#42. Watership Down by Richard Adams
Watership Down is a classic heroic fantasy novel, written by English author Richard Adams, published by Rex Collings Ltd of London in 1972. Set in south-central England, the story features a small group of rabbits. Although they live in their natural environment, they are anthropomorphised, possessing their own culture, language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry, and mythology. Evoking epic themes, the novel is the Aeneid of the rabbits as they escape the destruction of their warren and seek a place to establish a new home, encountering perils and temptations along the way.
Watership Down was Richard Adams’ first novel and it is by far his most successful to date. Although it was rejected by 13 publishers before Collings accepted it, Watership Down has never been out of print, and it is Penguin Books’ best-selling novel of all time. It won the annual Carnegie Medal, annual Guardian Prize, and other book awards. It has been adapted as a 1978 animated film that is now a classic and as a 1999 to 2001 television series.
The title refers to the rabbits’ destination, Watership Down, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England, near the area where Adams grew up. The story began as tales that Richard Adams told his young daughters Juliet and Rosamund during long car journeys. As he explained in 2007, he “began telling the story of the rabbits … improvised off the top of my head, as we were driving along.” He based the struggles of the animals on the struggles he and his friends encountered during the Battle of Oosterbeek, Arnhem, the Netherlands in 1944. The daughters insisted he write it down—”they were very, very persistent”. After some delay he began writing in the evenings and completed it 18 months later. The book is dedicated to the two girls.
Adams’s descriptions of wild rabbit behavior were based on The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964), by British naturalist Ronald Lockley. The two later became friends; they went on an Antarctic tour that resulted in a joint writing venture and a co-authored book, Voyage Through the Antarctic (A. Lane, 1982). I found it interesting that the book was rejected 13 times by the publisher before they accepted it. Rex Collings, the one-man London publisher, wrote to an associate,” I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” The associate did call it “a mad risk” in her obituary of Collings; “a book as bizarre by an unknown writer which had been turned down by the major London publishers; but it was also dazzlingly brave and intuitive.” The second edition was published in 1973, and was the edition that I read.
Adams won the 1972 Carnegie Medal in Literature from the Library Association, recognizing the year’s best children’s book by a British subject. He also won the annual Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a similar award that authors may not win twice. In 1977 California schoolchildren selected it for the inaugural California Young Reader Medal in the Young Adult category, which annually honors one book from the last four years. In The Big Read, a 2003 survey of the British public, it was voted the forty-second greatest book of all time. While it was listed in “Young Adult”, I found the storyline, and the unintentional thoughts under the surface both provoking and blatant. Such recounts as the memories of Efrafra, where the inhabitants traded their freedom for extra security and safety were definitely applicable to our modern times. I am pleased to see this book on the BBC list.
Adams completed a sequel almost 25 years later, Tales from Watership Down (Random House, 1996; Hutchinson and Alfred A. Knopf imprints). It is a collection of 19 short stories about El-ahrairah and the rabbits of the Watership Down warren, with “Notes on Pronunciation” and “Lapine Glossary”. The second edition of also had a small Lapine Glossary.