We lost Richard Adams in the last week of 2016, so it seemed appropriate to talk about how one of his books, Watership Down, was a touchstone throughout my childhood.
The opening scene is one of those “classic English countryside” images, something timeless. “The primroses were over.” I don’t know why that first line has scoured itself into my brain. Perhaps I’ve just read the book so many times that it has become a part of me.
I must have been around seven the first time I read it. This was a book with more pages and smaller type than any other book I had read before (save the unfortunate time I got my hands on a book of Roald Dahl’s stories without realising they weren’t for children. I had to hide that book in the closet to stop it looking at me). This novel was a proper grown-up novel. It had parts as well as chapters. It didn’t make the words bigger for young readers, it didn’t choose smaller words, it expected you to try to pronounce the difficult new words like hrair.
Some children’s authors are patronising when they write. And readers can tell. Roald Dahl was one of those authors who spoke to children like equals, but Richard Adams took that to another level. It was thrilling to me, as a child, to read something that treated me like an adult. It had violence, it had danger, it had weird poetry. I absolutely adored it.
Now, I can read through Watership Down in just a few days (or just the one if I’m really hooked). When I was a child, it took me forever. I would typically read one chapter at a time, before bed, and those chapters might only be about six pages long. When you’re small, that can take you a while, so I was satisfied at the time, but the whole thing would take a month to get through. By the end, I had more or less lost track of what had happened at the beginning, so I’d start it all over again. (An adult analogy: that one video game series that you start over again as soon as you get to the end.) I was reading other things too, of course, but Watership Down was the one I kept coming back to over and over again. I memorised the Lapine language, and I still remember much of it today. Deconstructing Lapine words – silflay, to eat outside, and flay-rah, really good food; so flay is food and silf is outside – formed a basis for my enjoyment of language as a whole and etymology specifically.
The violence never bothered me, or at least, not more than it was supposed to. I read the violent scenes with baited breath. I formed an intense attachment to Bigwig, or Thlayli, who was big and strong and gruff, yet deeply intelligent; he took no fools gladly yet respected anyone who earnt it. (I suspect there is in Bigwig a precursor to my affection for The Hound in A Song of Ice and Fire.) The greater the danger, the better the pay-off. The image of Bigwig at the very end of the novel, covered in dirt and blood like something from the Black Rabbit’s Owsla, thrilled me in a way few adult novels have ever managed. Nothing was sugar-coated.
Watership Down instilled in me an initial understanding of the dangers and drama inherent in nature, in which all depends on the finding of food and avoidance of enemies. It taught me the importance of sentries and patrols, the unpleasantness of an oppressive social system and the value of fighting against it, the importance of planning ahead, the risks and benefits of kindness, and that there are many different strengths a person may have. It took different types of people to make a warren, and no one was left behind for being small or afraid. Everyone had a talent that was valued.
Watership Down is a real place. It is not marked by any form of sign; that would be rather gauche, given what inspires such terror in Fiver at the beginning of the novel. But you can visit it, along with Nuthanger Farm just down the road. One day, I intend to. I’ll sit at the top, under the trees, and read.
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