Deep Outside SFFH - Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

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Richard Adams
originally published 1972
Avon paperback edition copyright 1975
478 pages with glossary and maps
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My wife and I were staying at a bed and breakfast in early May of this year (1999), and while poking around I found a dog-eared paperback copy of WATERSHIP DOWN in one of the downstairs rooms. I had other reading matter along with me but I had fond memories of the novel so I idly began reading the first few pages, and before you know it, I was halfway through the book.

I read this novel once before, not long after it was first published around 1973, so I had forgotten much of it, which made rereading it after so long a real pleasure. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone seriously interested in reading - or writing - modern fantasy has not read this novel, but I suppose a few folks might have missed it. In case you are one of them, you might want to rectify that omission.

No, it isn't perfect. Adams's prose goes a little over the top at times, and it really is impossible to fully suspend your disbelief to the point where you'll accept a rabbit culture with its own mythology. But when you step back for a larger view, WATERSHIP DOWN functions very well as an allegory disguised as an adventure story disguised as a work of fantasy. And it is because the novel works so well on so many levels - not the least of which is a mythopoeic one - that I believe I can get away with calling it a work of genius.

For those expecting something along the line of Robert Lawson's charming "Rabbit Hill" books for children, let me advise you to fastern your seatbelts. This is not a children's book, and there's precious little cute stuff here. (The same goes for the animated film version of WATERSHIP DOWN, which is in places downright terrifying.) The only comic relief comes in the form of a wayfaring seagull named Kehaar who befriends the rabbits and assists them at several critical junctures. There is a little additional levity in the form of a series of tales the rabbits tell about El-ahrairah, the rabbit folk hero. He's their version of Coyote, the Trickster, and of course he always wins against an assortment of rabbit adversaries. These tales illuminate the main action and serve to illustrate the rabbits' mythology.

The rabbits are clueless about the workings of larger civilization in whose interstices they live, except where it directly impacts them: farms, vegetable gardens, snares, speeding automobiles, and of course guns. They know that men are responsible for these things, but they have no instrumentalities of their own. In fact., Adams contrives a few little bits of busines for the rabbits, such as games and the like, but not much shrift is given to these quasi-human behaviors. The main concern here is survival.

The plot is driven by Hazel, an Everyrabbit who is protective of his younger brother, Fiver. Fiver is a runt but he has what the rabbits understand as a heightened awareness, or what we would call second sight. One night Fiver has a terrible dream in which the warren where he and his brother live is destroyed by men. Since his dreams have so often proved accurate, Hazel, after failing to convnce the head rabbit of impending doom, flees the warren with Fiver and several of their closest friends. The book is about their attempts to find a safe place where they can establish a new warren, and their efforts to find females rabbits to help them build new families.

It doesn't sound like much, but friends, this is an epic tale. Along the way the rabbits encounter other warrens, each of which is organized along a different pattern that is very familiar to humans. One is run by a facist regime complete with stormtroopers and secret police. Another is a Wellsian utopia that is not as benign as it first appears. Fiver's prescient dreams help them, but ultimately it is the actions of the reluctant hero Hazel and the others that provide the main interest.

The book is a page-turner. Each rabbit is a distinct personality, with the stars being Hazel, Fiver, and their brawny friend Bigwig - so-called because of a thick tuft of hair atop his head. Even the villains are well done, with General Woundwort, a sort of ueber-rabbit, being a particularly ominous creation.

Adams went on to write other animal-centered books, SHARDIK and THE PLAGUE DOGS (a downbeat, harrowing tale that was also mnade into a fine animated film), but this is the book by which he will always be known.

Not long ago in these virtual pages I reviewed a wonderful book, WICKED: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST. If you liked that book and are looking for something similarly inventive and well-written, then WATERSHIP DOWN may be just that something.

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