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W is for Watership Down

I’m about twelve and in an English lesson at school. My favourite lesson in fact, one where we just sat for the entire hour reading whatever book we were reading at the time. I loved reading at the time and still do, although I have to admit that my reading was mostly quite one track, namely endless Target novelisations of Doctor Who stories, to the continuing despair of my English teacher. ‘At least you are reading something’ was the best he could offer in my defence. But this week was different. In my hands was a hardback book from the Local Library. It had a cover that was not the most exciting thing in the world; it was just a photograph of some rabbits sitting in a sun kissed field (actually highly inappropriate in many ways for this book). The book was by Richard Adams and was of course ‘Watership Down’.

Now this was not the first time I had read this book – it was maybe the tenth or eleventh time since I had picked it up for the first time at the age of about eight. I have no idea why I came to read it – it was not one of the books my parents knew anything about – maybe I heard about from someone at school. I don’t know. All I did know is that I fell in love with it straight away and it is still my favourite book (if you pushed me – ‘Good Omens’ by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is close behind and as an aside I cannot wait for the BBC TV adaptation, albeit with a tiny amount of trepidation – but only tiny as Gaiman is so involved in it, surely they cannot screw it up?). Nevertheless, my English teacher was delighted that I was now reading a ‘proper’ book. He was less enamoured when I decided to reread it a few further times that year, but in the final reckoning, I refer you to the ’at least he’s reading’ sentiment once more.

Of the thousands of books that I have read, why should this book still have such a resonance with me? Good question. Partly it is the time I first experienced a fully nuanced novel that even as a child I could see worked on different levels (for some of the people I know this might be books by Tolkien, C. S. Lewis or Mervyn Peake). I was always someone I would describe as a naturalist at heart so anything about animals is going to be well received at least at the outset, but this was probably an entry point and nothing more. Looking back today though, I think it gave me the kind of story I like the most, an interesting ensemble cast of characters that, in this case, just happen to be rabbits. As a child, my favourite character was Blackberry – the bright one, basically – but I found them all well drawn and ‘real’. Add on top of that a simple but well thought out rabbit culture, language and mythology (danger: Allegory alert) and I was sold.

But it is Hazel that is the centre of the book. If you want an example of what the ideal leader looks like it is arguably the central character. On the surface he appears only average, but in reality, he is the reason for anything good that happens; he listens to others, he learns what everyone’s skills are and then uses them; he doesn’t look down on anyone, even a humble mouse (and I will not spoil the story to say how crucial that attitude turns out to be). And, when it needs to be, he is heroic and prepared to die for his people (particularly when he confronts the main antagonist near the end). If I had to aspire to be a character in a book – this is who I would want to be.

Please read this book if you never have; do not be biased by the 1980s animated version, which has it charms but is fatally flawed in my opinion – mostly because you lose the complexity of the characters. Some of you will fall in love, I’m sure.

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