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Watership Down by Richard Adams – Book Review

I picked it up because I kept hearing things about it. In one of my author interviews, Deepak Dalalji spoke about it as being an inspiration to his Feather Tales: Talon the Falcon. And I am not much of a grown up most of the times really. Talking animals have always amused me since Aesop’s Fables days.

I knew that the book is to do with rabbits. Now how much can talking rabbits make for a story? And yet the book was curiously 472 pages long! So I mused, well, lets find out what is all this about. And as I entered the warren world of Hazel and his friends and foes, I was drawn into one of the most magnificently written universe of these beautiful mammals of family leporidae.

Fiver, Hazel’s younger brother, is blessed with an extremely active extrasensory perception. Although he cannot foresee the exact incidents that might happen, he knows his Sandleford warren is in grave danger. He alerts Hazel and since Hazel is aware that most of the times Fiver’s perceptions are right, he immediately goes off to talk to the warren’s chief rabbit to ask if they can all abandon the warren and go elsewhere. The chief rabbit, however, doesn’t pay heed to this warning and shoos them off. The warrens are generally decades old. The burrows dug by ancestors, are warm and comfortable. Abandoning such warrens would not be easy, and simply on the basis of a perception of a kid? Well. There was no question. But Hazel trusts his brother and decides to leave the warren the same night with whoever wishes to come along. About 12 rabbits decide to move out with Hazel and Fiver and hence, starts the journey towards an unknown destination to build a new warren for themselves. The book revolves around their adventures, follies and victories, their sacrifices, their love and loss and courage. Creating a new city altogether isn’t a game. You have to risk a lot of things.

Richard Adams has created a rabbit universe. They have their own legends of centuries, their own Robinhood – El-ahrairah and his disciple, Rabscuttle, their own language – Lapine, mythology and poems and stories. They have their Owsla which is a police force of rabbits. They have their officers and generals. They have their own God – Frith. And yet they are still those beautiful four-legged, hopping and squatting and nibbling rabbits. Humans hardly play a role and when they appear they take hardly a minute’s story-space.

El-ahrairah’s stories, which the rabbits tell each other in their great meetings, are independent stories in themselves.

A lot of readers observe that the story is allegorical, but Adams denies writing it to be any kind of allegory. He insists it is simply a story but I do see why the readers maintain so. There are comparisons made with humans and the society we live in, there is in-depth study of the lifestyle of rabbits, and both together make quite an impact.

Adams’ world is highly patriarchal where the does are basically litter-producing machines, but I am going to give it to him because after the critics pointed it out (that rabbits live a matriarchal society in reality) he made amends in his second book, “Tales from the Watership Down”. Another reason I can give it to him is that Hazel’s warren showed considerable improvement in terms of respecting their does more than what the other warrens did. (If I sound silly here, because you think they are just rabbits, uhh, I don’t care).

The style of writing is simple and it makes for a fast read. The length of the book did not bore me out at all despite my frequently wavering attention spans. Adams keeps the momentum going and just as the reader starts thinking that now it is all good and jolly (but hey there are so many pages remaining!!!), there comes a twist that makes the reader sit up and take note.

Watership Down is easily the most beautiful fantasy book I read this year, in addition to Frances Hardinge‘s Gullstruck Island. I would recommend it to be read at least once for the sheer super-imaginative delights that it has to offer.

Some of the quotes worth noting –

Animals don’t behave like men,’ he said. ‘If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.

Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.

A thing can be true and still be desperate folly, Hazel.

Like the pain of a bad wound, the effect of a deep shock takes some while to be felt. When a child is told, for the first time in his life, that a person he has known is dead, although he does not disbelieve it, he may well fail to comprehend it and later ask–perhaps more than once–where the dead person is and when he is coming back.

That wasn’t why they destroyed the warren. It was just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves.

You’re trying to eat grass that isn’t there. Why don’t you give it a chance to grow?

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