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Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Second paragraph of third chapter:
It was evening once more and Hazel and Fiver were feeding outside the wood with two friends. Blackberry, the rabbit with tipped ears who had been startled by Fiver the night before, had listened carefully to Hazel’s description of the notice board, remarking that he had always felt sure that men left these things about to act as signs or messages of some kind, in the same way that rabbits left marks on runs and gaps. It was another neighbor, Dandelion, who had now brought the talk back to the Threarah and his indifference to Fiver’s fear.
This was a group reread masterminded by rmc28 over on her Dreamwidth journal. At 52 chapters, it would have been ideal to get through at a chapter a week in a calendar year, and that was indeed the original intent when we started in January 2015; but Real Life intervened, and we finished on August 31. I want to just take a moment to advocate this sort of group re-read - I've done two successful Tolstoys (War and Peace and Anna Karenina) on Facebook, and now Watership Down on LJ/DW. It's a great incentive to take a favourite or a classic slowly and also discuss with friends. (On the other hand, I have to say that collectively we completely bounced off the Romance of the Three Kingdoms when we tried it.)

I must have first read Watership Down when I was about nine, and then saw the notorious film when it came out a couple of years later. I was captivated then, and I am captivated now, four decades on. It's a great epic on a small scale, with Hazel leading a breakaway faction from a doomed warren, escaping many enemies, and then winning a conflict with the Efrafran rabbits led by the fearsome General Woundwort, to earn a just retirement. There is a lot of back-story mythology as well, centring around the trickster rabbit king and hero, El-Ahrairah. It has some beautiful descriptive passages:
The sun, risen behind the copse, threw long shadows from the trees southwestward across the field. The wet grass glittered and nearby a nut tree sparkled iridescent, winking and gleaming as its branches moved in the light wind. The brook was swollen and Hazel’s ears could distinguish the deeper, smoother sound, changed since the day before. Between the copse and the brook, the slope was covered with pale lilac lady’s-smocks, each standing separately in the grass, a frail stalk of bloom above a spread of cressy leaves. The breeze dropped and the little valley lay completely still, held in long beams of light and enclosed on either side by the lines of the woods. Upon this clear stillness, like feathers on the surface of a pool, fell the calling of a cuckoo.
Of course, now that I am older I'm more sensitive to the background of the story, which reflects Adams' wartime experience (especially Operation Market Garden) in the same way that Tolkien's work reflects the earlier war. As a child, I found chapter 31, The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, very very creepy indeed; as an adult, I was immensely moved by the ending in which the war veterans return to the warren they have saved, to find that their sacrifice has simply been forgotten by the next generation. There are some off-notes (the does come into the story rather late; there is a racist remark about Irish people; what is up with the sculptures and poetry in Cowslip's warren?) but in general it has kept its charm, and I'm immensely grateful to rmc28 for bringing me back to it.

(And of course I am classifying it as sff. It has talking rabbits, birds, cats and mice; and one of the rabbits is psychic.)

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
kalimac
Sep. 10th, 2016 06:09 pm (UTC)
I've been waiting for you to finish Watership Down so I could read your thoughts on it. This is one of my very favorite novels, the only great quest story since The Lord of the Rings to be comparable with it, despite its minute geographical scale. I couldn't have read it at 9, as it hadn't been published yet; but I found it in my late teens while it was still new, and have remained fond of it ever since.

Sex roles are, as you note implicitly, the book's most problematic aspect. Anyone who defends this by saying, "Duh, they're not humans, they're rabbits," as I've heard men do, wins an instant booby prize: rabbits are actually far less sexist by our standards than humans are, and in real life a party setting off to found a new warren like this would be more likely to be entirely does. But on the other hand, some (the usually sensible Ursula Le Guin in particular) have criticized the book far beyond its deserts by claiming that its does have no agency whatever, and aren't even consulted about their own rescue: this is flatly untrue.

Although I enjoyed The Plague Dogs, none of Adams' other novels - especially those in animal first-person voices, ugh - measure up, but he wrote one other book the equal of this one: his memoir, The Day Gone By. It has a lot on his love of the countryside and on his war experiences, both of which contributed so much to WD, although my favorite piece in the book is his account of trying to navigate an underground culvert in Oxford in a punt.

huskyteer
Sep. 13th, 2016 06:56 am (UTC)
You might enjoy this roundtable discussion I recently partook of, from a furry POV:
http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2016/07/27/the-furry-canon-watership-down-roundtable/
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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