Reading Watership Down


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Watership Down is our new bedtime reading book. Moomin and I started it last night. I gave him two warnings: it’s intense, and it sometimes has long boring descriptions of scenery. My pitch for the book was basically the book cover and “A book about rabbit society from the point of view of rabbits, with stories within stories about their mythology.” Moomin was sold!

Watership Down book cover

We read about 7 or 8 chapters, with Moomin taking over to read aloud to me in the middle so my voice could have a break. He got very excited at various points and stopped the story to explain back to me what was happening. He really loved the first footnote on page 3 where it becomes clear that the author is writing as if translating from rabbit language! And then he got very interested in what was happening narratively, as the author describes the scenery, describes the rabbits, and then almost cinematically pulls in to a tight focus on the rabbits and then they start talking to each other. He stopped me there to talk about how that was clever and as the reader, you don’t know at first that the book is going to be from the rabbits’ point of view. My budding narrative theorist! (I think he gets this ability for analysis from reading and re-reading Scott Mccloud’s “Understanding Comics” and its sequels.)

The first chapter also has a great scene that engaged him immediately. Hazel and Fiver are about to eat a cowslip and the bullying Owsla member, Toadflax, takes it from them. Their reaction to this routine injustice made him identify strongly with the characters. He wanted to know what they were going to do! Then Hazel and Fiver went to warn the Chief Rabbit that something bad was going to happen to the warren. He got very excited here too, outraged at the indifferent authority of the Chief Rabbit not taking the young rabbits seriously – condescending to them.

A bunch of rabbits led by Hazel then leave the warren and, exhausted in the middle of a scary forest, tell a story from rabbit mythology. We both had trouble pronouncing “El-ahrairah”. It keeps coming out more like El Herrera. Oh well! Moomin loved the El-ahrairah myth where the sun god Frith blesses the rabbit’s butt. He also nearly exploded at the speech the sun god gives at the end where he poetically exhorts El-ahrairah as “Prince with a Thousand Enemies”.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.

If you read this book aloud you will definitely notice the sentence length can be a challenge for kids. I admire a very long sentence that goes on for a page and a half and while he rolled his eyes at this and at my commentary! “Just say it!” But I think he secretly admires the audaciousness and poetry of Adams’ long sentences. It’s good for kids to be exposed to complicated grammatic structures — early!

Meanwhile, he is reading a phonebook-sized book called American Indian Myths and Legends that I’ve had lying around. We read a few of them together over the last few weeks and then I noticed he had started to plough on through the whole thing beginning to end.

This book strikes me as being pretty decent especially as it has explanations after each story that make it clear that First Nations people exist now and are not “from the past” as so many books frame the history of the Americas. Sadly I realized this year that in Moomin’s school education though they spent an entire year talking about California history and the Ohlone and Miwok people, he had no clue that there were active Ohlone or Miwok people today – and there are. The school projects all seem to be about The Far Distant Past.

I also like the book for having multiple tellings of the same or very similar stories.

Moomin explained to me with great outrage that some of the stories were “inappropriate!!!” The book’s organization by subject meant that he was able to skip the chapter called “Stories of Love and Lust”. Bad enough that he had to suffer through the musical at school called “Nightmare on Puberty Street”. Right now he would rather give that stuff a miss.

Next up I might read him some of the less racy selections from Technicians of the Sacred, but I should really look for something more modern and more in line with my politics. I’d also kind of like to read him some things from the Popul Vuh though they’re more morbid than he likes, I know he would enjoy the stories of Hunahpu and Xblanque going to the underworld. But first we have to get through all zillion pages of Watership Down.

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26 Responses to Reading Watership Down

  1. Grace says:

    I think I may have already made this comment, but in case I didn't: I LOVE your posts about what you're reading with your kid. They make me want to be a mom more than just about anything else I've ever read. I really hope I'll be able to have the same experience with my kid someday.

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  2. Els says:

    Oh, Watership Down! I love that book so much! It has everything, doesn't it. Or almost everything. All that mythology!

    • lizhenry says:

      It doesn't pass the Bechdel test! But it at least had some named female characters who (offstage and before the story) have a rebellion in Efrafa! Hyzenthlay almost sort of has a personality.

      • Els says:

        Yeah, that's what I was thinking w/that "almost:" everything but girls. But I loved it at about Moomin's age, and normally I *only* loved books w/girls (I was the exception to that purported "girls will read books about boys but boys won't read books about girls" rule. And not the only one either, I'm sure). Maybe because they were rabbits & not humans. Or maybe because it was just that good.

  3. lizhenry says:

    Grace, that's so nice! Keep in mind I left out the bits where someone might have kicked me in the knees in bed for the 40 millionth time and I snarled like a Disney villain.

    Tonight we got to the chapter with a hrududu and it was AWESOME. Also the bit where the rabbits float across the stream on a piece of wood and most of them don't understand what happened. We agreed that we're glad we're not rabbits.

    I know what you mean about looking forward to reading with kids. I also looked forward to it for years and built up a collection of the books I thought I might want to read with my hypothetical future child. The actual child turned out to like a slightly different subset of books. Who will inherit my Elsie Dinsmore books?????

  4. adriana says:

    Wonderful post! I had a baby this summer and, like you, started collecting books for my future child years ago. I can't help but "think ahead" when finding books for Lev.

  5. Lisa says:

    Still trying to get my 14yo son to read this. Maybe I'll do an end-around and read aloud to the 10yo. That usually hooks in the older one, too. But I don't think my daughter will love the story. It has the "no girls" problem AND I don't think the whole band of brothers thing is something she will have patience with.

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