Some thoughts about the late Richard Adam’s rabbit classic
Today’s news brings word about the death of Richard Adams on December 24, 2016. He is most well known for “Watership Down,” his fantasy about a rabbit community that faces destruction and has to engage in bloody warfare to survive. Here are some observations about that work I deeply love.
- It is quintessentially English. Written by a British civil servant, sensitive to issues of class, “Watership Down” takes place in the English countryside. The curious thing is that the very same region in that country also inspired “The Wind in the Willows” and “Winnie the Pooh,” far less fearsome (more pastoral) animal stories.
- A question of scale. “Watership Down” is the “Iliad” resized, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” miniaturized. Here is the tiny worlds of “The Rescuers” and “The Borrowers,” “Stuart Little” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” It is the realm of Beatrix Potter who wrote her own rabbit story as well as tales about mice occupying dollhouses and hedgehogs keeping house.
- An entire universe of encyclopedic completeness. Adams’ rabbits have their own culture, language, and religion. They have a complete society with castes, police, despots, et al. Theirs is that complete world imagined in other childhood geographies: Narnia, Oz, Middle Earth, Neverland, Wonderland, the Seven-Acre Wood, in Harry Potter’s world of sorcery and Phillip Pullman’s “Dark Materials.”
- Welcome, talking animals. And here is a world of talking, thinking, feeling, planning, and warring animals. Where we learn what it is to be human by means of analogy: “Charlotte’s Web,” “Black Beauty,” the jabbering menagerie of Doctor Dolittle, the education of Mowgli by Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Panther, the lessons of Babar and Aesop.
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