leader who leads his rabbits away from Sandleford, following the vision set out by his brother Fiver. Though he’s not the largest of the rabbits, Hazel earns the respect of his people through his ability to lead them through each trial – a small brook, hungry predators, a snare – and to trust the talents of those around him. Indeed, Hazel doesn’t have every answer, which makes him an even more believable and compelling character.

Thlayli, better known as Bigwig, is the largest rabbit of the group and a natural second in command. While he sometimes disagrees with Hazel, Bigwig carries out his leader’s decisions unflinchingly. He takes on the suicide mission of venturing into Efrafa, which is under the command of General Woundwort, a ruthless, wily leader who rules through fear and power, demands unyielding adherence to the dictates of his government, and refuses to order any of his followers to do something he wouldn’t be willing to do himself. Bigwig’s size and abilities are immediately evident to Woundwort – who may be a tyrant, but is not a fool – and because Efrafa needs new captains in its “Owslafa,” (like a powerful police force) Woundwort agrees to accept him. But his trust is misplaced, and with help from Keehar the gull, Bigwig leads an escape. In the final battle against the evil Woundwort, Bigwig defends the warren on Watership Down and saves his comrades and the escaped does. There he delivers one of the best lines of the book.

“Thlayli,” (Woundwort) said, “we’ve unblocked a run out here. I can bring in enough rabbits to pull down this wall in four places. Why don’t you come out?”
Thlayli’s reply, when it came, was low and gasping, but perfectly clear.
“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run, and until he says otherwise, I shall stay here.”

Woundwort and his other rabbits are shocked. If Thlayli isn’t the chief, then there’s another, stronger rabbit nearby. The effect on the rabbits of Efrafa was immediate, and it was all Woundwort could do to keep his best rabbits from staying with him.

A reader doesn’t run away, however, and by the time the book closes, with Hazel joining the Owlsa of their mystical folk hero/savior character, they want it all to continue – to know more about the rabbits of Watership Down.

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