Dear Readers, I only have one and a half books to go to finish the Wainwright shortlist (though note that Dara McAnulty’s ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist‘ has already won). However, I have got a bit bogged down in ‘The Frayed Atlantic Edge’ by David Gange – not that it’s not good, but it is long, and rather dense. i will review it soon, I promise, as there’s much there to enjoy. However, in the meantime let me share with you another old favourite.
if Black Beauty was the first book to make me cry, Watership Down is the first book that I can remember staying up all night to read. I’d promised Mum that I’d snuggle down and go to sleep but at 3 in the morning there I was, agog to see if General Woundwort would survive an attack by a dog. ‘Just one more chapter!’ I would think to myself, as the sky lightened and I realised that the whole night had gone in the company of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the black-headed gull Kehaar.
What sets Watership Down apart from its many imitators is, for me, the complete realisation of a world, with its own mythology, culture and ways of seeing. It has been seen as everything from a riff on the Odyssey to a tale about the founding of Israel. Latterly it was criticised for concentrating so much on the male rabbits. It is certainly a work of its time, and yet for me once you’re down amongst the bunnies, everything else seems irrelevant. Will they survive? Will things work out?
I also think that few other books capture the helplessness of animals at the mercy of changes that they cannot understand, such as the destruction of a warren or their being ‘harvested’ for meat and fur. One of the saddest things about humanity seems to be the way that we betray the trust and good faith of other sentient creatures.
It’s clear that Watership Down was something of a one off. The book was rejected by seven publishers before being picked up by a one-man publisher, Rex Collings, who wrote to a friend
“I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?”
But it was an immediate success: Newsweek noted that
“Adams … has bravely and successfully resurrected the big picaresque adventure story, with moments of such tension that the helplessly involved reader finds himself checking whether things are going to work out all right on the next page before daring to finish the preceding one.”
I’m sure I wasn’t the only child pretending to be asleep and then reading the book under the covers. I probably wasn’t the only person who winced at the animated film, either: I see to my chagrin that the film came out in 1978 when I was (ahem) 18 years old, but I still found the violence a bit much. Still, I am the child who cried in Pinocchio when the whale got hurt, and don’t talk to me about Bambi as I am still traumatised. i can take death and misery in a book (just) but don’t show it to me.
Incidentally, the theme song for the film, ‘Bright Eyes‘, was sung by no less a star than Art Garfunkel, although Richard Adams hated it and it’s a bit too candy-coated for me too. Have a listen though, just in case.
Perhaps the most moving part of the book is the end, where the Black Rabbit comes to take Hazel to that great warren in the sky. I re-read it for this piece, and I still love it. Who knew that a book could recognise the heroism in a bunch of rabbits, and reduce a sixty year-old woman to a blubbering wreck? Well, that’s the power of a good story. If you’ve never come across Watership Down and fancy a few hours in another world, I can heartily recommend it.
Photo One from https://oneworld-publications.com/watership-down.html