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Richard Adams, "Watership Down"

Watership Down belongs to a very small class of books which are extended allegory, vivid fantasy,  and pithy social commentary, combined with a driving plot and excellent characterization, dialogue, and writing chops.  Many books have two or three of those qualities, but Watership Down is one of the few books to have all four. A pity, then, that it suffers from a very bizarre attack of misogyny in the second half.

A "down," we learn, is an English term for a grassy hill.  In fact, there is a literal Watership Down, which Adams drew upon when writing the stories that would eventually become the novel.  But as a younger reader, and even now as an adult, the title has the unsettling sound of a nautical SOS, not the glorious ring of the promised land, which is what the story's Watership Down (in theory) represents.

This is an excellent book for young readers, in that every victory is in fact a kind of defeat, and it paints a world where nothing is safe - even the bits that look safest turn out to be a trap.  Maybe not such a great book for young readers who are easily distressed by the thought of fluffy rabbits fighting to the death, gruesome depictions of death by snare, and lethal communicable diseases.  

Watership Down begins in the Sandleford warren, where Fiver, the small yet intelligent and also psychic protagonist, has a vision of disaster.  Only a few rabbits believe Fiver's vision, and strike out to find a better life.  

During their voyage across the countryside, the hearty band of rabbits encounters a series of other warrens, each of which, being self contained, poses handily as a mirror of certain human social constructs.  There is for example the Cowslip warren, where life is good, but the rabbits all have a certain gleam of madness in the corner of their eyes, a terrible truth that no one discusses.  This warren turns out to be something more like a farm, with snares set up to cull rabbits for the farmer's stew pot.

In the middle of the book, the rabbits arrive at the titular Watership Down, which is where any ordinary book would end.  Adams is not one to take the easy road, however.  This is also where the book gets weird, and weirdly offensive.  Having arrived at their promised land, the band of rabbits looks around and discovers that they are all boys.  How will Watership Down continue, without the ability to breed?  The rabbits require breeding machines, i.e. females.

This must surely stand as one of the oddest plot twists, as well as one of the most insulting to womankind.  Few authors have the gall to reduce half of the population of the planet to a simple MacGuffin.  It's all the more strange for not having arisen organically through the demands of the plot.  It would have been simplicity itself to make one of the male characters (many of whom have strangely feminine names, like Hazel and Bluebell) female.

The rabbits find themselves having to raid nearby warrens for females, which Adams dispenses to his characters as prize tokens.  The difference in characterization is particularly jarring after having spent so much of the novel creating rich relationships between the male rabbits, only to throw in the females as a sort of cardboard cut-out afterthought.