Whenever I walk the streets of Chicago, I marvel at what I see and I wonder if what I am experiencing is anything close to what my father experienced as a child growing up there. When I struggle to learn certain concepts in a university class, I gaze at my professor and wonder if he has ever wrestled with those same issues. Anytime I tread ground that has been trod by others, I have to stop and wonder if what I am experiencing is anything close to to what they saw, heard, and felt as they came before me. The first time I read Watership down was no different.
Having just graduated from high school and still seeking the independence that comes with such liberation, I wanted to read new books and explore new ideas. I wanted to move outside the realm in which I had just spent the last four years. Watership Down was a recommendation from my favorite high school teacher. Because of my deep admiration for him, I liked the book out of principle—long before I ever opened its pages. Taking a recommendation from Mr. Ward would have been enough to make me read that book, but everything about the title seemed to suggest adventure to me, and that made me want to read it all the more.
As I began reading, I not only found the adventure promised by the title, but also elements of suspense and fear. I found myself falling in love with the characters and wondering if Mr. Ward had felt the same way about them. What had he thought about the words in that book when his mind first pondered them? Did he find the same fascination I had when he read all the asides about the rabbits' culture and their preferences? It caused my imagination to run wild thinking about all of the events in my life and whether or not my experiences coincide with the experiences of everyone around me.
There was no way of knowing what every single person has thought or felt as they have experienced the same things I have, but I could relate to the characters in the book, and the book gave me insight into their thoughts. With all of my previous questions left unanswered, I was left to ask new ones as I analyzed a story about rabbits rather than the story of a sunken ship that I had originally supposed this book to be. What potential thoughts could theses fictional rabbits have had when they were going through what they went through? Better yet, what could Richard Adams have thought when he created those rabbits? When he crafted his own mythology for them? When he made up a language for them! That book inspired so many questions, and though I didn't always find the answers to those questions, the more I read, the more I was intrigued.
The thing that intrigued me the most was Adams's ability to develop the thought processes of his characters. Most of the time it seems that my perspective in such contrast to those around me. As I read though, I find that I am not as unique as I often think I am. Adams's characters display reason, they show emotion, and they struggle to overcome challenges with pride as can be seen in their countless decisions to ignore the clairvoyant comrade Fiver who never fails to predict the future with accuracy. His predictions of danger are ignored by the group, the way we often ignore the sure signs in life that serve as guideposts to keep us away from danger. Not only is their pride made manifest in the willful rebellion against Fiver, but also in their desire to prove themselves. This is wonderfully illustrated in the main character Hazel who at one point gets shot in an attempt to pull off an unnecessary stunt.
The prideful behaviors of the rabbits parallel many of my own prideful behaviors, and I would be willing to bet that there are even some reflections of Adams's behaviors in his writing as well. My seventh grade English teacher relentlessly used the phrase “you write best what you know best.” I have found this to be true as I have listened to Stephen King say how much he loves scary stories, and it follows that Adams's novel is a reflection of who he is. Maybe his writing goes no further than a reflection of his enthusiasm for wildlife and mythology that he is able to weave into the same place, but I think it's more probable that his story is a commentary for things he experienced, or things he saw other people experience. In either case, there were many things that I was able to pull from these characters and apply to my own life.
Adams's character development is essential to his story, but there is so much more depth to it than simply the characters. It's the way he brings them to life. His use of frame stories and language transform his characters and give them so much complexity. He accomplishes this mainly through his invention of the rabbits' history. Frequently Adams will include a legendary story told by one of the central characters. The technique not only gives the reader a refreshing change of scene to keep his attention, but it gives legitimacy to the rabbits' background and makes the possibility of their existence more believable. In addition to the background, there is a whole spoken language that Adams creates for his rabbits that defines not only the way they think, but also the hierarchy and functions of their culture. Each element that Adams uses to establish the rabbits' complexity makes them that much more real, and in turn, that much more relateable.
Adams's characters and use of language in his story are beautiful, but the thing I loved best about his book was a characteristic not physically present in the words on the page. As with all good literature, it excited my imagination and transported me away from reality. Watership Down became one brick in a large edifice that is my love of literature. Any my mind in captivated by the beautiful structure of words as it was with this book, I am transported back to a time in my youth when teachers encouraged imagination and idealistic dreaming. I am transported back to a time when the “important” things like working to afford rent were only specks on the horizon, and the simplicity of a child's imagination could provide him with more than all the temporal treasures in the world. The value of Watership Down is far more that its intrinsic value as literature. Its value lies in it's ability to do what all good books do; it motivates the reader to think higher thoughts, to dream dreams, and to imagine a world whose importance transcends the everyday “importance” of life.