Tuesday, August 17, 2021



It occurs to me, at this late date, that there are all sorts of books, movies, and music I've championed through the years, but I haven't really offered too many reasons for doing so -- nor, in some cases, solid descriptions of what it is I love and why I love it.

Accordingly, over the next I don't know long, I'll be choosing the very best of my limited life's media experiences so far. Things I believe ought to be required listening, reading and viewing, because they will edify, enlighten...and almost certainly excite. 

 1) WATERSHIP DOWN, by Richard Adams

I don't know anyone who, having read this book, wasn't moved and improved. I also don't know anyone who didn't enjoy it immensely. Some of the people who most enjoyed it almost put it down after five pages. I'm sure haters exist. and doubtless the next three people I lend a copy to will hate it just to spite me. But I'm serious: in my experience, if you're a reader at all, you will enjoy this book. Probably quite a lot.

I have not seen the 1970s-era animated rendition that is said to have scarred the souls of many a child (and bewildered many a parent who had no idea what they were gifting their children with). I'm unlikely to ever watch any adaptation of this masterpiece, truthfully, because I simply can't imagine capturing even a tenth of the emotional depth of this story in any other medium by any other hand. 

Perhaps its only flaw is how challenging it is to recommend to people. "Well, see, it's this story about rabbits...." and right away 99% of your audience has tuned out. 

So perhaps it's better to say this is a story about friendship, leadership, a hero's journey, the merits and perils of different political systems and cultures (don't flinch, it's very deftly done without preaching or endless politicking)...and the characters happen to be rabbits. But these rabbits have their own culture, their own mythologies, their own language that again is lightly sprinkled through the narrative in such a way that when five vicious curse words are shouted in a climactic scene, you don't even have to stop to think to translate them. 

You are thoroughly immersed in the world and worldview of these creatures, who are on a journey to find a new home. The group learns to work together as a cohesive unit to overcome all manner of obstacles and dangers. They encounter other rabbits who see the world very differently and want them either subservient or dead. They befriend and enlist the help of a delightful bird named Kehaar (he's a black-headed seagull who talks with an Eastern European accent). Most of all, they learn about themselves and each other, and tell each other (and us) stories. Stories about them, stories about how their world came to be. 

There is more than a little of The Lord of the Rings in here, at least in terms of general plotting and overall structure. I can't get through LOTR: the lore is far too thick on the ground for me. Not so in Watership Down. It helps, of course, that this novel is shorter than even a volume of Tolkien's epic "My elves are entering a forest, which I'm going to assume none of my readers have ever heard of, and so here come ten pages describing it" fantasy. You can almost get away with skipping the chapters dealing with lapine legend and myth, in the same way you can, if you want, eat bread without butter or any other topping. I mean, the story's still there. But Adams has managed to pack a full fledged culture into this and its trappings are rich and delightful (except for the tale of the Black Rabbit of Inlé -- that's shockingly dark.)

What a relief that there's no explicit allegory to this story. It hasn't stopped people from trying to invent one, of course, but Adams is on record as saying it's "just" a story about rabbits. (It really IS about a lot more, but not in any way that will suggest to you there might be a test later.)

The prose has just a tiny bit of that slightly old-fashioned British feel to it. Just a tiny bit because it was published in 1972, not 1922. But it's charming rather than dated and not at all dense. You will feel, first off, as if you're in a simpler time, a bucolic and pastoral existence that is soon shattered as the adventure begins. A bunch of rabbits escape a doomed warren and light off cross country, employing all manner of cunning and teamwork to survive. 

An example of how tightly packed the lore is without being stifling: Rabbits, as you can perhaps imagine, lack the facility to count above four. Any more than four is 'hrair' or 'a lot, a Thousand'. A Chief Rabbit is addressed with the honorific rah, or "prince".

In the rabbits' creation mythos, Lord Frith told El-ahrairah, the rabbit Adam, "your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince With A Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning." When a rabbit dies, another says "my heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today". 

Other rabbit words that might stick with you for decades after reading -- they all did for me:

silflay: the act of feeding

hraka: pellets, excrement, shit

tharn: a paralysis of fear (I adore this word and have been sticking it in all manner of places since I first read this novel in my teens, from college essays to poems)

hrdudu: any human machine (these tend to make rabbits go tharn)

Oh, I want to talk about the rabbits! Bigwig, the bully-turned-loyal-pillar of the warren; Fiver, the runt with a sixth sense; Blackberry, who's too smart for his own good sometimes; and of course Hazel, who is blessed with the ability to synthesize his warren's talents and concoct strategies that put each member to their best use. They live and breathe in a way very few human characters have in other works of literature, for me. 

I don't want to have to beg, but you should read this novel. 

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