Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book of the Week: WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams

I’m so excited, Esteemed Reader, because this week I get to share with you one of my most favorite books of all time. I’m not sure if I could ever possibly pick an absolute favorite book, but if I did, Watership Down would surely be a strong contender for the top spot. And that pretty well concludes my review: I love Watership Down. If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing and read it now. If you have read it, it’s probably been a while and you need to read it again. I've read this book at least ten times and I have it on audio book to entertain me while I sweat at the gym.

I know what you’re thinking, Esteemed Reader. Classic middle grade? That means we won’t have an interview with an author this week. But that’s where you’re wrong! Richard Adams will be here at this very blog this Thursday to face the 7 Questions. So for goodness sake, be back here Thursday, wear a nice shirt, comb your hair, and make sure there’s nothing in your teeth.

I've got to tell you, starting this blog and declaring myself a ninja has to be one of the smartest things I've ever done aside from marrying Mrs. Ninja. It’s opened all sorts of doors for me and put me in contact with some amazing people, including you, Esteemed Reader. I’ve been thrilled to chat with every author we've had here and I've enjoyed chatting with literary agents as well. But Richard Adams is my hero and receiving his email has been one of the most exciting experiences of my life.

You know how sometimes you read a book that’s just so amazing you want to find its author and tell them everything their book meant to you? For most readers, this is perhaps just a thought, but it’s something I get to do on a pretty regular basis. And now I've had the chance to tell Richard Adams how much his work has inspired me and how it’s the measuring stick I use against my own work. I even sent him an excerpt of my current manuscript as Watership Down is the favorite book of my protagonist and a bully threatening to rip out its pages incites him in a pivotal scene. I’m not certain if Mr. Adams enjoyed the scene, but I certainly enjoyed sharing it with him.

I’m going to get to the meat and potatoes of discussing this book in a moment, but I want to share with you the circumstances under which I first read Watership Down. I didn’t read it as a child and that’s too bad for me. Three years ago, after a particularly nasty ice storm, I slipped in a parking lot late at night  and lost consciousness. When I came to, I was in bad shape, but I drove home, took some Tylenol and went to bed (bad idea, but it’s what I did to avoid the bankrupting cost of American health care). I even got up the next day and went to work, though I couldn’t hear and I could barely walk. I figured it would pass.

It didn't pass. My boss sent me to the hospital and it was a good thing she did. A cat scan revealed I had cracked my skull and bruised my brain. For three days I was under close observation and throwing up pretty much all the time. The doctor told me and a far more distraught Mrs. Ninja (then girlfriend Ninja) that we would have to wait and see when the swelling stopped how much of my cognitive function would remain. It’s a terrible thing to sit and wait to find out if the thoughts you’re thinking are the last clear thoughts you’re ever going to have.

I assure you, if I had been up to it, I would have spent that time finishing the novel I was working on as to die, or worse, go vegetable with an unfinished manuscript is a great fear of mine. But I wasn’t up to it, so I read instead. Oh, I told my girlfriend and my family I loved them and comforted them as much as I could, but I was there for three days and that’s a long time to go without a book. Mrs. Ninja understood and she bought me a copy of Watership Down.

As I read Watership Down, I knew it was perhaps the last book I would ever be able to read, and I was okay with it. It would have been a great book to go out on. I’ll stop with the melodrama as it came out all right. My balance has never been the same and I have some slight hearing loss, but all things considered, I got off quite lucky. I even finished that silly manuscript I was working on and have since written a better one and as you know from reading this blog, I have read many fine books since.

But never before had the power of a great book been made clearer to me. Richard Adams took me out of that place and away from my worries, which were considerable. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but he did. I forgot about the nurses and the doctors and all the dreadful possible outcomes I was facing and was transported to the world of Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig and the wonderful rabbits of Watership Down. I forgot my own concerns and focused on my concern for those brave rabbits and their struggle.

