Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Watership Down - Richard Adams

   1972; 475 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Laurels : 1972 Guardian Prize; 1972 Carnegie Medal; the best-selling Penguin Books novel of all time; #42 in the 2003 Big Read survey of the “Greatest Books of all time”.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    According to the rabbit Fiver, something catastrophic is about to happen to the home rabbit hole.  He may or may not be prescient, and he’s short on details; so most of the other rabbits don’t believe him when he says the warren needs to be abandoned at once.

    But Hazel does.  So the two of them, along with nine other bucks, embark upon a long journey to establish a new colony.  It will be fraught with danger, and none of them know exactly where they’re going.  All they can do is hope that Fiver will “sense” the right spot.

What’s To Like...
     The rabbits (and most of the other animals) are anthropomorphic.  They can talk, dream, plan strategies, sing, play a game called bob-stones, and even problem-solve.  But they’re still rabbits who like to do rabbity things – eat clover, frolic in the sun, and occasionally sneak down to some farmer’s vegetable patch to munch on some delicious carrots or lettuce.

    The pacing is good – no small feat when the subject is the rabbits’ habits.  The characters aren’t terribly deep, but they aren’t 2-D either.  Hazel is not a Mary Sue.  He sometimes makes wrong decisions and gets jealous if another rabbit shows leadership qualities.  The antagonist, General Woundwort, is superbly rendered.  He may be a big bad bully, but he has some good points too.  The ultimate resolution of him is a stroke of genius.  Kehaar is a hoot.  Well, a squawk, actually.

    The book is divided into 50 chapters.  Each starts off with a neat little literary excerpt.  There’s a map at the front of the book, but in my version it was poorly done and you don’t really need it to follow the storyline.  There’s also a 3-page glossary of rabbit-speak (called “Lapine”)  in the back.  This does come in handy, as Richard Adams uses these bunny words frequently, and to good effect.

    The rabbits in Watership Down love to tell stories, which make for refreshing breaks in the narrative.  Most of them are oral legends concerning El-ahrairah, a legend among rabbits.  And at one point, Adams apparently “writes himself into a corner”.  No problem; he just labels the next chapter “Dea ex Machina”, and contrives a way out of the plotline fix.  I think that’s cool.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Lollop (v.)  :  to move in an ungainly manner in a series of clumsy paces or bounds.

    “And Frith called after him, “El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so.  All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you.  But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning.  Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”  (pg. 60)

    Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.  For them there is no winter food problem.  They have fires and warm clothes.  The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security.  For birds and animals, as for poor men, winter is another matter.  (pg. 465)

“Foxes here, weasels there, Fiver in the middle, begone dull care!”  (pg. 24)
    There is a movie version of Watership Down which, along with The Point, are probably my two favorite animated films of all time.  It’s been a while since I’ve watched it, but it seems to me that I thought Hazel was a “she” in the movie.  The book seems more “focused” (for lack of a better term), but maybe that’s because it includes a bunch of side-stories and details that inevitably have to be omitted from any film based on a novel.  Or maybe it’s just that I was probably wasted when I watched the movie.

    Watership Down is a standalone novel that will captivate any and all who read it.  Little girls will love the bunnies.  Little boys will love the fighting.  Adults will enjoy a well-told, well-written tale.  The epilogue will leave a lump in your throat.

    I can’t think of any negatives to say, and when a book keeps me thoroughly entertained (and a slew of other readers, apparently – there are over 1200 reviews of this book on Amazon) with 475 pages about rabbits, I think that’s quite the accomplishment.  10 Stars.  A masterpiece.  And the movie is a 10*/10 as well.

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