Classic Book of the Month – Watership Down
[To hear the complete conversation with Chris Cowan, click here]
NICK EICHER, HTE: Today is Wednesday June 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to start your day.
Hello. I am Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Then our classic book of the month.
For June, book reviewer Emily Whitten suggests epic family read with lots of danger, adventure, and heroes.
EMILY WHITTEN, CORRESPONDENT: Ah, the sweet sounds of summer. Children play in the swimming pool.
SOUND: CHILDREN IN THE POOL
Camping in the heart of nature.
SOUND: CRICKING OF THE CRICKETS
And lots of family time together …
CHILD: Mom, I’m so bored!
Ok, summer has its challenges. Hope our classic book for the month today can help you. Author Richard Adams first published the novel Ship down in 1972. One reviewer called it, “A tense story of suspense, chase and derring-do.” Another, “Spell-bind.”
The filmmakers have adapted the book twice for television. First in 1978, with a song sung by Art Garfunkel.
MUSIC: “Bright Eyes” – Art Garfunkel
Then in 2018, a second version was released on Netflix. Here’s a clip from that miniseries, with James McAvoy voicing Hazel, the leader of a runaway group.
CLIP: We have to lose them before we get home. Otherwise, they will follow us down. So what do we do? We will cross the river towards the human warren. They might not follow us there. The human warren? Hazel, this place is a death trap. Kehar won’t hold them back forever. Direction the bridge!
In case you are unfamiliar with the story, these are bunny voices you just heard. They lived in the oppressive Sandleford Warren. But after one of the rabbits named Fiver sees a vision of the destroyed warren, Hazel leads Fiver and several other rabbits on a quest to find a new home.
Now if you think “rabbits, really?” ” … listen to me. These aren’t Beatrix Potter bunnies with button-down jackets and fancy teacups. Think more along the Hobbits line. Yes, they are small and rather insignificant, but in Adams’ hands they become truly heroic.
But don’t just take my word for it.
I recently sat down with Christian father and editor of Lifeway, Chris Cowan. He recommended the book a few years ago on The Rabbit Room website. When I asked him why he liked the fantasy novel, he mentioned Narnia and the Lord of the Rings. He also made a comparison that I didn’t expect.
COWAN: It reminds me, I don’t know if you know Steven Ambrose, his book Band of Brothers. Of course, one of the main characters in this true story is Richard Winters, Dick Winters. And one of the continuing testimonies about Winters from the people who served under him, whom they admired so much about him, was that he was led by the front lines. And that’s one of the things you see in Hazel.
Adams based some of the characters in the book on people he met while serving in the British Army during World War II. One of the main characters, Hazel, isn’t the fastest, smartest, or skillful, but he does earn the respect of tough bunnies like Bigwig and weaker bunnies like Pipkin and Fiver.
COWAN: You have cases where there are rabbits that they need to cross a river and there are weak rabbits that can’t. Well, Hazel isn’t going to leave them behind. He stays with them until a plan is worked out to get them through.
Cowan says two other things set the book apart. First of all, its realism. Adams incorporates the natural behaviors of rabbits: the food they eat and their relationships with each other. This, along with vivid descriptions of flora and fauna bring Ship down live.
COWAN: These are talking rabbits. But they don’t live in a faraway magical land. There are rabbits that live here. They don’t do human things. Like wearing clothes, walking on their hind legs and living in castles. They live rabbit adventures.
Second, Cowan emphasizes the supernatural element of the books. Similar to Shakespeare’s use of pagan gods, Adams invents a false god for his fantasy world. Here’s another clip from the 2018 film that describes the story behind the book’s creation:
CLIP: In the beginning, the great Frith made the world. And he made the stars by scattering his droppings in the sky. Now, al-ahrairah was the prince of the rabbits, and he had so many wives and so many children that even Frith could not count them.
When the going gets tough, Frith offers both a curse and a blessing.
CLIP: The whole world will be your enemy, Thousand-Prince, and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they have to catch you, Digger, Auditor, Runner, Prince-with-the-Morning-Quick. Be cunning and cunning, and your people will never be destroyed.
Some Christian families may not appreciate the supernatural elements in the book. Cowan, for his part, sees them as instructive for Christian readers.
COWAN: This is the story of their creation. He guides the rabbits in their behavior and helps them to form a people. And I like it because you see the analogy with us as Christians, don’t you? We have this great true story, the story of the creation, the fall, the redemption, and the new creation. And this is to shape us and shape us as a people.
One contrast deserves to be emphasized: while Frith reveals himself through dreams and visions, we have the words of Jesus written for us in the scriptures. Having said that, we do see something true in God’s love for the church as Frith guides and preserves these rabbits.
A reminder: this is not a children’s book, per se. The book contains violence, bad guys doing bad things, and the occasional swear word. For most tweens and teens, the positives will outweigh the negatives.
Cowan says he read it twice to his children, the second time at their request. Towards the end of our conversation, he reads a quote from Catholic writer Ross Douthat.
COWAN: One of the virtues of reading a story aloud to kids, if not anyone, vocalizing a story clarifies its power, especially in the quavering passion you try to keep from your voice. And with 100 pages to go, I can already say that when I get to the climax of Watership Down, I’ll be a wreck.
That’s how I feel … parts of it, my throat is tight, and I can feel my voice start to shake as I read to my, to my kids … it’s pretty powerful.
We hope this year a reading aloud or audiobook from our classic June book could be one of your sweetest summer sounds.
CLIP: Watership Down is a real place, like all places in the book.
I am Emily Whitten.
CLIP: It is found in Northhampshire
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