For those three anxious days, I was not at the hospital. I was in England in a warren. Never before had I so badly needed to be swept away and Watership Down did that for me. And in my more cynical moments when I’m convinced no one reads anymore and we writers are a relic unaware that our time has passed, I remember that experience and know that literature is as important and powerful as it ever was. I don’t care that most Americans watch reality television instead of reading (well, I do, but what can be done?). I need great books in my life and as you’re reading this blog (possibly while watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta), I can’t be the only one.

I almost don’t want to tell you about Watership Down. It’s an amazing experience that every reader should have at least once and if I tell you about it before hand, it may diminish it somewhat. How some readers feel about Lord of the Rings (I never did care much for all the eating and singing those hobbits did), how my mother felt about Gone With the Wind, how Stephen King fans feel about The Dark Tower (which contains multiple references to the work of Richard Adams)—that’s how I feel about Watership Down. I love it as much as I love Batman, and if you read the blog regularly, you know that’s a lot:) So I’ll repeat: if you haven’t read Watership Down, stop reading this review and go read it. For those of you who have read it, I have a job to do and it’s time for me to get to it:

Watership Down is the story of a group of misfit rabbits who leave their warren when they learn, courtesy of a psychic revelation, that their home will soon be destroyed. Fiver is the high-strung rabbit who has the revelation and he has many more before the novel is done, all of them useful. And why not? Humans have these intuitive revelations all the time. Don’t believe me? Then why is it that airline reservation cancelations consistently go up ahead of a crash? I myself have had a few odd moments that caused me to alter my path and as a result, I avoided catastrophe (didn’t happen when I was walking in that parking lot, though). These odd moments are the subject of another, kookier post, but I’ll bet many of you Esteemed Readers, if you’re honest, could tell me stories of having similar moments of intuition.

Fiver convinces his buddy Hazel that they need to get out of town. First, the two try to convince their chief rabbit that the sky is falling. They are not taken seriously, of course, and in the end only a few rabbits high-tail it out of there, all of them boys—which turns out to be a real problem later. The rabbits rough it for a bit, attempt to join another warren, visit another, and eventually decide to start their own. But, of course, if their warren is going to last more than the current generation, our heroes are going to need some girls. The second half of the novel is some dude rabbits on a quest to get some chicks—what tale could be more universal than that?

And that’s the plot of Watership Down. Our protagonists have a clear goal and it’s one readers will relate to: they are on a quest for a sustainable life where they can be free of death and harm. There is considerable opposition on all sides. After all, these are rabbits and there are farmers and foxes and trains and birds on all sides—everybody wants to kill these poor rabbits. At times, the oppositions seems insurmountable and that is the key to what makes Watership Down so very readable. Incredible opposition facing scrappy heroes that will do anything to achieve their universal goal. Write that formula down. If you want to have a hope of writing a novel with even a fraction of the longevity of Watership Down, and I do, I do—that’s how it’s done.

Adams never lets up on these rabbits. They are always being chased or imprisoned or otherwise threatened and I assure you the pages will turn themselves. Thug life? Try Bunny life. This is my favorite thing about Watership Down: it is first and foremost a good story well crafted. Adams gives us lovable characters we can relate to and then shoves them in harm’s way repeatedly. This probably isn’t what makes Watership Down a classic, and in a moment I’m going to talk about theme and metaphor and all that other stuff your English teacher lives for. But notice, all of that is secondary and readers only invest time considering it because their primary need for a good story has first been met.

The thing about Adams’ rabbits is that they are truly rabbits. These aren’t Disney characters who drive in cars, or watch television. They are rabbits and their world is the world of a rabbit. Their concerns are food, shelter, mating, and avoiding harm—which are the primary concerns of humans, no matter how much we like to otherwise trump up the importance of our actions. Every simile Adams employs is a simile from nature. Here’s one of my favorites:

He pretended to go back, but suddenly turned, rushed upon the shadows and plunged into the nearest hole faster than a raindrop into the ground.

