Sunday, September 7, 2014

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Title: Watership Down
Author: Richard Adams
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Rating: WORTHY!

It's very heartening for the rest of us writers that this novel was turned down by several staid and self-interested Big Publishing%trade; concerns before a small publishing house was smart enough to give it a chance. There's always a chance - especially now when we no longer need to kow-tow to Big Publishing%trade; - that we can not only get our works out there, but enjoy some success with them, too, and without being born down under the yoke of big business interests.

This is the story of how brothers Hazel and Fiver, two rabbits on the fringe of their society, lead a band of disaffected fellow rabbits in an escape from their warren, through hassles and trials until in the end, they get to establish their own warren in a new and pleasantly safe environment far from their original home, which true to Fiver's psychic predictions, fell afoul of a human - or rather an inhuman - development which began by gassing all the rabbits in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is the Sandleford warren, a very large and rather disorganized habitat in which the owsla, the rabbit 'police force' was given privilege after privilege with the rest of the rabbits suffering in consequence. It wasn't hard to find a party of rabbits who were looking to set out on their own.

All-in-all, Adams did a remarkable (and very successful) job, but where he failed, especially given that this novel began as nothing more than stories he told his two daughters (Juliet and Rosamunde, believe it or not) on long drives, was in representing female interests. His daughters were the ones who begged and urged him to write the stories down, so it's particularly sad that Where he evidently got it wrong was that rabbits have a rather matriarchal society whereas Adams misrepresented it as patriarchal.

Since Adams was loosely basing the stories he told on his own wartime exploits, it's hardly surprising that he primarily considered males to be the protagonists. Even that wouldn't have been so bad if he'd had some leading female rabbits along for the ride, but this apparently wasn't in his mindset. The story isn't entirely devoid of decent female representation, however.

The only other real complaint I have is that there are parts of this story which are ponderously slow. Yes, there are some beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, but there's also a lot of rambling, which might be wonderful were we actually in the country, but which is never a good thing in an action novel.

When a visit to the warren's chief rabbit fails to stir interest in addressing the impending doom of the warren as foreseen by Fiver, and indeed gets the owsla member Bigwig, punished for allowing these crazy rabbits into the chief rabbit's presence, Hazel decides to go on the run himself, with anyone who will come along, regardless of rank or position. This is dangerous, because it's one of the duties of the owsla, led by Captain Holly, to prevent rabbit runs (so to speak!).

On the night of the big escape, several rabbits show up: Acorn, Bigwig - with no reason to stay now he's lost his owsla privileges, and Blackberry - a really smart and inventive rabbit who often comes up with great plans to achieve whatever it is that Hazel seeks to do. He's instrumental on their first day of their escape, devising a way to float Pipkin and Fiver across a stream on a plank of wood. Others escaping are Buckthorn, Dandelion - a story-telling rabbit, Fiver - the prophet and seer, Hawkbit, Hazel - Fiver's brother and a wise leader in the making, Pipkin, the smallest rabbit to run with them, who proves to be loyal and overcomes his fears, Silver - a new and disaffected owsla member, and Speedwell. But these are all bucks - no does in sight.

After a nightmarish journey across a seemingly endless heath terrain, the rabbits arrive in an area which looks like it might be worthwhile colonizing. Fiver warns that this isn't a good place, and that they should head for the hills (the distant Watership Down), but everyone is tired, disillusioned, and scared, and they foolishly ignore him.

As they try to settle in and scratch a few shallow holes for shelter under an old Oak tree, they encounter a very large and sleek rabbit named Cowslip, who invites them to join his warren which, after hesitation and debate, they do. It seems like a wonderful place, and has a large underground gathering space which impresses Hazel, but something seems not quite right here. The rabbits behave oddly, and will never answer any question that begins with "Where...". Despite this, the local rabbits are all large and well-fed, so the rag-tag rabbits in Hazel's party cannot figure out what's wrong. They just know something is; then tragedy strikes.

They suddenly realize, as the life of one of them is almost lost, that Fiver is not someone to be ignored when he issues a warning. They quickly abandon the camp and head towards watership Down as Fiver advised. One of the local rabbits, Strawberry, follows them, and Hazel lets him join their band. Before long they make it to Watership Down, and scratch a temporary home under some bushes near the top. Soon they're planning out their warren and excavating it, making it look, as far as they can, like the warren they just escaped - with a large meeting chamber underground.

As they work on building it, several things happen. Hazel rescues a mouse, which pledges to help them in return. After a fright, they discover Captain Holly and Bluebell, from Sandleford warren, hiding out in a hedgerow, Holly almost dead from injury. They nurse him back to health and he tells them a horror story of the last minutes of the old warren. Also, a seagull, Kehaar, shows up, with whom they make friends. Just when it sounds like their adventure is over, it's really only just beginning with their most daring adventure yet to come.

Despite a few issues I had with this, I recommend it. It was engrossing, fun and inventive, and while there was, at times, a little too much description, this novel does hark back to a time when life was not rushed, where there was no such thing as a sound bite, and where people (that is they who actually had leisure time) took time to do things and were better for it.

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