Wednesday, September 25, 2019
'Watership Down' by Richard Adams
Set in England's Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of friends, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.
My family can't always understand my reading choices. When he saw my current read, my oldest son said, 'Isn't that a bloodbath about rabbits killing each other?' I guess he's partly right, but that sentence falls far short of the epic this is. It's one of my favourite reads this year, and I'll never look at wild bunnies in quite the same way again. I love and appreciate each of the main characters like family members. It's easy to get totally sucked in to their journey, and even now, I'm humming Art Garfunkel's 'Bright Eyes', which was written as a sound track for this story.
Here's how it all goes down. Little Fiver was the runt of his litter, and holds no sway with the others at all, but he does have a rare gift of prophecy that enables him to foresee big trouble heading for his warren. (Readers are told upfront that residential developers have claimed the area for housing.) Fiver's older brother Hazel is the only one who'll listen, since he's seen Fiver's gift in action before. When the big chief brushes off their warning, they muster a small group of a dozen who dash for freedom in the nick of time. The rest of the novel recounts their adventures and perils.
While enjoying the hospitality of an aristocratic, super-sleek dude named Cowslip, they learn a shocking secret about his burrow. Later, they make the valuable friendship of Kehaar, a very cool black-headed seagull. Then later again, they come across Efrafa, the totalitarian regime of a controlling fuhrer rabbit named General Woundwort. All through the story, young Hazel, though not the smartest or strongest, proves himself to be a generous, big-hearted and able leader of their own little group.
I actually think it should be a compulsory read for wannabe chiefs rather than dry old text books. Anyone aspiring for a leadership role should study Hazel's successful approach. It's not just that he's level-headed, tactful, decisive and humble, although he's certainly all that. Hazel's biggest strength is recognising the unique strengths of his team members, and acknowledging ways in which they're superior to him. It's the very best skill to have. They all know that his directions are based on his interest in them as people, and respect him for it, grudgingly or otherwise.
And what a team it is! Fiver is the runt, but they'd be nowhere without his gift of second sight. Blackberry's innovative mind squeezes them out of many scary jams, and Dandelion, their storyteller, understands the importance of a strong tradition of myths and legends to keep a group's morale high. Even Bluebell, with his sassy one-liners, provides the quick wit that can boost the spirits, or at least the retaliative energy, of the whole company. Perhaps most of all, I love the gutsy Bigwig, who has more courage in his furry body than dozens of other literary heroes have all together! Seriously, what a guy! Together, under Hazel's wise and caring leadership, they each pool their individual resources to make one super rabbit body.
Richard Adams declares in his intro that he never intended the novel to be some sort of allegory or parable, but simply a tale about rabbits that he made up to amuse his daughters in the car. Well, sorry Richard! Sometimes readers must override an author's opinion and hijack a story for ourselves. This book is teeming with parallels and allegories for those of us who enjoy spotting them.
There's the Old Testament Exodus sentiment from the very start, when two brothers (Hazel and Fiver in this case) approach a mighty leader to appeal for the people's release, only to be mocked and refused. Then there's the Pilgrim's Progress momentum in the journey itself, which keeps us sticking with our small group, knowing that when they find what they're looking for, we'll sense the rightness in our own hearts too.
And there are several political and social analogies we can't help snapping up as mirrors of human nature. The rabbit 'owslas' or police forces are pecking orders of henchmen surrounding a chief. We can tell that each rabbit in the owsla appreciates his position of privilege, and secretly laps up the prestige directed his way. But the great warrens of Efrafa have turned sour under the leadership of General Woundwort, a dictator in the truest sense of the word. He clearly needs to be taken down, but genuinely believes that he's doing all the rabbits under his dominion a favour, by keeping them safe from harm. Instead, his radical restrictions are actually curtailing their fulness of life and causing them harm instead.
Overall, I think the biggest appeal for me is the dignity and relatability of the characters. In the grand scheme of things, aren't we humans a lot like Hazel's gang? We're edgy, vulnerable and a tad jumpy in our big wide world of threats and insecurity. We fear our own brand of 'elil' or enemies that lurk in shadows and may try to cut us down at any moment. But day after day, we rise up to keep going, clinging to friends who have proven true, and boldly trying to take a stand for what we deem important.
I have to call it one of those rare books I'd recommend to anybody. You must add it to your reading lists, it's so fresh and inspiring.
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