Richard Adams, Watership Down (1972)
Lately I’ve been disappointed that my son’s interest in reading seems to have flagged. He happily reads Tintin comics and my old Cricket magazines for hours, but the sustained attention required by a novel has been elusive.
Until I started reading him Watership Down, that is. I thought this 400-page chunkster would take us weeks to read at bedtime, but we’re almost done — because he seized it from me after the first couple of days and tore through a hundred pages at a stretch. And I had to seize it back from him to catch up; I didn’t want to miss a thing.
What is so compelling about this book, that it could enchant equally a twelve-year-old boy and his harried mom? I loved it as a child, but now I have to admire even more Richard Adams’s achievement. He has managed to write a story that is truly for all ages, and that still holds up decades after it became a surprise publishing sensation.
An adventure story about a group of rabbits trying to find a new home might seem a notion whose appeal is confined to the nursery, but there is nothing cute or sentimental about Adams’s writing. There’s a lot that could be considered absurd from a purely naturalistic point of view — rabbits do not have a spoken vocabulary, or tell stories, or have military-police type organizations — and yet Adams somehow manages to convince us utterly of the reality of his world while he is describing it. And the shift in perspective that invites us to consider the world from a small animal’s point of view is enriching and thought-provoking.
It’s not surprising that Watership Down was categorized on publication as a children’s book; one could hardly publish a book about talking rabbits in any other way. Yet there’s no reason why it can’t be read with pleasure by adults, and there are many sophisticated elements which may be appreciated more by experienced readers. The frequent shifts in tone, for example, which could have been incredibly awkward, are deftly handled to bring out the tension between the rabbit and human worlds while simultaneously integrating them into a coherent narrative.
The epigrams to each chapter, chosen from such un-child-like authors as Euripides and Auden, still ring in my memory after many years, while the themes of courage, leadership, brotherly love, and the primacy of freedom made a deep impression. And the brilliant pseudo-folktales told by the rabbits at various points of their journey are as memorable as any handed down by a real human culture. Not just random interpolations, they reflect and interact with the main narrative in significant ways, showing how central storytelling is to our experience of the world, to our very survival.
The landscape and natural phenomena of this very particular corner of England are lovingly, carefully described, but in a way that enhances rather than detracting from the exciting plot. We can’t understand the rabbits at all in disconnection from their context, and this may be the most important message Adams has to teach us. We humans have distanced and disconnected ourselves from the natural world, with tragic results; but through our imagination we have the power to connect again, and that is a source of hope even in the darkest circumstances.
I’m so glad my son has discovered the joys of this marvelously exciting and transformational journey, and that I get to travel along with him. Have you also been to Watership Down? What did you discover?