20. Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972) 478 p.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get through this one, because it wasn’t bad. Maybe I’ve just been busier than usual lately.
I’ve known about Watership Down for a while – it tends to get mentioned a lot in other popular culture, like Lost and The Stand – so it was expecting it to be pretty good. It tells the tale of a group of rabbits fleeing the destruction of their home warren and attempting to start over somewhere else, on the titular Watership Down. Rabbit culture is intensely developed throughout the book; they have their own language, stories, poetry and legends. Adams builds up enough of a vocabulary that in the final chapters, when one rabbit says “Silflay hraka, u embleer rah,” the astute reader knows exactly what it means. There are several intervals at which the rabbits tell each other tales of El-ahrairah, a rabbit folk hero, which was interesting at first but later grew annoying as it interrupted the flow of the story.
By far the best part of the book was early on, when the fleeing rabbits, exhausted and hungry, limp into a warren of strangers. These rabbits are healthy and well-fed, and there is no scent of predators around, yet they have a sad quality to them, “like trees in November.” The gradual sense of eerie foreboding that builds up to the revelation of the truth was brilliantly executed.
The rest of the book is mostly good, but not great, a fairly generic adventure story. I’m sure the idea of using animals as characters was pretty fresh at the time, but I grew up in the 90’s with Redwall and The Animals of Farthing Wood, so it’s not quite as exciting for me. Actually, come to think of it, Peter Rabbit and the Wind in the Willows probably beat Adams to the punch anyway.
Overall, thumbs up, but not quite living up to the legendary reputation I’d built up for it in my own mind.
Watership Down at The Book Depository