Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Watership Down Is My All-Time Favorite Novel

I had a pet rabbit, for nearly ten years. We acquired each other by accident but became devoted friends, and after he passed away I had his picture tattooed on my shoulder. I would never have had that experience if it hadn’t been for Watership Down.

I think about Watership Down sometimes when I stumble upon some movie where no less than The Fate Of The World is at stake and yet the plot is dragging and I’m getting bored. Watership Down got me to stay up past bedtime turning pages to find out whether the bunny rabbits were able to cross the stream safely.

I had heard that rabbits made terrible pets – skittish, noncuddly, couldn’t be trained, they chew on everything. And all of these things are true, yet rabbits make very good pets – for certain kinds of people. As a quiet writer who enjoys fresh greens from time to time, I was an ideal rabbit roommate.

As I got to know my rabbit, I learned his way of communicating. He was very eloquent and had an opinion about everything, even though he didn’t vocalize. Happy music and fresh smells and visitors he liked would send him skipping across the floor. Harsh noises and stinky things were met with thumping, and tossing his toys out of the three story indoor hutch where he lived. He always took part in social gatherings, settling himself where he could watch everyone’s faces. He was sort of imperious, and he would throw his litterbox scoop at me if he thought I hadn’t been diligent enough in my housekeeping. He didn’t like to sit on laps, but every night at bedtime he’d come racing into my room, leap onto the bed, sit on my chest and lick my nose, while I’d fondle his silky ears and feed him a couple of raisins.

He got me to appreciate the intricacies of a purely social brain, as opposed to the predatory brains of cats and dogs. Rabbits have different priorities. They have wit and nuance, but at  the same time they are destructive little anarchists that require you to wrap every wire in gnawproofing. They pine away if they’re too lonely, yet they’re ornery and will fight to the death if you pair them with an unacceptable companion. To a rabbit, every social occasion is high drama. 

That’s what makes them perfect for an epic journey. In Watership Down, a visionary rabbit named Fiver gets a sense it’s time to move. His brother Hazel and a few others join him in an escape from a strict feudal society. They have grand adventures and encounter two other warrens which are run very differently before taking new territory and founding their own society. Along the way they trade stories and encounter new situations and creatures. We become steeped in their language and folklore.

Richard Adams does an amazing job at getting inside his rabbit characters’ heads. They see the world in a group-oriented way where cleverness is valued and prowess isn’t necessarily physical. In fact, in the rabbit world, strongmen like Bigwig typically find a smart rabbit to serve. 

Our brave troop of rabbits succeeds on their mission of founding a new warren exactly halfway through the book, until a snarky seabird points out they are all male, and the new warren won’t last long without does. This necessitates a new mission, as they attempt to steal some maidens from a rather fascistic warren.

Some people have denounced Watership Down as sexist over this, pointing out that rabbits don’t put a lot of stock in gender roles. It didn’t really strike me that way. The rabbits come from a strict society where the leader’s owsla probably controls access to the does. Plus Mr. Adams was born in 1920, and I personally don’t require lovable codgers to adhere to modern values. I’ll further note that he doesn’t say anything particularly mean about the female gender, or make broad sweeping generalizations about them, plus there are adventurous Efrafa does like Hyzenthlay, who take active roles in busting out of their dreary fascist prison, not even turning back when one of them meets with a sudden tragic death.

Watership Down is one of the books I’d take to a deserted island. Such a simple story, and yet so powerful and resonant. I read Mr. Adams other books – Shardik and Maia and The Plague Dogs (which broke my heart) and none of them stuck with me as hard. There is a sequel called Tales From Watership Down, and I have a copy, which I have read a few times, but I can’t recall anything in it, other than it was pleasant.

Watership Down is one of the most wonderful stories written. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.

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