Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Watership Down

Forced to flee their home warren by a frightening premonition, a group of rabbits journey through unexpected adventures and dangers to reach a place to call home.

Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and their companions brave a warren of Lotus Eaters, predators, and a prison-like warren run by a terrifying Chief Rabbit to find the promised land of Watership Down. Interwoven throughout their adventures are the stories the rabbits tell along the way, constructing the mythology of an immortal trickster prince, El-ahrairah (literally, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, a kind of rabbit Robin Hood or Odysseus).

I love the book's portrayal of an "alien" mindset: the rabbits are foreign yet familiar. Their journey calls to mind echoes of The Aeneid and The Odyssey (particularly the latter, since the trickster nature of rabbits plays a huge role in the story). The writing evokes the English countryside beautifully, with special focus on the sounds and smells that are so meaningful to the characters' senses; from plant life to birds, plus the ever-present threat of predators. It is not an allegory (though it feels like it could be), just an old-fashioned adventure.

I would compare it to other classic quest narratives: from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit to C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair, or The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. For those attracted to El-ahrairah's exploits, check out another wily trickster king: Monkey, from the Chinese classic Journey to the West. Finally, if you finish and immediately want to hear more about Hazel and his warren, there is a collection of 19 more stories called Tales from Watership Down, also by Richard Adams.

Watership Down been one of my favorites since childhood, and I reread it every year, enjoying it as a familiar friend every time. My only wish is that there were even more books like it.

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