Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reader's Diary #963- Richard Adams: Watership Down

When I began Watership Down with my daughter I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was a classic and I knew it was about rabbits but I couldn't have told you anything else.

I'm still not sure it was a children's book. My daughter seemed to like it well enough, but I did have to explain a lot and I certainly enjoyed it more than she. Richard Adams said that he began the tale for his own little girls but went on to say that the book isn't for children, it's for anyone who wants to read it. Fair enough, but if it had been written for children, no one could accuse Adams of dumbing it down. Especially with the quotes at the beginning of each chapter: some Shakespeare, a few French quotes, even some Plato. Personally, I think people hear about talking animals and assume it's for kids. To them I say read Animal Farm or Maus. Watership Down is in league with those.

Actually, I found myself thinking of George Orwell's Animal Farm quite a lot while reading Watership Down. That book was an allegory for the Russian Revolution and Josef Stalin, but I couldn't put my finger on whatever it was Adams was alluding to. It seemed to be a refugee or displaced peoples story, but which ones? And what or who did Kehaar, the seagull represent? There were clearly holes in my knowledge of world history. Or was there? Again, according to Adams himself he didn't intend it to be an allegory or parody, just simply a tale about rabbits. It's perhaps a testament to Adams' writing, and the rich culture he has given these rabbits (complete with their own language, superstitions, and folklore) that it's hard not to suspect he had specific peoples and historical events in mind. The mythological rabbit El-ahrairah reminded me of the raven or coyote in many Canadian First Nations stories.

As much as I loved Watership Down, it was a bit long and repetitive. Three times, for instance, the rabbits of Watership Down defeat their enemies by using another animal species as a weapon. Granted, the last time is the most exciting, but it would have been even more so had they not pulled similar stunts before.

Still, Adams has changed the way I'll look at rabbits from now on. It'll be impossible not to imagine them with varied personalities and with wild schemes going on behind those twitchy noses.


6 comments:

Nicola Mansfield said...

I was an adult when I read this and would never have thought of it as a children's book. Then I read Plague Dogs and ,man, that one is definitely not for kids! I wonder if his other books are any good...

Shannon Lee said...

Wild schemes indeed!

gypsysmom said...

I just listened to Watership Down after having read it shortly after it was first published. My reaction to it was quite a bit different than when I first read it. This time I was quite upset at the inequality between the rabbit genders. The female does never got to do anything except have babies and wait for some big strong male rabbits to rescue them. I hope you had a discussion with your daughter about that.

John Mutford said...

Nicola: Never heard of that one.

Shannon: I still trust them more than ferrets.

Gypsysmom: I didn't actually. I think we both pretty much brushed it off as just being rabbits. Then again, they were personified, so I guess a discussion was in order.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I read Wstership Down as a teenager. Like you, I assumed it was allegorical, but couldn't quite put my finger on the veiled references.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I think I would really have enjoyed this as a teenager.