“There is nothing that cuts you down to size like coming to some strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.”
Watership Down was a thoroughly enjoyable tale of adventure and coming-of-age, and highly misappropriated as a children’s book.
The book tells the story of a group of rabbits who move out of their warren, journey far and wide, often meeting great perils, to arrive at Watership Down – their new home. But the story goes on because:
“You know how you let yourself think that everything will be all right if you can only get to a certain place or do a certain thing. But when you get there you find it’s not that simple.”
It was allegedly composed (an oral story in its first version) as a children’s tale, to last for a long drive that the author was taking with his girls. I find this context supplied by the author hard to believe for two reasons – it is a very complicated tale with many adult themes which would not only fly right off a child’s head, but most likely drive the child to frustration and boredom. (And perhaps a conviction to never grow up) And second, how can a father so completely relegate the female gender to the backseat when composing a fantastic tale for his daughters without having his head bitten off by those daughters? Can you imagine being able to tell a complete story to your son which didn’t have a single male hero, but only a group of heroines who, remembering the other gender 3/4th way into the story seemed to go hire a few male servants? I wouldn’t believe girls to be any less forgiving in the omission of their gender.
Well the above minor gripe aside, it was a great story about leaving home, encountering a new world and finding that the world is much larger and more fascinating than the places you grow in. Which is always a great idea to tell children, or grown ups.
The story is a great lesson in leadership too – in it you encounter leaders of many kind, and they in turn encounter crisis of many kinds. There is an intuitive leader, a courageous leader, a decisive leader, a calming leader and a leader who could weave all of these leaders together and use his ability to look beyond his nose to create a new world. Adams is laborious in character development and Bigwig, Hazel or even General Woundwort are some of the most memorable characters I have come across in my recent reading. (I usually indulge in cheerless books with a generous unsavoury sprinkle of reality)
Believe it or not, the story also flirts with existentialism at many points – particularly when this gang of rabbits end up in a world of tunnels where rabbits sing and show a melancholy unnatural to rabbits. When you learn the source of this melancholy, it is impossible to not think of the world of men governed by fate not entirely in their own hands.
Another strong theme is the one of freedom, and eerily very similar to what I recently encountered in Atwood’s Handmaid’s tale. The choice between freedom to and freedom from, which we see in the lives of the hutch rabbits and the Efrafa rabbits.
“The holes are all hidden and the Owsla have every rabbit in the place under orders. You can’t call your life your own: and in return you have safety—if it’s worth having at the price you pay.”
It is a great book, but I think it needed fewer pages even though I loved the words and the quotes. What a fantastic tale!