Tuesday, March 16, 2010
The first of the 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels Challenge
I’d never actually read Watership Down. I heard the audio and saw the film, but as I was 12 years old when this happened my memories of both were virtually non existent. The only thing I could unfortunately remember clearly was Art Garfunkel’s awful chart topper: Bright Eyes, from the film soundtrack.
Watership Down began its life as stories that Richard Adams; a British civil servant, used to tell his daughters to keep them entertained during long car journeys. The girls insisted that their father write the stories down and have them published. It took him 18 months to put them into novel form, and to assist with accurately describing wild rabbit behaviour, he used The Private Life of the Rabbit by British naturalist Ronald Lockley. The book was rejected by 13 publishers before being accepted by a small publishing house.
Watership Down was published in 1972 and I can see why it was rejected so many times, not because it wasn’t a good book or well written, it is, but because it was a difficult book to classify and market to an audience at the time. Watership Down is a book about anthropomorphic animals; animals given human characteristics. These were nothing new, not even in the early 1970’s, but where Watership Down differed from other anthropomorphic animal books such as those written by Beatrix Potter and even Kenneth Grahame’s classic Wind in the Willows, was that Adams’ rabbits didn’t wear human clothes, live in houses or follow other human conventions. These were wild rabbits, they lived in burrows, they fought against other animals and each other for territory, food and mates. It was aimed at an older audience than had previously been interested in these type of books, at times the character’s speech evoked images of disenfranchised adolescents, in 1972 the subgenre of children’s fiction known as Young Adult did not exist. Despite this the book was marketed as a children’s book and even won the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction in 1972.
The story follows a group of young rabbits (bucks) who leave their warren of Sandleford and set out to establish one of their own. They are driven by feelings that they don’t fit in and they also pay attention to the visions one of their number; Fiver, has regarding some sort of disaster that will befall the warren. Along the journey the rabbits survive encounters with predators (including foxes, cats and even people), adverse weather and other rabbits. They make friendships with other animals; an unnamed fieldmouse and a black-headed gull called Kehaar, finally they set up their own warren in an area known as Watership Down and are ultimately forced to defend it from attack by a nearby militant warren, led by the fearsome General Woundwort.
Eleven bucks set out from the Sandleford warren and this number has swelled to twenty by the end of the book when the original eleven establish their own warren. Hazel, is the main protagonist, he is an intelligent rabbit and becomes regarded as the Chief Rabbit by virtue of his natural leadership qualities. Fiver, Hazel’s litter mate, and runt of the litter, is a visionary who at times displays what appear to be mystical abilities. The heroic Bigwig, a big rabbit, who was formerly a member of the Sandleford warren’s ‘police’ or owlsla, is Hazel’s lieutenant. Dandelion is their storyteller and a late comer from Sandelford; Bluebell seems to be used for comic effect, although I think his experiences at Sandleford left him slightly addled, and at times he is almost comic tragic. The book has been criticised for its lack of strong female characters, although I felt that the does Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang played pivotal roles in the latter part of the novel. Of the non-rabbit characters only the black-headed gull, the heavily accented Kehaar, plays a significant part.
Adams gave his rabbits a history and a mythology, mostly featuring stories about the mythical trickster rabbit; El-ahrairah and his friend Rabscuttle. This was not something that had been done previously and he wove the stories skilfully into the main narrative. He also added in Lapine (the language of rabbits) words and phrases, they seemed to be old English in origin and I personally felt that the story would not have suffered without them. The way he expressed the accent of Kehaar was also irritating and made much of the gull’s speech hard to understand and difficult to follow.
Those two small quibbles aside I found the book a fast moving, exciting narrative that holds the reader's interest and it is one of those rare books that transcends age barriers. Child and adult alike will find something to enjoy and think about in the pages of Watership Down.
If you liked Watership Down and wanted to read other similar novels I can personally recommend: The Plague Dogs (another Adams novel, this is about two dogs that escape from a laboratory in an effort to be free and find somewhere that they belong), Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams, a heroic fantasy about cats, A.R Lloyd’s Kine or Marshworld, about a weasel’s attempt to defend his home and friends from an invasion by escaped minks (this is actually the first of the Kine Saga trilogy, but reads well as a standalone and I didn’t think the other two lived up to the standard set by the opening novel) and Garry Kilworth’s House of Tribes, a tale about the societies of mice living in an English country house, where all cats are French and the dogs are Japanese. Kilworth has also written a series about anthropomorphic weasels; The Welkin Weasels.