Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

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Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Monday, January 01, 2007

Short Takes: Richard Adams, WATERSHIP DOWN

Pity the man who writes one great work and never matches it again, for he will always be competing with some ever-fainter remembered moment of his past. Adams is still alive, I think, and no doubt is still plugging away on something somewhere, but nobody cares about Traveller or Maia. They care about Watership Down.

This was the fourth or fifth time through this for me. For those of you who don't know it, Watership Down is a modern fantasy classic, the story of a group of rabbits who flee their warren before it's decimated, and the adventures they have in establishing their new home on, well, Watership Down.

This time through a couple of things struck me. One is that it's really a classic adventure tale in the British mode, with Hazel as the epitome of a certain kind of British masculinity (there's a great bit late in the book where Hazel tries to parlay with the Efrafra warren -- he's seen as being very quiet and unassuming and seemingly nothing very special, another expression of the British ideal of the competent man who takes care of business in a quiet way); Bigwig as his loyal sergeant, all muscle but needed Hazel's firm leadership; Blackberry as the Idea Guy; Dandelion as the Artist; etc. You could imagine this squad of rabbits as a squad of soldiers in, say, Europe around World War 2 -- a lot of what they're doing is much like a classic British war film, with a squad in hostile territory executing missions, etc. I'm curious what Adams's experiences in World War 2 were, actually.

But there's a couple of other elements in here that really set this apart from the typical anthropomorphized animal tale. People often talk about how the rabbits are always discernably rabbits, and not, say, Commander Carruthers and his squad in fancy dress. They also talk about the world that Adams builds around his merry band, most notably in the really great folk-tales of El-Ahrairah, but also in the little details -- what they swear by, how they count, etc.

That's all true, and all worth noting. But the aspect I like best is the character of Fiver, definitely my favorite character in the book. This is a British war movie, essentially, except for Fiver, who feels dropped in from a completely different, much darker sort of story. Most of the fantasy elements in the story come from Fiver, and he has a kind of charisma, which in literary terms essentially means an intrinsic fascination. He suggests a darker, more complicated world lying just behind the events of the story, stranger unsaid possibilities. And it is that which is really what pushes Down into the fantasy realms.

My favorite chapter in the book is "Fiver Beyond", which is a straight-up mystical vision. Watership Down is generally very well written in that quiet assured kind of British way, but this chapter is something very special. Check it out. Oddly Fiver isn't discussed as much as other elements in the novel -- don't ask me why.

Unlike a lot of the authors I've been talking about here, Watership Down is talked about a lot on the web. There's even a roleplaying game out there called "Burrows and Bunnies", believe it or not. I am a fluffy bunny rabbit! My primary skill is lettuce chewing! My secondary skill is being eaten! I have +5 eyes of cuteness!

Here's the wiki, most interesting for it's shot of a first edition of Watership:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watership_Down

Here's a standard, but good, take on the novel, from some rpg site:

http://ww2.wizards.com/books/Wizards/default.aspx?doc=main_classicswatership

Here somebody has tracked down a bunch of links, so I don't have to. Warning: a lame spelling of "cool" contained therein:

http://isisweb.8m.com/watership/links.htm

And here's an interesting page talking about variations in the edtions. Scholars love crap like this:

http://www.helsinki.fi/~peuha/english/watership/

That's enough for me, though there's more out there, including a Yahoo discussion group.

19 Comments:

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Martin Popoff, THE heavy-metal rock-press guy, often talks about growing up in Trail, British Columbia with his "mates." His best one, the guy in town who always heard about and bought the new HM albums first, was nicknamed Fiver.

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