When a book grows up with you

When a book grows up with you

Happy holidays to all! As you unwrap your presents and spend time with your family, I hope that today’s pleasure has been heightened by the gift of a book. Here’s a story of how a book I received for Christmas had a profound effect on me.

Note: This post was originally published as a guest blog post on October 17th, 2011, for Linda Poitevin’s blog in the wake of her recent book release. It has been reposted here with her permission.


With the recent launch of Linda’s book (Congrats!), I thought it would be helpful to look back on a favourite book of mine. It’s one that took me a long time to get through, especially when I first read it as a child. It’s a book that’s bounded over the walls of “bestseller” territory to become firmly ensconced in school curricula. And, of all things, it’s a book about rabbits.

It’s Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Simply put, Watership Down has helped frame my life. I first got it as a Christmas gift when I was about 10 years old. Over the next 2 years, I tried to read the book multiple times, but stalled before the Sandleford rabbits reached Cowslip’s warren. When I finally managed to gather enough steam to plunge through the rest of the book when I was 12, I was amply rewarded:  Catastrophes, death, cunning escapes, and a poignant ending – everything was exciting!

However, a funny thing happened as I got older and read the book over and over again: It turned out to be much richer than I originally thought. I now firmly believe that it is a masterpiece, and here are some of the reasons why:

Depth of characterization­

Watership Down features a cast easily stretching into the dozens. While some of the characters have little to distinguish themselves beyond a name, the care with which so many are drawn is astounding. Off the top of my head, here are 10 characters in the book who are truly distinct from each other, with a unique voice and outlook on life:

  1. Hazel – Essentially, the every-rabbit who is sensible, loyal, and caring. He ultimately becomes the leader of his warren because he shows bravery, foresight, and consensus-building skills.
  2. Fiver – A rabbit with extra-sensory abilities. His otherworldly talents are disdained by the group at first, but they become increasingly essential to the Watership warren’s survival.
  3. Bigwig – The leader of Watership’s Owsla. Muscular and brave, he eventually learns the value of humility, delegation, and subterfuge.
  4. Blackberry – The thinker. His clever tricks save lives and confound Watership’s enemies.
  5. Dandelion – Watership’s fastest rabbit. He also acts as the warren’s storyteller, and it is these stories that provide the reader with glimpses into the mythology of rabbits.
  6. Holly – The author conveniently sums him up like so: “Sound, unassuming, conscientious, a bit lacking in the rabbit sense of mischief, he was something of the born second-in-command.”
  7. Bluebell – Holly’s companion and the only other known survivor of the Sandleford massacre. He uses humour as a coping mechanism.
  8. General Woundwort – The novel’s antagonist. A rabbit of truly astonishing size with the ruthlessness, political ambition, and fighting skills to match.
  9. Hyzenthlay – A resilient doe in Efrafa. She befriends both Holly and Bigwig during their time spent in Efrafa, and recruits other does to participate in Bigwig’s escape plan.
  10. Nethilta – One of Hyzenthlay’s recruits, who flaunts her status as a rebel before she is detained and tortured for information by Efrafa’s officers.

Of course, what’s interesting is seeing how these characters interact, and what’s really interesting is seeing how they take advantage of power politics.

A fleshed-out and evocative alien culture

By “alien” I mean “foreign” rather than “extra-terrestrial.” In the novel, the rabbits have their own language, political structure, and spiritual beliefs. They also have an elaborate mythology passed down over the generations that helps them understand their world and their relationships to other animals, both predator and prey alike.

Dandelion’s stories provide the clearest window into this, as they explain the antics of El-Ahrairah (the rabbits’ culture-hero) and act as an inspiration for various schemes that Hazel’s group uses throughout the novel.

A reinvention of deeply-embedded cultural tropes

Here’s an extremely rough summary of the novel’s plot:

Hazel and his male comrades start a new warren at Watership Down and realize that to ensure its survival, they must find does to reproduce with. They send emissaries to Efrafa , a neighbouring warren, and are rebuffed after they ask Efrafa’s council for does to take back home. They then send Bigwig to infiltrate Efrafa and escape with as many does as possible. After the escape, Efrafan officers, including the fearsome General Woundwort, attempt to invade Watership Down and are nearly successful before they are ultimately defeated.

Now, here’s an extremely rough summary of The Rape of the Sabine Women, the story of Rome’s founding population:

Romulus and his male comrades found the city of Rome and realize that to ensure its survival, they must find women to marry and start families with. They attempt to negotiate with the Sabines (a neighbouring tribe) for women to marry, but are rebuffed. They then create a fake religious festival and invite neighbouring tribes to attend, during which the Roman men abduct the Sabine women after receiving a signal to do so from Romulus. After the abduction, the Sabine men, including their king Titus Tatius, attempt to invade Rome and manage to capture Rome’s citadel before they are ultimately defeated.

I don’t know about you, but any author who can take a story about the founding of Rome, replace the main characters with rabbits, and turn it into a bestseller is a genius in my book.

Stopping to smell the flowers

Adams takes the time to explore the world beyond the concerns of the warren and goes into detail about the down itself. These passages don’t push the plot forward, but serve as a chance for Adams to walk around and get some pretty prose out of his system. Here’s an example:

We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable, flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech-woods at night.

– Chapter 22, The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah

So what does all this mean?

There are many more things I could elaborate on – political allegories, morals about the environment, gender roles in the rabbit world – but these themes have probably been trampled to death in various classrooms. All I want to do is talk about why I think this novel has good bones.

So what does all this mean? It means that the best stories often have a lot going on underneath the surface, and grow in meaning as the reader grows in maturity. It also means that a novel meant for children (Oh look, it’s about bunnies!) can be a lot deeper than we give it credit for.