Sunday 16 February 2014

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Having just enjoyed re-reading The Hobbit, the next great novel to revive from my childhood is Richard Adams's Watership Down. I was partly prompted to do this by hearing an excellent radio dramatisation.

But Watership Down proved to be a felicitous choice, not just because it is an immensely pleasurable read, but because of the pronounced similarity to Tolkien.

I'd never considered this before, but it really struck me now: both Adams and Tolkien write in a cosy, very English voice — the rabbits say things like "I'm sorry, old chap." Both writers have a deep love of nature and offer intoxicating descriptions of the countryside: "June was moving towards July and high summer. Hedgerows and verges were at their rankest and thickest. The rabbits sheltered in dim-green, sun-flecked caves of grass, flowering marjoram and cow-parsley."

And, like Tolkien, Adams has created a coherent, self-contained fantasy world complete with history, folklore, mythology, a language of its own — and maps.

(And, by an odd coincidence, both writers had Pauline Baynes as their definitive illustrator. She did the beautiful book cover at the beginning of this post, just as she did with The Hobbit last week.)

Best of all, both these writers can tell a thunderingly good story which utterly immerses the reader in their created worlds. This is not least because they both understand that a great adventure story requires a great villain. Where The Hobbit had Smaug, Watership Down has General Woundwort, the iron-willed tyrant who rules the totalitarian warren Efrafa. He's a truly formidable bad guy.

But he isn't two-dimensional. Adams clearly admires Woundwort and the readers ends up, grudgingly, feeling the same. Indeed, Woundwort is tempted at one point to become a good guy: "At that moment, in the sunset on Watership Down, there was offered to General Woundwort the opportunity to show whether he was the leader of vision and genius which he believed himself to be, or whether he was no more than a tyrant with the courage and cunning of a pirate."

(Luckily for the adventure story, Woundwort plumps for the latter.)

This sort of nuanced, shaded characterisation is a feature of the book: Hazel is uncertain that he's worthy of leadership and only gradually grows into the role, while Bigwig starts off as a heavy and only gradually becomes sympathetic — indeed, heroic. He's magnificent as the final battle approaches, unafraid of Woundwort and spoiling for a fight

In fact Bigwig's line of dialogue when he confronts Woundwort has stayed in my mind ever since I read it as a kid: "Silflay hraka u embleer rah." Which roughly translates as "Eat shit you stinking boss."

The book is an addictive, engrossing read, packed with magnificent set-pieces. Notably the immensely suspenseful escape from Efrafa in a gorgeously described storm: "a long roll of thunder sounded  from the valley beyond. A few great, warm drops of rain were falling. Along the western horizon the lower clouds formed a single purple mass, against which distant trees stood out minute and sharp."

And of course there is the unforgettable final battle when Woundwort and his legions attack our heroes' burrow.

The suspense and action are brilliantly evoked, but there's much more to the book than that. Adams shows the rabbits struggling with abstract concepts, such as the boat they encounter, or the mosaic made by some very strange rabbits — only a few exceptional individuals among our heroes, like Blackberry and Fiver can grasp these things. This gives Watership Down an edge of intelligence and profound insight which most books of any kind lack. Let alone a thriller about rabbits ostensibly written for children.

This was a tremendously rewarding novel to re-read. It gave me as much pleasure as it did the first time around, decades ago.

Next on my pile of books: Richard Adams's second novel Shardik.

(Image credits: As usual, most of the covers are from the useful Good Reads, including the rather terrific art for the audio book version; I tried to identify the artist, but haven't been able to yet. But, bizarrely (yet typically) the best cover and the edition I actually re-read, the lovely Pauline Baynes original 1973 Puffin edition, is almost impossible to find on the internet. So for the main image at the beginning of this post I had to resort to a slightly tilted postcard of the cover I found for sale on eBay. And the Italian cover was sourced from the Italian site Fantasy Magazine.)


  1. Most interesting. I vaguely remember reading this years
    ago, but I cannot really remember anything about it.
    I cannot say that I have been tempted to re-read it, but
    after reading your article I might. I would be interested
    in finding out what ' Shardik' is like. I also remember
    reading Adams's ' adult' novel ' The Girl in The Swing'.
    Perhaps you could read that too.
    For some time I have wanted to ask you if you have
    ever read the Ed McBain ' 87th Precinct' novels.
    Why do I want to ask you? I don't know, but after reading your comments about Dick Francis the thought
    suddenly came to me....
    Anyway, it would be a pleasure to read you comments
    about the novels I have mentioned above.
    Best regards.

  2. I will indeed report back on 'Shardik', not to mention 'The Plague Dogs', 'Maia' and of course 'The Girl in the Swing'. Funny you should mentions McBain's 87th Precinct novels. I have yet to read them but I am keen to do so. My friend and fellow writer Ben Aaronovitch is a huge admirer of them. In fact, I'm under instructions to pick up the vintage Penguin editions of the series for him whenever I see them in a charity shop! Thanks for the comments. You've encouraged me to move the McBain novels to the top of my list. I will keep you posted!

  3. I really enjoyed your post comparing Tolkein and Adams. I was thinking the other day about how they have a similar style in their writing, and how they both have the objective of creating a language to accompany their storytelling. I have admired both of these authors for a long time and am happy to see that someone else has an enthusiasm for them as well. I'm also currently working on my own literary comparison between Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Watership Down." There are immense similarities between the two books, and I think I could make an interesting comparison. I've also noticed that there are biographical similarities between Carroll and Adams as well. I'm considering a literary analysis in which I argue that the authors' similarity in writing is the result of their biographical similarity (i.e. their country of origin, hardships they face, etc.) Do you find that an interesting topic to read about? Do you have any suggestions on perhaps a different angle I could take in combining a biographical analysis with a literary analysis? I would appreciate your feedback.

    Thanks for writing your blog.

  4. The Carroll/Adams comparison sounds fascinating. You should go ahead with your analysis. Thank you for reading (and writing!).