Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Watership Down

I often have some preconceived ideas about books before I read them, especially since I almost exclusively read classics or suggestions from friends.  But I think that I have never been more wrong than I was with Watership Down by Richard Adams.  Before I read the book, I had only heard people's reactions to it and not a summary of it.  One of my friends told me that she was completely entranced and swept up in the story.  Another friend told me that it had tremendous symbolic implications, including deep religious insight.  Another friend indicated that it was an exciting adventure story with a plot that moved along quickly.  And the title itself - Watership Down - sounded ominous and full of heavy implications to me.  So what is it?  Well, it is the journey of a group of rabbits, written from their perspective.  That was not what I expected.  But were my friends wrong?  No, I think they were right on target.

In a way, I am reminded of Lord of the Flies when I think of this book because it is another story that appears to contain children's content but is not written for children.  This is not the Velveteen Rabbit or the Peter Rabbit stories.  Each of the rabbits in this story have depth in their character, and they represent a variety of viewpoints.  After a dangerous encounter, Adams sums it up well: "There was no more questioning of Bigwig's strength, Fiver's insight, Blackberry's wits, or Hazel's authority."  Again, each of these traits is very important to the characters and plays a critical role in the story.  I think it's especially meaningful that the characteristics are divided up among several rabbits and not devoted to one all-powerful leader.  Yet although the characters are enjoyable, I don't think that adequately explains why adults like the story so much.  We can feel strongly about characters without praising the story quite so highly.  So why do we love Watership Down?  Why do we get hooked into their story?

A significant aspect of the novel's depth exists because Adams was very thorough when he created the world of these rabbits.  He established a history for the warren, a language unique to the rabbits, and a number of mythological stories shared in the rabbit culture.  The hero of these stories, El-ahrairah, is an interesting piece of the story and should not be overlooked.  The rabbits have a deep connection to these stories, and they listen with their whole hearts.  The legendary stories provide them with courage, humility, and loyalty when they need it most.  I think that's the underlying message of Watership Down in general: a story can move us.  We are inspired by rabbits, the most meek and quiet creatures, and we can get attached to their story.  Even fictional stories hold great power, for they can often be the best way for listeners to really hear wisdom and truth.

Moreover, the implications of this story go far beyond the novel itself.  Thus, I was surprised to read Adams write in his introduction: "I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable.  It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car."  Yet whether he meant to do it or not, the story contains powerful symbolism that has fascinating connections to various philosophies, theologies, and components of pop culture.  Renowned theologian Stanley Hauerwas has extensively studied Watership Down for its reflection on the Christian life.  Often comparing it to Animal Farm, many read it as a political allegory that exemplifies the problems of leadership made of pride, over-indulgence, and totalitarianism.  The brilliant TV show Lost references the book multiple times, and there are some fascinating comparisons and clear influences from it.  When I read about District 13 in Mockingjay, it immediately reminded me of Efrafa, the underground community whose inhabitants are given strict schedules and heavy limitations for their own "protection."  I could go on with many more examples, but I don't want to overdo it.  I am simply amazed by how many people are drawn to this story and connect with it on so many different levels, especially since Adams never intended for it to be more than a good rabbit story.  I believe that it has deeply embedded itself in popular culture, but I don't think we are fully aware of it.

I think that Watership Down exemplifies the power of great literature.  Somehow the work itself has far exceeded the author's ambitions for it and impacted people on a grand scale.  This story seems so unlikely to hold such great influence, but I believe in the power of narrative.  Even though the plot is about a group of rabbits who face trials and start their own warren, we connect with it.  We may not have to fight off cats and foxes, but we have our own challenges.  And we must reflect on our own race when we witness the terror that man can bring.  Watership Down is one of the most unlikely classics, and yet I think that is precisely why it makes for an extraordinary piece of Classic Literature.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy

I know this is supposed to be a Classic Literature blog, but I have to write about the Hunger Games trilogy for a moment.  I just read them... No, let me rephrase: I just devoured them.  In general, I like to savor things.  If I love something, I want to make it last as long as possible.  I don't want to read all of the books from my favorite authors at once because I like to save some for later.  I don't want to watch a TV series straight through when I could instead drag it out.  I eat my dessert slower than all of my friends and drive them crazy.  But with the Hunger Games, I swallowed them whole in just a few days.

I think there are a number of reasons I had this reaction.  First of all, it is an engaging story, and I don't think anyone can deny that.  It's action-packed, and it's easy to fly through the pages to find out what will happen.  I genuinely did get caught up in the story and could feel myself rooting for Katniss.  However, I think I read them so quickly because I so rarely read YA literature.  In fact, I can't even remember the last time I read something this light and easy.  Not even my "fluff" literature can be read this quickly.  Half of the temptation for me was the knowledge that I could finish the whole thing in a day if I wanted to.  I never read books in a single day anymore!

Regarding its literary merit, I'm not quite as enthused.  Although I was greatly wrapped up in the story, I did notice some cracks and places that could have used some added depth.  For example, there were a few plot lines that felt shallow, and the Panem history could have certainly benefited from more detail.  However, I don't hold these things against Suzanne Collins because I don't think that's the purpose of the books.  The purpose is to engage young adults and get them excited about reading, and I think she successfully accomplished it.  If it doesn't rank well in literary scholarship, that's not a problem.  She created some characters we can truly root for and attach ourselves to.  Moreover, I think she created great role models for young adults, and I was thoroughly impressed with the way she presented the "love triangle" as merely a small part of the story and not at all the focus of it.  I think it's good for young readers to see that Katniss was way more focused on surviving and protecting those she loved than getting wrapped up in young romance.  But, of course, a young romance is practically necessary for YA literature, and I forgive the trilogy for its shallow moments.

I also like dystopian literature in general.  I wrote a short series I called "Apocalyptic Literature" you can find in my "Serial Posts" tab, and I focused pieces that contain a bit more depth.  But in the Hunger Games, I enjoyed that dimension of the story, and I am impressed with Collins' creativity in crafting it.  I don't think I could ever come up with some of the scenarios she invented.  Again, I want to only judge the trilogy for what it is, and I think it fully succeeded in its genre.  Will I add it to my list of Classics?  Well, no.  But did I enjoy reading it?  Absolutely.

Finally, I'm grateful to this fun YA trilogy because it reminded me how much I love to read.  I have to admit that I've been bogged down lately and unable to get excited about reading.  A lot of things have changed in my life in the last several months, and somehow I lost some of my reading energy.  But as I pictured this story in my head and eagerly followed Katniss' journey, I remembered that books are such a wonderful source of entertainment.  The feeling you get when you read a good book cannot be replaced by any other activity.  My mind just lights up in its imagination, and my fingers tear through the pages to eat up whatever is coming.  And when it's done with depth and sincerity in those really phenomenal Classic Literature novels, it makes me feel stronger and wiser at the end.  Yeah, I love that, and I'm ready to dive back in.