Book Review: Watership Down

I apologize for my lack of posting this last week; I’ve been busy securing an apartment to live in this coming semester and buying furniture to put in it. I’ll be doing that for another week, then I move in August 31st and the semester starts. Until then, though, I have a decent amount of free time.

Well. That said, even though I wasn’t posting, I found the time last week to read Watership Down, one of my favorite books from years gone by. The premise: a group of rabbits leave their warren on the basis of a vision of doom one of them had, and they set out trying to make a life for themselves on remote Watership Down. Once there, they realize their group is entirely bucks, no does, and so they try to find a warren that will give some females to them. Instead they find a warren led by the Nazi-esque General Woundwort. Meanwhile, a mythology is being built up of Elahrairah, the rabbit folk hero.

Anyway, I hadn’t touched it in over three years, and decided I needed to revisit it. Verdict: It is, as I remembered, awesome; it’s maybe even better than I remembered it being. (So, if you never have, if you get nothing else out of this post – go read it!)

But there’s an interesting caveat to this endorsement I want to explore. The book’s awesomeness is definitively not because of the characters. I like Hazel, and Fiver, and Blackberry, and Bigwig; General Woundwort is indeed a disturbing villain, for a rabbit; Elahrairah makes a cool folk hero, Lord Frith and Prince Rainbow are both well-done gods, and the Black Rabbit of Inle is awesome in its role as the Grim Reaper. But –

Those characters aren’t why the book is amazing. It’s rather how well the author, Richard Adams, paints the outlines of the rabbits’ world, making up his own “rabbit language” and convincing the reader that it is real (“silflay hraka, u embleer rah!” is left untranslated in the text of the book, but the reader already knows what it means by then, and using it doesn’t break suspension of disbelief at all), showing how differently they think about things (they don’t realize cars are machines; only the most intelligent among them understand floatation), in general presenting rabbitting society as alien and yet compelling.

And probably it’s that very achievement – the establishment of so alien a culture for all the characters to live in – that makes it so the characters are hard to relate to. In the end, Hazel’s a good guy, but he’s just a rabbit, and I could never have a conversation with him, even if we spoke the same language; we’d have nothing to talk about.

And because the lack of compelling characters is a direct result of the nature of the book as semi-anthropomorphic fiction, I doubt Adams could have done any better. It’s a problem with the medium he’s working in.

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