Review: Watership Down

Watership Down
Watership Down by Richard Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who can ever judge a classic? How can anything I have to say about it be meaningful? Well forgive me, for I’m going to try.

This story is as much for children and about children’s themes as is Animal Farm: as a cynical look at politics and human greed it’s meant for adults, and I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) avoid that thought as I read.

But it’s still filled with beautiful, evocative scenes:

At this hour the Crixa was all green shade, with red gleams of sun that winked through the moving leaves. The damp grass along the edges of the paths was dotted with spikes of mauve bugle, and the sanicles and yellow archangels flowered thickly.

Although, for all the beauty of such passages, they were less about the rabbits and more about the narrator unloading his personal views:

The sky too was void, with a thin clarity like that of water. In July the still blue, thick as cream, had seemed close above the green trees, but now the blue was high and rare, the sun slipped higher to the west and once there, foretold a touch of frost, sinking slow and big and drowsy, crimson as the rose-hips that covered the briar. As the wind freshened from the south, the red and yellow beech trees rasped together with a brittle sound, harsher than the fluid rustle of earlier days. It was a time of quiet departures, of the sifting away of all that was not staunch against winter.

Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it … For rabbits, winter remains what it was for men in the middle ages – hard, but bearable by the resourceful and not altogether without compensations.

And it’s sexist on even the most base level: how complex the female names (Hyzenthlay, Thethuthinnang, Vilthuril, Nelthilta) yet simple the male names (Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Strawberry); it was easy to gloss over the female characters by extension. But, those were the times, as recently as that is, and the story is richer for its non-censored, non-Bowdlerized style.

The journey was tough when the narrative voice became preachy, and it wasn’t made any easier by an annoying fictional language (à la Lord of the Rings).

But the rabbits – their needs, wants, feelings, and desires – are portrayed beautifully. And how much their land has changed further in the few short decades since 1972, when human population has increased like, well, like rabbits, is enough to make anyone cry!

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