Reading the End Bookcast, Ep. 90: Forgotten Children’s Books and Watership Down

In the midst of strife and terror, Whiskey Jenny and I return to old favorites. This week we’re talking about children’s books that we love that an insufficient number of other people do, and then reviewing Richard Adams’s classic book Watership Down. We have a lot of feelings about Bigwig. Maybe we tear up a little. Who’s to say.

Watership Down

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Here are the time signatures if you want to skip around!

1:23 – What We’re Reading
4:35 – Serial Box Book Club: Episode 2 of Geek Actually
16:17 – Rescuing children’s books from obscurity
32:15 – Watership Down, Richard Adams
58:35 – What We’re Reading for Next Time!

Umami

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Credits
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Theme song by: Jessie Barbour

Watership Down, Richard Adams

Sometimes I do a quick search through my blog archives and find that I have somehow, in four years (four years!!), not reviewed a book that I love more than I love eating cheese fries while watching The Good Wife (in this case, more even than I would love eating cheese fries while watching Kalinda plan and execute a cold-blooded takedown of Dana). Watership Down is one such book. It is also an example of the phenomenon that a late conversion can make you more of a fanatic about something than if you loved it all along. My mother told me about Watership Down when I was in my early-to-mid teens, and I was like, “Oh, it’s about a psychic bunny rabbit and his bunny rabbit pals? Well I’m just going to rush right the hell out to read that one!”

However, if you haven’t read Watership Down, you should rush right the hell out to read it. It is the best ever.

Watership Down is about a rabbit called Hazel and his brother Fiver, who gets a premonition of danger to the warren where they live. When the leader of the warren refuses to listen to Fiver about this, Hazel and Fiver collect a small group of rabbits and flee the warren in search of a new home. As wanderers they are forced to behave in ways totally foreign to them, adjusting to meet the unexpected challenges they encounter, like not having any girl rabbits and not knowing how to get across rivers and making friends with birds and getting in fights with terrifying warrens full of creepy psychopath rabbits.

I find it difficult to enumerate the qualities that make Watership Down so wonderful, but I will try to tease out a few. I adore the way that Richard Adams develops Hazel from an average rabbit in an average warren to a leader of vision and courage. Adams manages this mostly through the eyes of the other rabbits: you see them begin to trust Hazel’s decisions more and more, and he sort of organically becomes their Chief Rabbit, and by the end any of them would die for him (and let’s face it, so would you). There is this marvelous scene towards the end where Hazel goes to confront the leader of an opposing warren, and for a scene that lasts a page and a half and consists only in Hazel talking quietly, it is just so badass.

Watership Down is also an excellent example, if you’re into that sort of thing, of a monomyth story. Richard Adams was strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell, and the story structure is very Odyssean, with the rabbits encountering danger after danger in order to find, and settle into, their home. There is the leader character and the supernatural aid character and the clever one and the strong one and the Neville one and the jester. You can’t not like this! It’s programmed into your brain to like this.

The way Richard Adams writes his rabbits is superb. They are really rabbits, not rabbit-shaped people like, say, the animals in Wind in the Willows. When they act, they act like rabbits would, or they at least acknowledge that their exceptional circumstances are forcing them to act differently than rabbits ordinarily would. That is great. Then on the other hand their speech patterns are those of mid-twentieth-century Brits, which look, there is a pretty fundamental layer of my consciousness at which proper books are the Chronicles of Narnia and proper characters talk like the Pevensies, so book characters who call each other “old chap” will please me more often than not.

I like plans. I like it in books and shows and things where the characters come up with a plan and then put the plan into action and then the plan works (or the plan encounters a roadblock and the plan-makers, thinking fast on their feet, alter the plan to adjust for the new wrinkle) and the desired effect is achieved. If I had been born in the days of Homer, I would compose an epic poem in praise of plans and plan-making, and I would sing it loudly at feasts and festivals. Because I love plans. And the Watership Down rabbits are always making plans, and that is another reason Watership Down is amazing.

Finally, if it weren’t for Watership Down, I would never have known about Mary Renault. I would have been part of the horde of people whose lives are currently impoverished by not knowing about Mary Renault. My mumsy told me about Mary Renault, and she had only read Mary Renault herself because one of the chapter epigraphs in Watership Down is from The King Must Die. I wouldn’t know about the Alexander books or The Charioteer! That would be terrible. Thanks, Watership Down!

P.S. SPOILERS. It is awesome that Bigwig’s final victory over General Woundwort is a psychological victory. I could read that scene every damn day.

The Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams

Do you ever read a book where you finish it and you’re like, Hm, I think I may be deeply stupid?  I sort of felt that way when I finished reading A Pale View of Hills, but with that one, at least, I thought about it for a while and came to a conclusion.  I have been thinking furiously about The Girl in a Swing, ever since I finished it yesterday morning, and I am still trying to figure out what the hell happened.

I was excited to read this book.  I love Watership Down like crazy, and The Girl in a Swing is about a porcelain shop owner called Alan who is slightly psychic.  While in Copenhagen on business, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful sensual German woman called Kathe.  After a whirlwind romance, they are married and live happily ever after.  Except that Richard gradually begins to realize there is Something Not Right and actually they don’t live all that happily ever after, so I was lying about that before.  And did I mention it’s by the same guy that wrote Watership Down?

Psychic dude!  Something Not Right!  Watership Down author!  I WAS SO DISAPPOINTED.

I also felt stupid, as previously stated.  I feel like I understood the main thing that was causing spookiness – major spoilers in this paragraph only! – of how Kathe had a child and went into the woods and killed her dead so she could be with Alan.  I got that.  All clear on that.

Then there was all this stuff throughout the book about sex and Christianity and pagan goddesses and forgiveness that were confusing, and I think there may have been layers of meaning that I didn’t get.  Because of being stupid.  And maybe they would have made the book better.  Like, the porcelain thing that Kathe gets, the Girl in a Swing?  What was up with that?  Did that relate to the theme of forgiving yourself?  What all did I miss by being stupid?  And, well, okay, by being bored and my mind drifting away.

Yes!  Okay?  I was bored with this book!  It just took so long to get going; and if it hadn’t been Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, I’d have given up in despair. Occasionally there were strange little episodes with Kathe, but they were few and far between for most of the book.  Same with Alan, who was supposed to be psychic, but he hardly ever was – I wanted more out of Alan!  When Kathe wasn’t having fits at the sight of a church and shrieking at Alan to destroy the past and save her (i.e., most of the time), she and Alan were so sweety-sweet you just couldn’t stand it.  They were constantly going, Oo, darling, how clever and beautiful you are, and oo, darling, how quickly you do seem to have learnt everything about my porcelain business, and darling, isn’t it nice for us that everyone you know adores me, and darling, let’s have sex all the time like bunny rabbits.

Which, you know, is funny.  Considering.

I am so cross at being disappointed by a book I really wanted to enjoy that I officially say, Do not read this!  It’s a waste of time.  Read something good and thrilling and suspenseful like Watership Down.  In fact I am so cross, I am not even going to count this as part of the RIP Challenge.