John's Reviews > Watership Down
Watership Down (Watership Down, #1)
Sep 01, 2007
Recommended for: People who like a good story or who have a vague interest in rabbits
Ok, so it's a book about a bunch of rabbits traveling through a small stretch of English countryside. As such, it doesn't seem like something that would appeal to anyone but a preteen. But the fact of the matter is this is a great story, full of rich characters, a deep (if occasionally erroneous) understanding of things lapine, and it can reach moments of depth and profundity that the movie of the same title does not even begin to hint at. I was actually introduced to this book in one of the best ways I can imagine: a friend recorded the entire book on tape, and for a couple months I played the tapes of her reading a chapter or two just before I fell asleep each night. My slow exposure to the book under ideal circumstances may have influenced my perceptions, but I can say on each subsequent rereading of the book I've come to appreciate it more. You can read the book just for the story: apparently, the author wrote the book from stories he would tell his children, and it still can easily serve that purpose. But the richness of his characters lead to many interesting analogies to human life. For instance, from Hazel you can learn profound things about leadership. Throughout the book you feel that Hazel is the natural-born leader of his group of rabbits, but Richard Adams was very careful to develop this impression through character features rather than power-relations. The contrast is clearly intentional since the other leaders of the book achieve leadership status through very different means. Many people think the book takes a strong stance against a particular kind of authoritarian rule, but it is important to recognize the book gives this impression not through structured diatribe or through argument, but rather it evolves out of character considerations, and out of the story itself. This means that the result is far more complex than a simple argument. For instance, although General Woundwort may be seen as the main enemy that Hazel has to deal with, and the authoritarian rabbit is portrayed rather negatively at times, Adams quite intentionally adds some details that make him admirable to the other rabbits, even to the very end. A diatribe would not be so complex. Fiver is another great character. He adds an element of magic to the story, and it allows Adams to link the rabbits he describes to a mythical world that enters into the story quite frequently. One can almost see Fiver as a manifestation of imagination in this world. Big-wig is another likable character, and the story of this rabbits experience in Efrafa is one of the highlights of the story. Besides the characters, the descriptions of England are also quite acute. You can actually track the course of the rabbits on maps, since Adams was careful to describe real places and things. That attention to detail is often missed in reviews of this book. Finally, the thing that brings all these features together and makes the book more than a mere story, or an account of human characters, or a diatribe against fascism, is the fact that Adams is quite conscious of the fact that he is telling the story from the perspective of rabbits. The challenges they face are rabbit-sized, the ideas about the external world are rabbitlike, the philosophical insights seem rabbitized, and Adams brings many of our anthropomorphized ideas of rabbits together with the reality of rabbits in a surprisingly coherent fashion. I suppose the book can be seen as a cultural study of an imaginatively rich but realistic rabbit world. I realize as I write this review that many other readers may not feel the same way about the book as I do. It does have some shortcomings. For instance, female characters only make a few appearances in the book, although I think Adams does show some sensitivity in their depictions. But, even with the limitations, I would recommend the book to anyone who likes a good story and who is willing to think deeply about a children's story.
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