Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review: "Watership Down" by Richard Adams

Hazel's brother Fiver is special--given to strange visions of the future, able to understand things outside of the ordinary rabbit's experience. When Fiver warns that the entire Sandleford warren will be destroyed, not by predators or plague but by some vast, unthinkable disaster, Hazel believes him when most others laugh. With a handful of others who either trust Fiver or chafe under warren life, they go into exile, daring the unknown.

But the English countryside is dangerous to rabbits without a safe place to run. Hunted by a thousand enemies, guided by Hazel and Fiver, the Sandleford exiles search for a safe place of their own.

3 out of 5 stars

(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Every now and then I am reminded that Richard Adams' Watership Down is about rabbits. Mostly that fact escapes my mind. More often than bunnies, I see The Great Escape's Roger Bartlett (Big X) playing Hazel in my mind.

It's that sort of story. Less Redwallian twee singing about food and riddles, more hair-raising survival struggles and military-style espionage. (Dear reader, the effort it takes me not to write "hare-raising"...) Watership Down is occasionally funny but never light, and often quite grisly. Never so dark that it becomes comical once again--for who can take a gritty, sordid story about talking rabbits that seriously?--but harsh enough to make me forget the furry, long-eared bodies in whom these serious and admirable characters reside.

Adams peppers the chapter headings of the book with allusions to classic literature, deliberately casting his tale of fugitives looking for a safe haven among the tradition of Greek tragedy. (I have nothing to say about its supposed political commentary.) Within the narrative itself, the characters encourage each other with tales of El-arairah, the trickster hero of rabbit folklore. El-arairah gives the characters (and the reader) the framework to understand how this animal race, which is, by its nature, helpless prey to more violent species, can still be clever, admirable, and yes--heroic.

I envision the book's events with this cast
more than with Oryctolagus cuniculus.
The characters are simply but strongly characterized, which is a tolerably acceptable way of handling a necessarily large cast. The reader knows from early on that Hazel is the leader, Fiver is the mystic, Bigwig is the tough one, Pipkin is frail, Blackberry is clever, and so on. But within that essential framework, the characters move and grow, trading narrative roles and qualities as they go. The cast shifts and changes over time, as this is the story of the warren founded on Watership Down rather than any one of its parts.

(If Bigwig isn't your favorite, dear reader, you are wrong.)
"Well, we've done the best we can," said Hazel. "The rest's up to them and to El-arairah now. But surely it ought to be all right?"

"Not a doubt of it," said Bigwig. "Let's hope they're back soon. I'm looking forward to a nice doe and a litter of kittens in my burrow. Lots of little Bigwigs, Hazel! Think of that, and tremble!"
One frequent complaint about the book is its sausage-fest of a cast. There are female characters throughout, but to some critics, they seem an afterthought. It would be remiss of me not to address this, especially given how carefully I've been tracking representation through all of these reviews.

Personally, on this most recent reread, I found that the female characters were no less developed as characters than the rest of the secondary cast. Hyzenthlay and Fiver get roughly equal development; only Bigwig and Hazel, the most obviously main characters, surpass her. The remaining "does" (Vilthuril, Thethuthinnang, Nildro-hain, Clover) have simplified personalities to match the less important "bucks" of the warren. Their ostensible narrative purpose--to provide breeding stock for the warren--is horrifyingly reductionist if one thinks of them purely as human analogues, but within the book itself, I found a healthy divide between their theoretical "purpose" and their actual treatment as characters.

On the other hand, there is no way to read Bigwig's experience of the "privileges" of an officer of the Efrafan warren police as anything but an analogue to human experiences.

In brief (and to spoil some minor details for the sake of your potential peace of mind): Bigwig, undercover in a hostile and militaristic warren, is told that as a member of the guard, he is entitled to any "doe" he wants, who are "under orders." (You can start wincing now.) When Bigwig pretends to take advantage of his "right" in order to have a private conversation with Hyzenthlay--in reality recruiting her to his cause--she is at first alarmed and tells him that he is "mistaken" (because she is not ready to mate.) The subtext of the scene and of Hyzenthlay's expectations is clear. That's as sordid as the book ever becomes, but for some readers, it may taint the whole experience.

It's also one of the moments that makes it hardest for me to picture rabbits.

Don't let my forgetfulness about the species of the main characters make you think that the book is confusing or disjointed. Adams has done his research on rabbit physiology and behavior. Reading Watership Down, we have a sense of what the world is like as experienced by a rabbit, even while the rabbit's life turns out to be richer and more complex than we would have imagined. Here, again, he makes use of the mythology as might arise among a prey species to recast the varied wonders and dangers of the world.

Regardless of its sexist overtones, I do enjoy the adventure and the intrigue of Watership Down a great deal. It always has a place on my bookshelf. I enjoy the suspense and the danger as much as the lyricism and the moments of humor and heart. The story shows its age, but the years have not turned it sour.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: adventure violence, sexism, misogyny

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