Some books just grab a hold of you and never let go. The subject matter could be almost anything, from a big fat fantasy to, say, building a cathedral. Or rabbits! On the short list of absolute classics, Watership Down by Richard Adams, a story of rabbit life in pastoral England, takes pride of place behind few others. What makes this book tick?
My first reason for the involving nature of Watership Down is given away by my list of examples. For each of these books, The Lord of the Rings, The Pillars of the Earth, and Watership Down, the authors poured a great deal of passion into their books. Watership Down is one of the great obsessive works of the 20th century; like Tolkien, Adams worked on this for a long time before it was published (Follett’s case is a little bit different, but it was certainly a labour of love that his publishers were not expecting from him).
There’s something fascinating about a work of art that has been polished and repolished far past the limit usually imposed by commercial concerns. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a fast-paced adventure that follows a formula (which sounds derisive, but I mean it as a compliment, since this is actually difficult to do well). But obsessive works usually show a large amount of disregard for typical writing advice, and that’s sometimes enthralling in a strange way. I’ve just re-read Watership Down, after about twenty years, and I was a little startled to find how many pages are taken up with descriptions of delicious-sounding flowers. Which of course makes sense for a book about rabbits, and it falls into line with the whole down-home English countryside thing going on. If I had a hankering to eat flowers, Watership Down would make my mouth water on just about every page! But I don’t think that’s what would be at the top of a shortlist of content requests from publishers out to make a buck.
Secondly, Watership Down gets a lot of mileage out of the nature of its protagonist and the adventures he encounters. Our hero is a lowly rabbit named Hazel. He’s not terribly bright himself – that’s his buddy Blackberry. He’s not good at fighting off threats (either other rabbits or farmyard animals or random carnivores) – that’s his friend Bigwig. He certainly doesn’t have helpful (and terrifying) visions of the future like his brother, Fiver. Like a lot of heroes, he’s a leader but more for his knack for bringing out the best in others, attracting friends, and actually listening to them. A bit like Harry Potter.
The plot starts with a bang – Fiver has a confused vision of danger for their home burrow, and only Hazel takes him seriously (yup, there’s a sign by the road that indicates a new subdivision will be built in the area). Only Hazel and a few of his friends get away. The rest of the book, in the most simplified terms, is about their search for a new home, complete with family, a safe burrow, plentiful flowers to eat, and so on. Not surprisingly for a relatively weak animal like a rabbit, this is difficult! Lots of encounters with carnivores and humans ensue, with some fairly tense scenes along the way.
Finally, I liked the level of anthropomorphism at play in the book. I get the feeling that Adams calibrated this very carefully – the book is filled with material about rabbit biology that is eye-opening yet true. So while there’s the whole talking-animal thing and lots of human-style interaction (or at least interaction that is comprehensible to the average human reader), the rabbits have their own view of the world. There are one or two scenes with Blackberry that I liked a lot: he’s trying to figure out something in the environment put there by humans, and it is an enormous struggle. And the others just don’t get it, most of the time, even though they come to rely on him.
Watership Down was Adams’ first book, and he went on to write a wide variety of novels afterwards. I have sometimes wondered what Tolkien would have written had he cared to write something other than The Lord of the Rings and its backstory. Adams, another English eccentric, of the retired civil servant variety, had one of those careers where he did whatever he wanted! His subsequent books feel much more grown up (although it’s true that Watership Down isn’t a particularly cuddly book either). I’m most familiar with two of Adams’ books, Shardik and Maia, both of which are heavily into satire of religion and empire (and Maia has a fair amount of sadomasochism)… not exactly tales to tell your kids at bedtime.
Watership Down is part of a long history of talking animal books. Too many to mention really. But I’ll point to an interesting trend of talking animal debut novels. I reviewed Redwall here on the Gutter three years ago, which was Brian Jacques’ first novel, and off the top of my head, I can think of Tad Williams breaking into print with Tailchaser’s Song. Any other titles come to mind? Any other thoughts on Watership Down and its appeal?