Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In a Hole in the Ground there Lived...

Over the weekend two great completions happened to my free time. Firstly, and most recently, my model of Bombur, appropriately hefty and now more green stuff than original figure, is at last ready for undercoating. I've a good feeling about this one, and that's all I have to say about that.

The other significant completion is that on Saturday morning in bed I completed reading Watership Down. Regular readers will know that my memories of the film adaptation are reliably traumatic, and even a recent playing of a video for Bright Eyes was... troubling. The original novel was something I’d never considered reading until it was recommended to me years ago by my brother, who singled out the mythological aspects of the story, the bits that I’d not remembered from the movie. This reading was inspired by my recent posting on the film, and was, I hesitate to add, anticipated as a mild form of therapy. It was read in small bites - the last twenty minutes of the day, occasional bus rides into work, and that's all. After a spell in bed last week the book kicked in properly however, and I was through it quickly. And what did I think?

Well, I truly loved it.

Watership Down is now one of the most enjoyable and satisfying novels I've read, although it pains me slightly that I've read this possibly a little late in life, knowing the effect it had on me now has to be different from the effect it would have had on my younger self. Nevertheless I found the novel well-wrought, moving, evocative of a passed time and, thanks actually to dim memories from the movie, in places as tense as hell. Not recalling which of the rabbits lived or died (and the movie departs from the novel in places, as it turns out) in this aspect meant that more was at stake, and reading it with an adult sensibility and a certain degree of leisure allowed me to think about the story and the rabbits’ world more. I’m not surprised the book has survived as it seems to have – the story of its discovery and publication seems similar to that of J K Rowling’s first acceptance of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and yes, there’s an element of Tolkien in here as you’d expect – a story created to entertain the author’s children grows in the telling, and like The Hobbit it has quite the cast, each with their roles significant or small – quietly I think Adams succeeds here where Tolkien didn’t with his Hobbit cast. I had clear favourites among them – even the villains; some I championed, some I fretted over and still see where the story could have been expanded without diluting the core of it all, Hazel’s personal quest. I guess Richard Adams may have thought the same when he briefly returned to Watership’s world in a late follow-up of smaller tales and myths, without falling to the temptation to sequel-ise.

It’s a very clever book – literary in its epigrams for each chapter (opening with Cassandra’s doomed prophecy from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon gave it a big and chilling tick from me), and of course its pedigree is secure: it’s The Aeneid, but told in such a loose way it is more robust, evidently allowing numerous interpretations from different audiences. I appreciated the refreshing, almost Semitic creation story and tales of Elahrairah, the lapine trickster god, and the myth cycle’s matter-of-fact duality, a world dominated by the polar forces of Frith the sun and Inle, its lack. There’s no good or evil in the rabbit world, nor justice, and wickedness and selfishness are accepted and evaded as any number of the hrair, the thousand enemies of rabbitkind. Finally, there’s to me a sense of the elegy in dam’s telling, the story opening as it does with the threat of the countryside’s subdivision and (as later horrifically described) carving up by men and machines. The idyllic English countryside seems to have been more easily imagined in the Seventies, in the decade before urban sprawl condemned this world, exhaustively and sensorally detailed with the lives of plant and beast, to islands. Animals killed to suit the lives of men, as one character relates it.

So, with some relief and gratitude I’ve enjoyed returning to Watership Down, and may return again soon. A lot of the joy of reading this was in appreciating the book close to 'fresh', despite my reservations, and the experience offered as many moments of relief and catharsis as it did moments of real despair. It's a book I will certainly buy and, yes, hope to introduce to Jet Junior once he's old enough.

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