Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Watership Down

Watership Down is my favorite fantasy novel.

Yesterday I reread it with a more critical eye so I could review it. The book was first published in 1972 and the style reflects this to some extent. Descriptions of the English countryside tend to be lengthy, as do infodumps (and the narrative includes some explanations in parentheses)1. Kehaar’s dialect can be painful—but thankfully it was kept to a minimum, as opposed to the tod’s speech in Adams’s The Plague Dogs—and it was difficult not to think of General Woundwort as the rabbit Hitler.

This is still an amazing novel. I could reread it again and enjoy it just as much.

The story starts off simply. Hazel’s younger brother Fiver senses that a great danger is coming to their warren, and they all need to leave. To the Chief Rabbit, this is nonsense, but Hazel trusts Fiver’s intuition and the readers know of the notice-board set up nearby to say that the surrounding land is going to be “developed with high class modern residences”.

Hazel and Fiver decide to leave, and a few other rabbits join them. Of those, Bigwig, so named because of the thatch of fur on his head, is my favorite: he’s blunt, loyal, tough, always ready for a fight and not inclined to respect authority unless that authority accomplishes the near-impossible task of earning his respect. And Blackberry is the clever one of the group—he figures out how to cross rivers by sitting on flat pieces of wood that float.

That’s one of the things I love about this book—the characters are rabbits, not furry humans. They’re small, they’re scared of the unknown and they’re simply not aware of things we take for granted.

Compared to the others, Hazel often comes off as ordinary, but he holds them together, keeps them moving and believes in Fiver’s vision of the safe place they will eventually find. Even when they make a home on Watership Down, he thinks of their future—or rather their lack of one, since they brought no does out of the warren. And that need eventually leads the rabbits to the warren Efrafa, which is ruled with an iron, er, paw by the terrifying General Woundwort.

Few fictional places are as nightmarish as Efrafa, with its Council police and the system of scarring the rabbits to mark and segregate them. The worst is a would-be escapee being mutilated, exhibited to each Mark in turn and forced to repeat, “Every Mark should see how I have been punished as I deserve for my treachery in trying to leave the warren” — with the knowledge that he will be killed once all the Marks have seen him. The infiltration of Efrafa and the escape are only topped when General Woundwort, coldly furious at his defeat, leads an expedition to destroy the Watership Down warren.

Every element in the book works together to hone and enhance a gripping plot. Even the stories the rabbits tell of their trickster god El-ahrairah play a role in the story, and the foreshadowing is brilliant, such as when Bigwig says sarcastically that on the day he calls Hazel the Chief Rabbit, he’ll stop fighting. That day is the last day of the siege of Watership Down.

The book is also self-contained. Unlike a lot of fantasy novels, there’s no trilogy or even a sequel, unless you count Tales from Watership Down, which I don’t. There was no need for feminism among the rabbits, or magic powers for El-ahrairah. The book is as close to perfection as possible, a classic of the genre and a wonderful read.

1. Also footnotes.


Lee Lawrence said...

Good review. I wrote a sequel to Watership Down when I was about 8. It was considerably shorter than the original. It's prolly when I first decided I wanted to be a writer.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Lee! Though... you read Watership Down when you were eight? That's hardcore. :)

I missed the characters when the book ended, and if Adams had written more about their adventures in the vein of the original I'd probably have snapped it up.

But it's like my top favorite, GWTW, that way - it doesn't leave much room for a sequel. Even if such a sequel is fitted in between the final chapter and the end of the siege, it would be difficult to top Woundwort and Efrafa (the way they topped Cowslip and the warren of the snares in terms of horror).

Sarpedon said...

I was mistakenly shown the cartoon version of this when I was quite young. It still makes me shudder to think about it.

I wonder if the book would make me have flashback heebie jeebies

Marian Perera said...

Oh. Oh dear. The movie.

That, like the original Transformers movie, is not ideal viewing fare for children.

I love how faithful the movie is to the source material, but that's precisely what makes it unsuitable.

MaryWitzl said...

My first year in Japan, I went to see the movie of this at a high school festival. It was deemed suitable for children, and there were half a dozen of them in the theatre. When I stumbled out, red-eyed and still snuffling, they were all there, still giggling and horsing around -- the whole thing had sailed over their heads. But I'll never forget it.

Lee Lawrence said...

I saw the movie first, and loved it so much I read the book. I would have been about 8 or 9, but my sister watched it too and is five years my junior. Although it had what I would recognise now as horrific elements I don't remember it traumatizing either of us, neither did go over our heads. Yes we were scared by Woundwort, and other elements, sad when rabbits died,etc. but also heartened by the knowledge that Bigwig would protect Hazel and the others, and amused by Keehar. In fact I think because it pulled no punches it had a bigger emotional impact than the average Disney fare.

Marian Perera said...

Mary - I'm torn between disappointment that the children missed out on a classic and relief that they missed out on the darker aspects of the classic. Seriously, the warren of the snares? Every time I read Fiver's revelation of it, a shiver runs down my back. I'm not surprised you were in tears,..

Lee - Good to hear you and your sister both enjoyed it. I still don't think it's suitable for all kids, but some of them can handle it. I read the book when I was fairly young too - eight or nine - but the blood and underground battles and snares came off as much more vivid in the film.