Richard Adams

55 Classics Review # 14 – Watership Downs by Richard Adams


Watership Downs. I was about two-thirds of the way through it when my family moved cross country a few months ago. It stands along side Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as the only two books I can visualize reading in my favorite chair in both living rooms. With both these, I rested on a period, move everything a thousand miles across the map, then took up the armchair and the books once more.

Watership Downs was a surprising experience for me. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, the root concept was something I had never imagined before and therefore it was all the more exciting to take in. While The Phantom Tollbooth only had a handful of passages with which I felt a deep personal connection (the orchestrating of the colors of the day was moving and masterfully written), I was fully engaged by most of Watership Downs, especially as the book began to come to a climax.

Watership Downs is a mystical book. It is the tale of two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. Fiver is a generally weak and distracted rabbit who has a tendency toward hallucinatory dreams of a prophetically accurate nature. The book follows Hazel’s development as the unlikely de facto leader of a rag-tag group of rabbits, who flee through the wild after Fiver senses that their largely peaceful home warren is in danger. Throughout the text they meet adversaries of every sort imaginable to a real group of rabbits who have no holes to protect them, while also making encounters with the alien cultures among other rabbit warrens. The events of the book are frequently broken up by chapter-length stories told amongst the rabbits, passing oral tradition down in a manner Joseph Campbell would be proud of. The rabbits, bolstered often by heroic tales of the clever forebear to the rabbit race, must time and again gather their wits and fight against their biological makeup to exercise sound judgement when their instincts pressure them to fly in blind fear.

The uniqueness of Richard Adams’ concept here lies in the distinct form of his anthropomorphism and in the central nature of cultural mythologies. It has elsewhere been accepted that if we choose to write books on talking animals, they must naturally exist in a world so magically foreign that they walk upright, wear clothes tailored to our liking, and eat foods similar to our own preferences. The Wind In The Willows is a perfect example of this type of book (and also one of my all-time favorite titles). Watership Downs goes the extreme opposite route, unearthing animals in a world that is so much our own that at times I felt like I needed a veterinarian or wildlife expert at hand to verify the minute details of rabbit life presented in the text. The only thing Adams’ toys with in his rabbits’ nature is their capability to communicate verbally and their social capacity to rely on shared histories and plan for a future.

This book is great. It really does stand in its own realm. I think it would probably surprise most people one way or the other, enjoying it far more or less than they would assume from the outset. Richard Adams proves himself to be a student of both science and myth, a great respecter of both biology and the intangible that requires pure faith. The book feels a bit long at points, and these days I could see a publisher trying to force the book into multiple titles in a series, but I think it works well as it is, even if the momentum is a bit erratic at times. I will say that the last 150 pages or so are pure gold. In many ways the ebb and flow of the momentum works in the favor the reader’s identify with the rabbits all the more at the end. From the start you have an epic struggle that really brings you in, lulls a bit here and there in the midst of an uncertain middle, and then hits full force in the final stages.

Watership Downs is one part tribal survival saga, one part homage to oral tradition and sacred myths, and one part fanciful tale of the lives of the rabbits living just beyond the hedge. If you don’t think you would enjoy a book about talking rabbits, I challenge you that perhaps this is exactly what you should read next.

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Further Reading

Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating

Dave Eggers On Why Publishing Is Scary

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The Classics Club


This morning I stumbled upon a wonderful blog called The Classics Club. Its exactly what I never knew I was searching for!

The premise of the club is a simple one. To join, one must simply submit a list of at least 50 titles that you personally consider classic in some way and commit to attempting to read and review all of them within a time frame of hire own choosing, up to five years. I eagerly spent some of my morning and afternoon building my own classics list.

A Few Notes Concerning My Selections

• I chose a very broad spectrum of titles because I am interested in a broad spectrum of fiction. I am aware that many, nay most, are probably not classics or only exist as classics in a certain subculture.

• They are in the order I came up with them, so I will not be reading them in this or any other particular order.

• I chose a number of children’s titles because I love children’s literature more now than when I was a kid.

• The spirit of the club is to read new titles, so I have only allowed myself step or three re-reads. I chose them mostly because they are lesser known titles and I was eager to re-read them to review them.

• Most of these are either titles I own and have not read or titles I started once and got side-tracked from finishing.  I thought this seemed like a great opportunity to officially pursue them more diligently.

• The list is mainly novels and chapter books, with a smattering of short story collections, picture books, essays, and curated diaries.

• I intend to use the maximum allotment of five years, finishing the list by 2/22/2019.

The List (55 titles)

– The Plague by Albert Camus

– The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

– Watership Downs by Richard Adams

– Letters To An American Lady by C.S. Lewis

– On Stories by C.S. Lewis

– The Worm of Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

– The Giver by Lois Lowry

– Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

– The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

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– Odd And The Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

– Phantastes by George MacDonald

– The Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

– The Silmarilion by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

– Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

– A Room With A View by E. M. Forster

– Redwall by Brian Jacques

– Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

– Poems of John Keats by John Keats

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– Brothers and Friends : The Diaries of Major Warren Lewis by Warren Lewis

– The Third Man by Graham Greene

– The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

– The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

– Peril At End House by Agatha Christie

– Bring It To The Table: On Farming And Food by Wendell Berry

– The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

– Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams

– War In Heaven by Charles Williams

– The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth by H. G. Wells

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– Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming

– Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

– The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

– At The Back Of The North Wing by George MacDonald

– Jeeves In The Offering by P. G. Wodehouse

– Heavy Weather by P. G. Wodehouse

– Middlemarch by George Eliot

– The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

– Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

– The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

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– On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

– A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

– An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

– The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

– The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

– King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

– The Sorrows Of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

– Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

– In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

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– Runaway by Alice Munro

– The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchanan

– I Sing The Body Electric by Ray Bradbury

– Walden by Henry David Thoreau

– My First Summer In The Sierras by John Muir

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As a somewhat saddening side-note, I realized while curating this list that I finished reading every Sherlock Holmes novel years ago. While there are only four novel-length Holmes stories, I was surprised to realize that I had finished all of them years ago. I’m certain that I haven’t read all the short stories yet, but it was a strange sensation to realize that I had long since finished these and even forgotten that I had completed every one of them.

Anyway, I am excited to get any feedback as I start! If you have any personal thoughts, experiences, or opinions on any or all of these titles, I would love to hear them. I need all the advice I can get!