Sunday, December 4, 2011

CHILDRENS' CLASSIC BOOK REVIEW: Watership Down and Tales from Watership Down

From childhood until today, one of my favorite books ever is the classic book Watership Down by Richard Adams. There was a time when I would read it once a year, and even today there are parts where I know practically every sentence.

And the odd thing is it is a very long adventure story about rabbits. Often compared with the Wind in the Willows, it is really nothing of the sort. Wind in the Willows is more a true children's story with little appeal for most adults other than nostalgia for childhood and has more in common with Winnie the Pooh than it does Watership Down. I would say Watership Down is more comparable to Tolkein's The Hobbit. The level of adventure, the appeal to most children as well as most adults, and the sheer epic nature is similar between these two books and sets them way apart from something like Wind in the Willows.

Watership Down follows a set of rabbits whose personalities are as distinct as any characters in a novel can be. These characters, led by a somewhat George Washington style leader named Hazel, leave their threatened home to find a safe place to live. In the process they encounter predators, humans and other rabbits. The encounters with other rabbits play out with just as much cultural and political depth as any story about human interactions might have. And yet these are not simply humans with rabbit masks on. Richard Adams consistently keeps behavior and understanding of the world believably on the level of what rabbits would care about.

The writing is exquisite, the scenery vividly beautiful, and the adventure at times heart-stopping. Chapters like "The Thunder Breaks" and "Bigwig Stands His Ground" are as exciting as some of the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings. And the tragic events of chapters like "The Shining Wire" and "Fiver Beyond" surpass the emotional depth of, for example, Boromir's death in Lord of the Rings.

In my day Watership Down, like the Hobbit, were solidly children's books but with great appeal for adults. In today's somewhat more timorous era towards raising children, some will consider both of these books more for pre-teens because there is violence and, at least in Watership Down, a realistic view towards biological functions like excretion and reproduction. But to me the lessons of both books are very valuable for children, pre-teens, teens and adults alike, and, depending on the personality of the child, they are perfectly appropriate.

Watership Down was written in 1972, and reflected even then some old fashioned views of society. So it has been criticized as sexist, though I knew one ardent feminist who loved it so much she forgave its sexism even while pointing it out. It also has descriptive passages that, while extremely evocative and effective, reflect a colonialist paternalism that today would border on racist. It is clear both in Watership Down, and particularly in its much later sequel, Tales from Watership Down, that Richard Adams was neither sexist nor racist, but held values that at the time were acceptable, if a tad old fashioned, but today would not be acceptable. And it is clear that Richard Adams took these criticisms to heart and in Tales from Watership Down he took a much more modern approach and deliberately instilled environmental and feminist values as well as ideas of tolerance into the stories.

Tales from Watership Down is not as evenly excellent as Watership Down itself was. Some of the chapters reflecting environmental values seem a bit forced, though because they evoke memories of the original Watership Down most fans will still enjoy reading them. But the later chapters, where feminism and tolerance and even issues of rebellious youth are taken up, have almost the same wonderful excitement and exquisite style as the original book. It doesn't have quite the same level of adventure, perhaps because by the time Richard Adams wrote Tales from Watership Down, the values of society had started to frown on exposing children to the level of suspense and danger books like Watership Down and The Hobbit contained. But Tales from Watership Down remains a pleasant read for anyone who reaches the end of Watership Down and, like me, always wants more.

I should add that, sadly, the other books by Richard Adams do not, in my mind, live up to the quality of Watership Down. While the length of Watership Down was justified by the pace and style of writing, his other, often even longer books, just plain are tedious in their length. One, Shardik, I did my best to wade through, but ultimately put down in disgust even though I was 9/10 of the way through just because I didn't like it, didn't care about the characters and, in fact, wished they had all just been killed off long before and be done with it. I am not sure why Richard Adams did his best writing about rabbits, but simple fact is only the Watership Down books are worthwhile. But they are classics worth reading over and over, and worth reading to your kids and passing on to them for them to cherish and pass on to their kids.

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