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5th May
2009
written by Steph
It's like Lord of the Rings... with Bunnies!

It's like Lord of the Rings... with Bunnies!

Growing up, I missed out on a lot of your typical “kid in the ‘80s/’90s” fare.  As I’ve mentioned before, while my friends were watching Ghostbusters and E.T., I was busy watching musicals from the 1950s.  I didn’t see Indiana Jones until I was 16, I first saw The Princess Bride at 18, and I still have never seen E.T.!  Watership Down is just another one of those things that I feel I should have experienced when I was a young girl, but for some reason never did.  The gap is all the more puzzling because I was a voracious reader (still am!), so while gaps in my film canon make sense, gaps in books are more embarrassing. Watership Down tells the story of a band of rabbits who set off from their idyllic warren when a young rabbit named Fiver has a premonition that danger and death is coming to the warren and the only way to save themselves is to leave.  His brother Hazel attempts to warn their Chief Rabbit, but he will not hear of leaving, and so it is up to the two brothers to convince as many of their fellow rabbits to leave as they can.  The bulk of the novel focuses on their journey from the warren at Sandleford as they make their way to the hills of Watership Down, as well as their adventures and encounters with other hostile rabbit warrens aimed at rustling up some does (foolishly, the group who set out from Sandleford only consisted of males) so that their new warren will proliferate. Reading the novel, I was almost immediately reminded of the quest novels of J.R.R. Tolkien.  I felt like if you replaced his merry band of travelers in Lord of the Rings with rabbits, you would pretty much have Watership Down.  Perhaps it’s a limitation of the quest novel that they all sort of feel the same, but I think there’s something to be said for the style of Adams’s writing being reminiscent of Tolkien’s as well.  The fact that he peppers his dialogue and prose with lapine phrases and terms such as “hrududu” and “hraika” only highlighted the similarities between the two for me.  Additionally, throughout the novel, the rabbits tell folktales about a rabbit hero named El-ahrairah, which gives the reader the feeling that a very deep mythology is being crafted surrounding this rabbit world, one that is filled with parables and allegories. Generally speaking, I found the book a pretty quick read.  The writing was fluid and carried the story along at a good pace, although at times it got a bit dull when Adams focused on the flora that existed within a particular region (maybe rabbits care about what flowers are about, but unless I’m wrong, most readers of the book are not rabbits!), and at times it felt as though he was having his rabbits make the same foolish mistakes (for example, not listening to Fiver even though he is never wrong) simply so that something dramatic will happen.  I never had a problem suspending my disbelief and allowing the rabbits to talk and plot and all that good stuff, but I did think that there was little character development throughout the novel.  Many of the rabbits are simply “type-cast” and throughout the book they remain the Smart One, the Wise One, the Fast One, or the Bully One… I think this is fine in a children’s novel, but for me it was one of the things that prevents it from truly transcending the gap between children’s fiction and an adult novel.  I think there are plenty of good lessons and deeper themes regarding leadership, conflict, and ways of life that could be discussed by older people, but ultimately the book felt pretty lightweight to me.  The scope didn’t feel very large, and a lot of the messages and ideas seemed to be fairly simplistic.  I mean, if you want to read an animal story that's an allegory for politics, you'd be better served reading Animal Farm by George Orwell.  I’ve read some things suggesting that Adams demonstrates through Hazel’s characteristics (rather than his deeds) what it is to be a good leader, but I guess that I didn’t feel this.  I thought Hazel was not really a great leader, and the rabbits might have been better served to have some of the other rabbits in charge… at the very least, I liked other rabbits a good deal more than I did Hazel (and I loved Kehaar, their avian ally, best of all).  If he was meant to be the novel’s hero, I felt he was somewhat bland…. I suppose overall I was expecting this novel to completely spirit me away and entrance me, and it never really did that for me.  I think it would have had a good deal more power for me if I had read it as a child – I think many of the glowing reviews I’ve heard about the book stem from people who did first encounter the book as a child, so it holds for them a certain element of magic that it might be near impossible to capture later on in life.  I do see how one could read it as more than an adventure tale, but I really think that’s where its strength lies and what its primary function is; it works better as a children’s book than as one for adults.  I think this would be a great book to read aloud to one’s children (or perhaps for them to read on their own if they were a bit older), as the chapters are pretty short and the writing does not feel at all dense.  Tony says he read this when he was 10 and really liked it, so that may give you an age guide to go by.  As for adults, if you particularly enjoy the adventure quest genre, or are a big LoTR fan (I’m not, which may be why this novel didn’t quite do it for me), then I think you’ll find this a quick and fun read.  If that type of thing isn’t really your type of thing, then I think you can skip the novel without fear you’re missing out on a groundbreaking work of the Western canon.  I can’t say that it changed my life or my perspective on the world, but I appreciated it as a lovingly crafted tale (Adams initially devised the novel through a series of stories he would tell to his young daughters to entertain them) that had a few wonderful moments.  I must admit that even though I felt I was largely neutral to the story, I did begin to sob during the epilogue… the writing was particularly lovely there, and animal stories always get me in the end! Rating: 3.5 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. 05/05/2009

    Although having seen Indiana Jones, The Princess Bride, and ET when they came out, I also had very huge gaps in my reading. And, like you, one was Watership Down. I grew up in a town where the only library accessible to us was the school library and it was extremely lacking. The only bookstore in town only sold supermarket fiction, textbooks, and very few paperback classics. I’m still amazed how my sisters and I were able to read so much. I think we bought out the bookstore everytime new stuff came in, lol. We had no chance to pick what we would read, but only what was available.

