Watership Down – Richard Adams

This gave me goose bumps. It has been at least 20 years since I last read or listened to it, yet it remains so very familiar – not necessarily in plot details, but in the very phrases of the prose. As a result, I can’t be remotely objective about it. I loved it as a child, and it didn’t fall down as an adult – if anything, I was belatedly amazed at just how young I fell in love with it (6? 7?), given the reading age / vocabulary and challenging concepts.

The only criticism I can level didn’t bother me as a child: female representation. It’s a key plot point that the bucks escape Sandleford Warren without any does, and this gaping hole drives the second half of the novel, which is fair enough. When Hyzenthlay and Clover are eventually introduced, they’re marvellous if in supporting roles.

The initial gap isn’t the bit that rubs now – it’s the random female casualties (Nildrohain, Thrayonlosa) in the absence of corresponding male deaths, and certainly fridging in the case of Nildrohain. It’s also some of the throw-away comments – ‘what’s another doe more or less?’ asks a buck at one point and similarly ‘only a doe’.

Adams does a great job of not anthropomorphising his rabbits (ahem, beyond, you know, devising a language for them, giving them a colourful mythology, poetry and a military dictatorship – err, other than that, yes?) and emphasises the lack of sentimentality. For the bucks, the absence of does is an imperative, but it’s positioned as a need for breeding stock. This bothers me now in a way it didn’t as a child, because I’d never (consciously) encountered sexism.

My comments focus on a nitpick – I remain in awe of this as an epic work, and I genuinely love the characters. This is a fabulous novel. The English countryside comes to intimate, intricate life; the level of detail is never stifling, but it bustles with hedgerow herbs and bird song. The rabbits interact as rabbits – scent, touch, mutual grooming and tending to wounds rather than raising non-existent eyebrows, smiling. When one rabbit laughs – an unknown phenomenon for rabbits – the others are terrified. The theme of rabbits embracing new things and encountering concepts beyond their ken runs throughout; we’re meant to admire their resourcefulness without ever really forgetting that they’re just rabbits.

Blast from the past. Very good stuff.