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Monday, January 09, 2017

Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams

The animated versions of the rabbit-characters of Watership Down, published in 1972, written by Richard Adams
Book Review
Watership Down (1972)
by Richard Adams

   Richard Adams is a good example of a one hit wonder, an author who struck gold with a left-field hit of a first novel (Watership Down), who then spent the rest of his career trying to replicate that level of success.  When he died on December 24th of 2016, there was almost nothing to say about him besides writing Watership Down.  Watership Down was explicitly written as a children's book, and the author specifically denies any allegorical purpose, but the tale about a group of male rabbits setting out into the unknown with the purpose of starting a new warren, functions equally as a well as a ripping yarn for any adult who still digs stories about talking animals.

  At 450 pages, stretches the definition of "children's literature."  If it was released today it would no doubt be classified as "young adult," which is indeed how the Los Angeles Public Library has it classified.  Watership Down has the quality of many hits across different artistic genres during the 20th century:  It successfully evokes the tradition of the children's novel, while adding depth and complexity to the reading experience.   I've read Watership Down before as a lad, and this time around I was taken by the craft of it all.  For example, it is easy to see the influence of the Odyssey/Iliad and A Thousand Nights and a Night (Arabian Tales) both in technique and the actual story itself.

  Adams grants the rabbits (and other animals) human level intelligence, but maintains a scrim by using an omniscient narrator, a story teller, if you will.   The message is overwhelmingly one a contemporary reader will recognize as "environmentalist" in that humans play a limited and unsympathetic part in the proceedings.

  Watership Down was famously told as a children's story by the author to his children, and was then just as famously submitted and rejected by several publishers before finding it's initial run of 1500 or so copies printed and distributed in the UK.  US rights were then purchased and it proved to be a great hit in the United States, leading to renewed attention and of course, more sales.  The book that Watership Down most resembles, and the book it is probably most often read alongside, is Animal Farm, by George Orwell.  I'm sure Adams himself would reject the comparison, and maybe that accounts for much of the charm of Watership Down.  The allegorical targets are vague to the point where it would be hard for anyone to take offense.

  Watership Down also seems to draw inspiration from the early animated films of Walt Disney, with Bambi, released in 1942, which Adams, being a living human being, likely saw.  Or perhaps both Adams and Disney were inspired by the same antecedents, English fiction going back to Alice in Wonderland and fairy tales before that.  It is an undeniably rip roaring yarn, easy to finish in a day or so even given the length.  Also if you've read it before. 

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