    Anyway, I love LoTR, but not as much as The Silmarillion. But, I don’t think I would like to read Watership Down now. You know me, I listen to you. 😀

    Btw, do you feel inclined to see ET though?

  2. 05/05/2009

    I don’t really feel a pressing need to see ET any time soon. We have a Netflix account so maybe someday I’ll rent it (or if it’s available through “Watch It Now” so I can watch it online, that would be even better), but it doesn’t keep me up at night not having done so! 😉
    Maybe when your boys are older you can get them a copy of Watership Down? I think at this point I would get more enjoyment sharing it with someone younger who is likely to be swept away by the grand adventure of it all!

  3. 05/05/2009

    Oh, I simply adore this book, and I’m sorry to hear it didn’t sweep you away. I read it for the first time at age 13 and revisited it several times over the years. Of course, it’s possible that on my rereads I’m simply reexperiencing the magic of that first read at a susceptible age. It also helps that I also love quest stories and fantasy, and the language, mythology, and even the floral details just add to the wonderment. And I really like Hazel as a lead character, although I can see how he’d come across as rather bland. I think that’s because he’s intended to be a sort of “everyrabbit” that everyone can relate to and imagine themselves in his place. In this kind of book, I think that “everyrabbit” blandness works pretty well.

  4. 05/05/2009

    @ Teresa: I hope my review didn’t come across overly negative, because I did enjoy the book. I just wasn’t able to completely give myself over to it – parts riveted me, and I was certain rooting for the rabbits at key points, but I guess I just felt that for a long book that is based on adventure, the action was a bit too spread out for my tastes.
    I think you make a good point about Hazel. Even if he wasn’t particularly remarkable, he was able to capitalize on the other rabbits’ skills and talents, which is a gift in and of itself, I suppose. Plus, a big part of these epics is generally that the hero is not necessarily the biggest or the smartest, but is good through and through, loyal, and brave.

  5. 05/06/2009

    I missed a lot 80/90s kids stuff, too; to this day, I still haven’t see all the Indiana Jones movies either!

    Your review makes this book sound interesting; “It’s like Lord of the Rings… with Bunnies!” How could I resist that? I don’t know if I’ll actually read it (I have so many books on my list already!), but I’ll definitely put a note for it.

  6. 05/06/2009

    I love your first line: that really drew me in the review. I don’t like the adventure genre, though, so this probably isn’t really for me. Maybe if I were a child. Maybe I”ll still read it anyway. Who knows? Thanks for the review.

  7. 05/06/2009

    @ kittykay: If you like LoTR, then I do think you’ll like this. It’s not as grand, and the writing is perhaps not as strong (I do think it was geared for a younger audience), but it has a very similar vibe. If you do get to it, I hope you enjoy it!
     
    @ Rebecca: I thought you really enjoyed The Silmarillion? But then again, maybe that was a bit of an anomaly for you? 😉 Anyway, it wasn’t a bad book by any means, but I think those who enjoy those epic quest novels are going to have a leg up on those of us who don’t really love that genre when it comes to Watership Down.

  8. 05/06/2009

    Steph, great suggestion. I might read this along with the kiddos in a couple of years or so. We’re reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret now and really enjoying it. Great book, so far.

  9. 05/06/2009

    My daughter read this book many times and loved it, but I too have a huge gap in my reading and have not yet read this one. Although this book is geared towards a younger audience, I still think I am going to read it, just to fill in some of the spaces that I have left in my reading experiences. I will be looking back at this post to see if I reach the same conclusions as you did. Great post!

  10. 05/06/2009

    @ Claire: I’m really looking forward to your review of Hugo! From what I’ve seen of it, it seems like a really magical story.
     
    @ zibilee: Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this one. I totally get why kids would like it – the messages and themes are simple but clear, so I think younger readers would really connect with the story.

  11. 05/06/2009

    Steph, I don’t think your review was overly negative. I just got the impression that you were hoping, and maybe even expecting, to be swept away by it and weren’t. This was actually my first really thick almost grown-up adventure/quest novel, so it had a pretty profound influence on my reading tastes and has a special place in my heart. Your review does make me wonder what I would think if I encountered it for the first time today. I think I would still enjoy it–it’s a very good story–but maybe it wouldn’t have quite the hold on me that it does now.

  12. 05/07/2009

    Yes, I think I had just built this one up in my mind because of all the raves I had heard from people (who had first the read the book as kids). It really was a good story, but for me it just wasn’t as magical as I imagine it is if you encounter it when you’re a youngster.

  13. 05/11/2009

    I am sure I read this when I was young but I have no memory of it at all. It’s interesting what you write about liking the book but not loving it, I think this is pretty common with adult reads of childhood books (whether a re-read or a first time experience). It’s too bad, but there are few books which delight as much for an adult.

  14. 05/14/2009

    @ verbivore: I wonder how much our childhood reading influences our opinions later in life. I re-read Anne of Green Gables a few years ago and still loved it as much as I remembered, but then again, that’s a book (and story) I’ve held dear since I was a young girl. I might have had a completely different feeling towards it if I had read it for the first time in my 20s. I also read The Princess Bride back when I was about 22, and I wasn’t all that impressed with it (and remember I didn’t grow up watching the movie)…

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