October 25, 2005

Comments on reading Watership Down

On a friend’s recommendation, I decided to dust off the old copy of Watership Down from by bookshelf, and actually read the book. I was a little skeptical of his recommendation, because this is a friend who has read a thousand-page novel about talking cats, and who generally likes to read any book about cats, so I thought he might have just liked Watership Down because it is about talking rabbits.

Because of the humid climate of my apartment, I had to do more than dust off the book before I could read it. I had to wipe off a layer of mold that had grown on the book. Used books grow mold easily, and this book looks like it has been read a few times.

The book turned out to be very good. Searching on amazon.com shows that over 800 readers have commented on the book, so I will not write a review, just make a few comments. On the negative side, one thing about the book that annoyed me is all the plant names that I’ve never heard of. Observe these examples:
Along its further side the riparian plants grew thickly, so that it was separated from the river by a kind of hedge of purple loosestrife, great willow herb, fleabane, figwort and hemp agrimony, here and there already in bloom.
The damp grass along the edges of the paths was dotted with spikes of mauve bugle, and the sanicles and yellow archangels flowered thickly.
The ditch was thick with cow parsley, hemlock and long trails of green-flowering bryony.
The author, Richard Adams, has evidently spent some time with his plant guidebook, so these phrases were full of meaning for him, but for those of us without an illustrated plant encyclopedia, it is just annoying. “Enough, Mr. Fancy-plants!” I wanted to tell him. “We acknowledge you as the master of all things plantish. Now get on with the story.”

One of the comments on amazon.com tries to justify this style:
People who blindly lump all plants together in their minds as "extraneous green things of little or no importance in our very important human world" may have difficulty understanding the importance of plants in Watership Down, and indeed the importance of plants to life itself by virtue of their fundamental place in the food chain as the primary producers on earth. Richard Adams knows and values plants, and describes them beautifully and individually, quite possibly in an effort to cure this plant blindness in much of modern society.
That may be a noble ideal, but the descriptions in the book do not leave behind any impression. Fleabane still sounds like something to put in a witch’s brew. If Adams had wanted to be truly groundbreaking, even more revolutionary than writing a book about talking rabbits for adults, then the book should have included a plant appendix with drawings.

On a more positive note, I thought the rabbit mythology was great. The rabbits in the story enjoy listening to stories, and their favorite stories are those about El-ahrairah. The story describes him this way:
What Robin Hood is to the English and John Henry to the American Negroes, Elil-Hrair-Rah, or El-ahrairah—The Prince with a Thousand Enemies—is to rabbits. Uncle Remus might well have heard of him, for some of El-ahrairah's adventures are those of Brer Rabbit. For that matter, Odysseus himself might have borrowed a trick or two from the rabbit hero, for he is very old and was never at a loss for a trick to deceive his enemies.

I thought these stories were so great--a mix of adventure, wit, and fantasy--that Adams should write a whole book of these stories. But on second thought, I realized that there was something extra that came from having these stories told in the context of the main story. A book of myths isolated from the rabbit storytellers, listeners, and their outside world would lack some of the magic.

On amazon.com, another reviewer remarked on the frankness of the writing, which describes rabbits mating and eating their feces. But it wasn't until I read this comment that I realized that the rabbits were actually eating their droppings. The book described the rabbits eating "pellets," and I kept thinking, "Where do these pellets come from?" As for the descriptions of mating, I laughed out loud when I read the passage from the book, "there was some mating." Adams was careful to keep the names the male rabbits who did "some mating" a secret. That's just part of the balancing act of describing rabbits with very human-like personalities. The rabbits were so human, in fact, that for most of the book, I could not help but imagine them standing on two legs, a kind of humanoid rabbit. And yes, I could not help but imagine General Woundwort as wearing a general's uniform. Years of watching television have left their mark.


  • It's a brilliant work that turns back on itself -- the events at the end reflect the events at the beginning, and unwind backwards from their discovery of Watership Down. Near as I can make out, it is a parallel of Virgil's epic of ancient Rome -- in which a city on a hill is founded by wanderers after the destruction of their home city.


    By Blogger Michael Turton, at November 02, 2005 3:10 PM  

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