Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sometimes the best stories are those written for children

I've heard that one of my favorite stories, The Hobbitt, was originally written by J. R. R. Tolkien for his children - it wasn't even meant for publication. If not for the prodding of his friend, C. S. Lewis, it might never have been published. And in the introduction to Watership Down, Richard Adams explains that it was borne out of a request by his daughters for a story on a long car ride - not just any story, but a story made up just for them. And luckily for us, they encouraged their father to finish the story and have it published.

Watership Down [Audiobook, Unabridged] [Audio CD]Watership Down (which is a very dramatic-sounding title) starts when Fiver has a foreboding of danger for the warren. His prophecies, however, are rejected by the chief rabbit, and he and his friend Hazel convince a few others to leave the warren in search of a place to start a new one. But there are a great many dangers out in the world: foxes and wolves, weasels and stoats, and not least of all man and his machines. That's right, this is a story about rabbits. No, they're not rabbits who wear little mittens and coats with buttons - they're real rabbits who forage in the grass and occasionally raid gardens. But they also have their own language and legends and mythology, and we're treated to plenty of that in this captivating story as we follow Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Silver, Dandelion, Pipkin and the others on their odyssey.

This book is often called an allegory, although Mr. Adams has insisted it was never meant as such and was simply "a story I told to my little girls." But there certainly seem to be elements of symbolism. The legends of El-ahrairah, a type of Brer Rabbit, are told by the rabbits with almost religious reverence. The Black Rabbit of Inlé, another figure from their legends, might be compared to the Devil (although not especially evil), and General Woundwort made me think of Joseph Stalin, ruling with an iron fist - errr, paw, I mean. And Fiver certainly seems to have a gift of prophecy, but the comparisons are only conjecture on my part and the legends add color and texture to a wonderful story.

I'll admit I was hesitant to read this - a "classic" about bunnies? And it's not even very old, having been published originally in 1972. But I think it's certainly deserving of the attention it's received ever since and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There's some violence and it can be occasionally frightening or sad, but I loved it and found myself genuinely concerned for Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig and their group. I listened to the audio book (and my kids would cast questioning looks my way: "A story about rabbits, Dad? Really?!?") read by Ralph Cosham who does an excellent job. In fact, I plan to follow Mr. Adams example and listen to the audio book with the kids the next time we have a long drive. They're going to love it!

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