April 28, 2005

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

When I'm feeling sick and mostly brain-dead, I turn to one of two kinds of book: either a rather shallow series that I can chain-read without much effort, or an old favorite that I know so well that reading it is more likely reminiscing with a friend. Watership Down is one of the latter. I first read it when I was in junior high school (what they call "middle school" around here these days), and the copy I have now I got in England when I was 14. I was on a trip with my parents; it's the only time I've ever been to Europe. I've got copies of James Herriot's first four books from that trip as well, though you likely wouldn't recognize the titles--they were repackaged for American publication as All Creatures Great And Small and All Things Bright And Beautiful.

But I digress.

Are any of my readers unfamiliar with Watership Down? It's a tale of adventure and romance, of resourcefulness and steadfastness, of courage and honor and integrity, of causes and things worth fighting for, of grace under pressure.

And, of course, it's about rabbits. Not country bumpkins in rabbit-form, not talking beasts with waistcoats and pocketwatches, but rabbits. Real rabbits, with the concerns, problems, and enemies of rabbits. They talk, certainly, and tell stories, and they are a degree smarter than real rabbits, but they remain rabbits. They do not build towns or plant gardens or write books; instead, they dig warrens and eat grass and bear young and keep a watchful eye for the thousand enemies that beset them.

It's a remarkable achievement, and I don't believe it has ever been matched. The closest book I can think of is William Horwood's Duncton Wood, which seems clearly patterned after Watership Down (it was published eight years later). It's about moles, who at first mostly seem to have the concerns of moles; there's even a General Woundwort figure named Mandrake (of all things). But as the book progresses it emerges that these moles aren't real moles. Some of them write books; and there are even pseudo-Buddhist enlightened monk moles. In other words, Watership Down is a mainstream novel that appeals to lovers of fantasy, Duncton Wood is unequivocally a fantasy novel whose characters happen to be moles.

In any event, I re-read the book with great pleasure; and the ending has become only more moving with time and familiarity rather than less. I always have to have a box of kleenex handy for the last ten pages or so. Fortunately, given that I'm sick no one's surprised that my eyes are watering.

Posted by Will Duquette at April 28, 2005 08:11 AM