Thursday, March 27, 2008

Middle Shelf Selection: Richard Adams' Watership Down

Watership Down has a lot in common with the ancient epics. In it, a lone warrior leads a band of harried outcasts into the wilderness in search of a home. They’re aided by a seer who can touch the future with his dreams. They face perilous quests and hair-breadth escapes, ferocious foes and desperate siege assaults. But unlike the works of Homer and Virgil, Watership Down is also about rabbits. Which is appropriate, as almost all of its characters are rabbits.

The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog's mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit holes.
Most four-footed protagonists in literature have been little more than humans with fur. (Think Stuart Little or Redwall.) But Adams takes a very different tack, which is evident from the get-go. The tale begins with two young rabbits named Hazel and Fiver living in a peaceful warren ruled by an old veteran named the Threarah. Scrawny, meditative Fiver has premonitions of doom falling on them all, a doom that will stain the fields with rabbit blood. But when the Threarah ignores Fiver’s counsel, Hazel decides to rouse anyone he can and flee. The two are joined by Bigwig (a massive bruiser once part of the Threarah’s personal guard), Dandelion (a storyteller par excellence), Blackberry (the smart-as-a-whip innovator) and Pipkin (a loyal but timid runt). When the Threarah’s minions discover their plans, the motley crew must plunge into the wilds under threat of death.

"Keep at it!" cried Bigwig. "Come in behind it! They're cowards! They only attack helpless rabbits."

But already the crow was making off, flying low with slow, heavy wing beats. They watched it clear the further hedge and disappear into the wood beyond the river. In the silence there was a gentle, tearing sound as a grazing cow moved nearer.

Bigwig strolled over to Pipkin, muttering a ribald Owsla lampoon.

"Hoi, hoi u embleer Hrair,
M'saion ulé hraka vair."
Adams’ break with Disney-esque anthropomorphizing becomes even more apparent in the culture he created for his rabbits. Much like Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings, Adams created a language with its own detailed grammar and vocabulary. An example: Fiver’s true name, Hrairoo, comes from hrair, the term for any number over four, which is how high rabbits can count. They call these greater sums "thousand," and Fiver's name literally means "little thousand." He was so christened because he was small and one of the last born in his litter. Other words that crop up -- including elil (“predators”), silflay (“to graze”) and narn (“something good to eat”) -- possess equally detailed explanations. Frith, the word for the sun, is particularly interesting since it contains religious connotations. The rabbits, you see, are sun worshippers. They adore Lord Frith and the first rabbit he created, El-ahrairah, whose mischievous exploits get recounted several times in detail and who would put Odysseus to shame with his inventiveness.

The small rabbit made no move whatever, either to retreat or to defend himself, but only stared at him from great eyes which, though troubled, were certainly not those of a beaten enemy or a victim. Before his gaze, Vervain stopped in uncertainty and for long moments the two faced each other in the dim light. Then, very quietly and with no trace of fear, the strange rabbit said,

"I am sorry for you with all my heart. But you cannot blame us, for you came to kill us if you could."

"Blame you?" asked Vervain. "Blame you for what?"

"For your death. Believe me, I am very sorry for your death."
Part of the joy of reading Watership Down lies in not only in its mythological color, but in letting yourself be carried along by every twist and turn of the plot, which is half adventure and half thriller (with a smattering of British botany, warren geography and seagull dialect thrown in to keep things interesting). If you find it hard to believe that it could be a coherent read with so many disparate elements (much less an entertaining one), join the crowd. It took months of nagging from a friend to get me to crack its cover. But it most certainly works, which is a testimony to Adams’ skill, as is the fact that when you reach the final page, you’ve begun to feel that Hazel and his friends are every bit as courageous as Achilles or Aeneas -- no matter the length of their ears.

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