Tales from Watership Down

Sally Eckhoff reviews "Tales from Watership Down" by Richard Adams.

Topics: Books,

To those with an aversion to fairy stories, fake mythological lingo, and anything that anthropomorphizes animals, here’s a book to make you swallow your doubts. “Tales from Watership Down” is a marvel. It consists of 19 stories, ostensibly about rabbits but actually concerning aspects of life — some mystical, some practical — that are traditionally hard to pin down. Hard, that is, Adams seems to argue, unless you’re as sensitive as only a rabbit can be.

Adams is best known for two earlier books, “Watership Down” and “The Plague Dogs,” and for the films made from them. (He is also the author of “Traveler,” a moving and perceptive biography of Robert E. Lee’s legendary war horse.) None of these quite convey the striking and often scary atmosphere he brings to this new collection, a full 20 years after we last heard from him.

Aside from the rabbits’ vocabulary, which can be distracting, there’s nothing prissy or inconsequential here. Adams clearly understands a great deal about rabbits, surely among God’s poor because, as the old saw goes, He made so many of them. Rabbits are not only prey to what Adams calls “the thousand enemies,” but to the cruel whims of the seasons. But few people can conjure up weather like Adams can, and hardly anybody has ever made an overgrown field in England sound so gorgeous and full of promise.

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Rabbits’ lives don’t really have a point to them, not in any way people understand. Adams concerns himself instead with aspects of destiny that have to do with mysticism and nature — stuff we think we understand but really don’t. The pure, unfamiliar feelings evoked in “The Story of the Three Cows” and in the gory “The Hole in the Sky” — just two of the stories here — persist for quite a while after you’ve finished reading them. How often do you get to step inside a wounded rabbit’s delirium, or taste “the blessing of the years,” a small animal’s dreams of youth? And a laugh-out-loud nonsense yarn by a rabbit named Speedwell, with its crocus boats and sky-blue horses, may be the best carrot of all.

Sally Eckhoff lives in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to Salon.

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