Watership Down – Richard Adams, read by Ralph Cosham

It’s been a funny year for reading and audio books. There have been a lot of surprising, completely unintentional parallels in the books I’ve picked up (and a boatload of time travel). A bit ago I started listening to an audio version of The Odyssey, read by Sir Ian McKellen (who was the primary reason for getting it, a far distant secondary being that I thought I ought to). Despite that voice, I found myself becoming restless with the story (especially with Odysseus back on Ithaca and still about five hours left in the book, and for the love of Zeus man stop lying to your loved ones AT GREAT LENGTH), so I picked another to, as I planned, alternate: Watership Down. This is one of that shelf of books I read several times long ago, and not for many years. I don’t remember when I first read it; I ventured upstairs to the grown-up half of the library (waiting all the time for someone to stop me – was I really allowed?) and wandered the shelves like … like a rabbit in a field of lettuce. I know for a period in my older childhood I made a point of reading mostly chunksters, the idea being that if I loved it I wouldn’t want it to end, and a longer book has a longer time in which to weave its spell. I can only imagine that’s how I landed on Watership Down, because I seem to remember a very large hardcover with a buff jacket, and perhaps a compass rose… I remember reading it before bed, and it giving me trouble because the classic “one more chapter” excuse was more tantalizing than fulfilling with WD, the chapters being rather short, so that reading at bedtime and “one more chapter”ing over and over (much like I am with the snooze alarm these days) could lead to another hundred pages before the light finally went out.

As I’m sure most voracious readers have experienced, I worried that a childhood favorite – more, a childhood beloved – which for whatever reason I had left alone for … perhaps a quarter of a century? Is that even possible? … would not bear up to a new reading. It was with a sort of apologetic reluctance that I clicked on the cover on my laptop. I’ll listen a bit, I thought, and then maybe take up The Odyssey again.

One more chapter.

One more chapter.

One more …

I didn’t quite listen to the whole thing in one sitting – it’s just shy of sixteen hours – but, being down with a cold and completely unmotivated to do anything that would take me far from my laptop anyway, it was darn near one sitting. If there was a small voice in my head in the beginning that complained about not liking the narrator, Ralph Cosham, all the other voices in my head rounded on it and beat it to a pulp within about fifteen minutes, because it was soon obvious that this is one of those perfect marriages between book and reader which justify every penny Audible seduces out of me. I have loved several audiobooks this year, but this may just be my favorite (at least till I listen to the new Peter Grant). I’ve been in the habit of deleting the downloads from my laptop, which has gotten rather cluttered, just to free up space. I can’t delete this one. I want to listen to it again. Maybe tomorrow.

And here’s the beauty of picking up (so to speak) an old favorite after such a long interval: I didn’t remember a blessed thing, plotwise. It was a brand new adventure, with a soft and comfortable padding of old, old affection. I remembered Fiver and Hazel and Bigwig immediately; as the story unfolded I was able to make small sounds of recognition at other names as they came along, and then suddenly remembered appending “-roo” to at least one dog’s name. The plot? Was utterly new to me. I had a vague foreboding that someone, possibly Fiver, possibly Bigwig, was going to be killed. That was all. Nothing diluted the suspense that built, peaked, broke, then built and peaked again with the adventures of Hazel and his merry band. It was marvelous.

What a story! To step back and look at it with cool objectivity – it’s the story of a bunch of rabbits, an epic adventure that covers a couple of square miles. It is, and apparently for Mr. Adams in the quest to publish was, a hard sell. It should be ridiculous. I mean, bunnies. Oh, but it’s so very not ridiculous. It is epic – it’s life-and-death, and distance as we measure it is irrelevant. What a human, arrogant lord of the earth, traverses without a thought in just a few strides is a vast and terror-filled expanse to a ten-inch-tall prey animal at the bottom of the food chain. This tension was beautifully captured, and thrummed throughout the book. Besides, anyone who can retain cool objectivity in the face of Pipkin’s terror or Fiver’s otherworldliness, or Bigwig’s courage, or Bluebell’s jesting, or Hazel’s diplomacy and leadership… that person I have no wish to know.

And the language. The English – warm and humourous (the Sherlock Holmes reference made me laugh out loud and rewind), and sure-footed, and the lapine – which Adams states he didn’t attempt to make more than a smattering of “fluffy” words and phrases, things rabbits might actually say if they spoke, and what he did he did marvelously. I love that the bucks had plant names while the does had lapine names – except for the hutch-bred does. I loved the rabbit constructions to try to label human concepts – if I thought I could reliably pronounce it I would start using the lapine for “car”. I want to hug whoever decided that the gull Kehaar’s dialogue be read with a Swedish accent. I suppose it followed naturally from the speech patterns – but by Frith it was a joy.

Oh, and the reason I started this talking about how odd it was that I listened to it in the middle of The Odyssey was that, in the introduction (copyrighted 2005), Richard Adams slyly comments that Homer might have borrowed from the adventures of the trickster El-ahrairah when he wrote the tales of Odysseus. I suppose whoever wrote Gilgamesh might have borrowed too.

It was only halfway through the book, maybe further, that it struck me that these tales, which were supposed to be timeless and ancient, all featured men who smoked cigarettes and drove cars and trucks. And then, by the end of the book, it all made sense. For one thing, thirty – or twenty – or ten – years ago is ancient history to a rabbit who packs all of his own adventures into perhaps three quick years. And, for another, more important thing, the tales of El-ahrairah are not a concrete, set in stone, ossified body of tales, but an oral history which grows with the generations. That moment toward the end of the book that proves this also brought home to me with a greater clarity how utterly beautiful Richard Adams’s portrait of lapine culture is. How extraordinarily wonderful the whole picture of rabbit-kind is. The depictions of individual bravery do not contradict what looks like utter timidity as a species; the latter only makes the former greater.

This book is a marvel. Treat yourself: go read it. No! Go listen to it.

View all my reviews

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