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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

To rabbits, everything unknown is dangerous.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Watership Down is a story about the unusual flight of a small group of rabbits from their home and the many adventures they encounter along the way. Hazel is a young rabbit who trusts his friend Fiver’s eery premonitions of danger.  He tries to warn their Threarah (chief rabbit) but the Threarah dismisses them as upstarts.  Hazel and Fiver decide they must leave their warren (a community of rabbits) and a few other rabbits decide to join them. They are threatened with arrest, but manage to escape with the help of Bigwig, a former member of the Owsla (rabbit police).  They come upon another warren where the rabbits are hearty and the holes are spacious, but the rabbits are a bit queer.  It becomes clear that Hazel and his friends are stuck in this new warren, and to their horror, they discover that the rabbits are given plenty of food by men with the condition that occasionally they are snared and killed. After Bigwig is ensnared and nearly killed, Hazel and his friends make an escape.

They make a new home at Watership Down, a good ways from the strange warren and far from their original home.  One night, the rabbits are surprised to discover Captain Holly and Bluebell, two rabbits from their home, Sandleford warren. They tell a terrible story of men coming to stop up the warren’s holes and shooting any rabbits that escaped from the ground. Captain Holly and Bluebell were the only two to make it out, and he praises Hazel’s wise decision to trust Fiver after all. The rabbits settle in nicely at Watership Down, and are almost content, but they realize they have no does (female rabbits who can bear offspring). Hazel befriends a bird, Kehaar, when it is wounded and needs protection from elil (enemies). They strike an unlikely bond, and in spying for Hazel, Kehaar discovers another warren that is large and seems to have plenty of does.  Hazel sends Captain Holly off to this new warren (Efrafa) to ask if they might bring some of their extra does to Watership Down. Meanwhile, Hazel launches a somewhat hare-brained (ha.ha.) idea to free a few does from a hutch at a nearby farm that Kehaar had also seen in his flights. Hazel’s plan is dangerous, and while he frees a few does, he gets shot in the process, and but for Fiver’s second sight, would never have been found and brought back to Watership Down. Captain Holly and his crew are imprisoned at Efrafa, which turns out to be a militant-style warren where General Woundwort reigns supreme and all rabbits live a regimented and punishment-laden life. Captain Holly and the group only just manage to escape one night, and after they return to tell their story, Hazel pitches the unpopular idea that a group of them return to Efrafa to steal some does.

Bigwig becomes a spy for Hazel, allowing himself to be captured by the rabbits at Efrafa and quickly rising as an officer in their warren. He befriends a group of does and plans an escape aligned with Hazel’s forces on the outside. The escape doesn’t exactly go off as planned, and while the rabbits hatch a clever plan to hitch a ride on a boat sitting on a nearby river, General Woundwort is out for blood. Hazel and his friends are too clever for the General and they succeed in their plan, but he vows to find Bigwig and murder him personally. The rabbits eventually make it back to Watership Down and settle back to their lives of comfort, until one day Efrafan rabbits are spotted near the edge of the warren. Frantic, Hazel and the others bury themselves in their warren and await almost certain death. General Woundwort makes his way in and battles with Bigwig, but Bigwig’s cleverness and power are almost too much for the general. Hazel, with the help of Fiver, realizes he must run to the nearby farm and let loose the dog, leading the dog back to the warren and General Woundwort for his prey. The plan succeeds, but Hazel is caught by the farm’s cat and is only saved by Lucy, the farmer’s daughter. She wants to keep it, but the friendly neighborhood doctor tells her it needs to be free, and so she sets it loose and Hazel is discovered and brought back home to Watership Down. The does have many litters, Watership Down eventually sends some of its extra rabbits to build a new warren halfway between Efrafa and Watership Down, the two warrens begin to blend and forget their past grievances, and they all live hoppily ever after. (yep. That just happened.)
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. If you’re looking for a cross between a light read and something a bit more serious, and you don’t mind animals as protagonists (and antagonists), then I’d definitely suggest you go grab a copy and dig in!

My thoughts, in no particular oder:
  • Adams uses quotes to start of each chapter, which at first I wasn’t sure I liked, but they’re so well chosen that they perfectly marry foreshadowing and intrigue. Here’s the quote from the chapter on the “queer” rabbit warren:
In the afternoon they came unto a land

In which it seemed always afternoon.

All round the coast the languid air did swoon,

Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

                                                Tennyson, The Lotus-Eaters
  • Adams also throws in some of his own rabbit language (Lapine, as he calls it). My favorite (and my mom’s favorite) is hrududu, which means any sort of man-made machine. Hazel is returned to Watership Down in one with Lucy and the doctor, and Bigwig refuses to believe that Hazel actually rode in a hrududu.
  • Adams also claims that the does can take their litters back into their bodies if there are too many rabbits, or the climate isn’t right for them to be born. I found this idea very strange. It’s not abortion, it’s absorption!
  • Kehaar was hands down one of my favorite characters. Apparently, he doesn’t speak Lapine (the rabbit language) but they can converse in a sort of meta-language. Here’s my favorite exchange between Hazel and Kehaar:
Hazel slyly suggests that the warren will die off without does.

Kehaar:   Ving, ‘e better. I fly. I fly for you. Find plenty mudders, tell you vere dey are, ya?”

Hazel expresses sadness that Kehaar can’t fly south because of his injury.

Kehaar:  “Nudder time I get mudder. Now I fly for you.”
  • Bigwig wants to get a message to Kehaar, but he can’t let Captain Chervil (of Efrafa) know what’s happening, so he tells him an old rhyme to send the bird away. This hilarity ensues:
“Let’s have a go. If it doesn’t work, we’re none the worse. Well, you run like this. Now you have to hop to this side, then to the other side, scratch with your legs, that’s right, splendid – cock your ears and then go straight on until-ah! Here we are; now then:

                “O fly away, great bird so white,

                And don’t come back until tonight.”

“There you are, you see. It did work. I think there’s more than we know to some of these old rhymes and spells.”

“Probably all that prancing about as we came up to it,” said Chervil sourly. “We must have looked completely mad.”

Passages I particularly liked:
-- “Along the western horizon the lower clouds formed a single purple mass, against which distant trees stood out minute and sharp. The upper edges rose into the light, a far land of wild mountains. Copper-colored, weightless and motionless, they suggested a glassy fragility like that of frost. Surely, when the thunder struck them again they would vibrate, tremble, and shatter, till warm shards, sharp as icicles, fell flashing from the ruins.”
--Fiver, to one of the captains of Efrafa when they attack Watership Down:
“I am sorry for you with all my heart. But you cannot blame us, for you came to kill us if you could.” This reminds me of when the Buggers tell Ender that they did not mean to murder, and when they knew, they did not come again.

Nothing fights grad school senioritis like The Liver of Insanity! Hrm, that’s not it. Perhaps it’s the Kidney of Light?

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