Adams would never write “he leaped into the hole like a car whipping into a garage,” partly because that’s a terrible simile, but mostly because rabbits have no knowledge of cars or garages. The rabbits’ thinking is entirely grounded in their world, and therefore the narration is as well. The rabbits have names like Blackberry, Dandelion, Cowslip, and even Prince Rainbow. You won’t ever encounter a rabbit in Watership Down named Milkshake, or Lucky Penny, or Toilet Paper (too bad).

The one conceit of Watership Down is that Adams’ rabbits, though rabbits in every other respect, have the ability to think, reason, and communicate like humans. To be fair, given that they have this ability, it’s a wonder they haven’t developed air conditioned warrens or rabbit cars to drive into rabbit garages—but I’m making too much of this. After all, it’s just a story, and if the rabbits were not human-like in their reasoning, we would not find them relatable characters over such a long novel. Humans are deeply narcissistic and we want to read about humans even when we’re reading about rabbits.

The difference then is that Adams’ rabbits think and reason in rabbit terms. For example:

The kind of ideas that have become natural to many male human beings in thinking of females—ideas of protection, fidelity, romantic love and so on—are, of course, unknown to rabbits, although rabbits certainly do form exclusive attachments much more frequently than most people realize. However, they are not romantic and it came naturally to Hazel and Holly to consider the two Nuthanger does simply as breeding stock for the warren. This was what they had risked their lives for.

Don’t worry. The female rabbits think of themselves this way also and they’re cool with it. Before you start shouting about sexism, Esteemed Reader, two things: 1. These are rabbits, dude, not people, so chill 2. Although the first half of the book is boy heavy, there are some very strong-willed girl rabbits in the second half every bit as capable as the boys at many things, and better than them at other things (such as cooking and cleaning—I kid, I kid, and Mrs. Ninja just smacked me in the back of the head, which forced me to remind her of my gravely serious brain injury).

All right. This is clearly the longest review ever, so I want to talk about three more things and then we’ll call it a day. First, although it is perhaps unfortunate that the rabbits have done away with romantic love, it opens up the possibility of greater love. The rabbits love and fight for each other. They do not want does for themselves alone, though they will fight over them if there are not enough to go around. They want the does for the good of the warren. Everything the rabbits do they do for each other and they are stronger for it. Their warren reminds me of a hive in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and I yearn for this sort of community in humanity.

Second, the main theme of Watership Down is a stroke of genius. The real story here is of the contrast between the different warrens the rabbits visit. In each instance, we are presented differently constructed communities, their strengths, and their weaknesses. What sets our heroes apart is the manner in which they will construct their community differently than these flawed societies. I will not speculate that these warrens are really metaphors for some known human society. Some may think that the final, mean and nasty warren the rabbits visit is a rabbit stand in for Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, but I don’t. I think the different warrens are simply communities of rabbits with qualities similar to the worst human societies. Oddly, there is no capitalism-gone-mad society of rabbits, perhaps because rabbits are far too clever to ever take serious the silly writings of Ayn Rand.

For me, the most interesting warren is the second the rabbits visit. The rabbits of this warren are eager for more rabbits to join because they are living a lie. They live in a nice garden with plenty of fresh veggies and free from predators because they are protected by a human farmer. The catch is that the farmer buries wire snares all around because he is also farming rabbits. The rabbits of this warren accept that a few of them will die every year so that the rest can live in utopia (paging Lois Lowry), and they are eager to welcome new rabbits because the more rabbits there are, the better the odds on not getting snared. Here is what the prophet Fiver has to say about these rabbits:

Don’t you see? The farmer only sets so many snares at a time, and if one rabbit dies, the others will live that much longer. You suggested that Hazel should tell them our adventures, Blackberry, but it didn’t go down well, did it? Who wants to hear about brave deeds when he’s ashamed of his own, and who likes an open, honest tale from someone he’s deceiving? Do you want me to go on? I tell you, every single thing that’s happened fits like a bee in a foxglove. And kill them, you say, and help ourselves to the great burrow? We shall help ourselves to a roof of bones, hung with shining wires! Help ourselves to misery and death!

