This is a slight digression from the usual poetry posts but I’ve just finished reading Watership Down to my two sons. It was originally published when I was about the same age as my elder son and was one of the best books I read as a child. My old paperback still had the addition of a marbled paper cover. At my secondary school we had to keep our books in good condition by covering them and clearly the habit had spread to some of my other books. At the time Watership Down (a story about rabbits!) would probably have not been considered intellectual enough for my Grammar School. How wrong they were and similarly all the publishers who turned it down before an independent publisher made a go of it.
My sons and I have been totally caught up in the story, will the warren survive, will they defeat or make peace with the Efrarans. I’ve also been reading it with my writer’s hat on and admiring the way Adams creates an entire world complete with its own folk stories. I’ve enjoyed all the natural history too. The children commented that it is very different to the things they normally read (H.I.V.E, Skulduggery Pleasant, Harry Potter) because you can’t work out what is working to happen next. I suspect Adams might have as much difficulty getting it published today as he did in 1972. Alex Rider it definitely aint but it does have plenty of drama and suspense – you just have to wait for this to come along later in the book.
Far more than many modern children’s books it has complex and interesting characters that the reader can get involved with and care about, even the deadly General Woundwort.
Warning PLOT SPOILER – both children are still rather stunned about the peaceful passing away of Hazel at the very end which got them thinking about death but also meant there couldn’t be a Watership Down Book 2. What was Richard Adams thinking of? There should have been at least a trilogy, if not five or seven books (and a even a prequel).
All I could remember about Richard Adams from having read the book in my teens was that he was about my father’s age. I did keep wondering as we read on if he’d served in the second world war but had decided that was due to my current preoccupation with events in that war and that I was reading things into the text. Nonetheless there were echoes of that conflict with the planning of raids and then having to carry them out even when you were scared and things not always going according to plan.
I was delighted to find a recent interview with Richard Adams in which he says
“You’ve only got to read the first two pages to realise this isn’t some sentimental little story about animals,” says Adams. “In fact, the two main characters, Hazel and Bigwig, are based on two wonderfully brave men I served with during the Second World War. Hazel is my commanding officer in the paratroops, John Gifford, a natural leader of men, if ever there was one. He was quiet, unassuming, never thumped the table, usually said ‘please’ when he gave you an order, yet all of us had absolute implicit faith in him.
“And Bigwig is Sergeant Paddy Kavanagh, who was a more self-advertising sort of chap than Gifford, but just the same. Everyone in the company trusted him to lead them into battle. Frightfully brave — unfortunately a bit too brave. At Arnhem, the Germans were advancing in full force, so he told the rest of the men to beat a retreat while he held the position with a Bren gun. The others got away safely, but five minutes after they’d left, they heard this massive explosion, and that was the end of Paddy.”
It was lovely to discover that Richard Adams is still going strong in his ninety first year and campaigning to save the Down from new housing and the bull-dozers.