Third, I must comment on the ending, though I’ll try not to spoil it. In the final act, Adams hits us with a Deus Ex Machina, which we know from dutifully reading our Aristotle is a major no-no. A key rabbit character is saved at the last minute by a human stepping in to help out. She is a god descending on the battlefield at the last second to make everything all right. This is this sort of shenanigan that ruins lesser works, but Adams gets away with it because his god from the machine does not resolve all of the conflict or even the most pressing conflict. Also, the poor rabbits go through so much hell for most of the novel, that in this particular instance the reader is likely to be okay with our hero getting one free lunch.

I lied! There’s a fourth thing, and then I really am done: Watership Down is an honest book, which is probably why it’s been banned so often. I hope to one day write a book so effective it gets banned:) I said before that these rabbits are not Disney characters. Their world is real, and the real world is often a nasty, violent place, especially for rabbits. Adams is not willfully nasty, but he tells the truth and as always, the truth is somewhat unpleasant. For this reason, Watership Down is probably not appropriate for very young readers (although, neither is the world). However, Watership Down started life as a story Richard Adams told to his two young daughters on a long drive and I can’t imagine the violence, or even the implied rape in this story, is any worse than what children have been exposed to already and certainly no worse than what they will be exposed to as they grow up.

Whew. This may be my longest review ever and it is done. Make sure you come back on Thursday when Richard Adams, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, is going to be here to face the 7 Questions. And come again on Saturday for an interview with a surprise literary agent. And now, as always I leave you with a few of my most favorite passages from one of my most favorite books, Watership Down:

They climbed not over but through the sun-red grass, among the awakened insect movement and the light ablaze. The grass undulated about them. They peered over anthills and looked cautiously round clumps of teazle.

“It all comes from men,” said Holly. “All other elil do what they have to do and Frith moves them as he moves us. They live on earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals. But I’d better go on with this tale of mine.”

Hazel’s anxiety and the reason for it were soon known to all the rabbits and there was not one who did not realize what they were up against. There was nothing very startling in what he had said. He was simply the one—as a Chief Rabbit ought to be—through whom a strong feeling, latent throughout the warren, had come to the surface.

“Well, I can’t quite make out,” answered Bigwig. “But if I understand him properly—and I’m not at all sure that I do—he says that where he comes from there are thousands of his kind—more than we can possibly imagine. Their flocks make the whole air white and in the breeding season their nests are like leaves in a wood—so he says.”

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. Love, love, love this book. I read it in college, during finals week, at my then boyfriend's suggestion. Last summer, that boyfriend-turned-husband decided it would be a perfect family read aloud -- for our seven and nine-year-olds.

    I encouraged him to pick something a little easier, but he really wanted to give it a try. They didn't follow everything but really got a good grasp on the story overall. They loved this story because Daddy did, and when I heard Fiver, Hazel, and Bigwig become part of their playtime, I knew the book had worked its magic.

  2. I LOVED this book! And am thrilled to be reminded of it! See you Thursday!
    amy g koss

  3. I do love this book! My parents read it out loud to my siblings and me. I've since "borrowed" that edition (aka: I'm never returning it, muhaha!) for my own bookshelf. The last time I re-read "Watership Down" was in high school. So you're right: it's definitely time to re-read it again!

  4. I read this book years ago and really enjoyed it. It's great it was there for you when you really needed it. That's great you were well enough to read in the hospital.

    You definitely love the book if you've read it 10 times. How awesome. And so special that you get to interview Richard Adams.

  5. Sounds great...Hope it is as good as its look...Wonderful posting..


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