Watership Down by Richard Adams

I loved this novel when I read it as a teenager in the late 1970’s and I hope I have passed on my affection for this story to my family.  First published in 1972, Watership Down, by British author Richard Adams, is a book about rabbits… 476 pages of rabbits to be exact.  According to Mr. Adams, the manuscript was rejected a total of seven times, all on the same grounds that older children would think the rabbits babyish and younger children would find its adult style unlikeable.

I am so glad that Richard Adams did not change a word!  His judgment was vindicated when the novel won the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1972 and the Guardian Award for Children’s Literature in 1973.  Over forty years later, Watership Down is a beloved classic for young and old.

My local library’s edition of Watership Down published by Scribner in 2005 boasts a fascinating introduction by the author.  He recounts that he created the story for his young daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, entirely out of his imagination on a long-distance car journey.  His daughters insisted that he finish it and then later write it for publication.  “Naturally, I am glad that the book has been enjoyed by so large a public, and that it plainly has a wide appeal (although the reason for this was never clear to me).” p. xvi.

A motley and untried band of eleven young rabbits flee an established warren after hearing the doomsday prophecy of Fiver, who is the young brother of the novel’s main character, Hazel.  Rabbits are not meant to leave their routines and community.  These intrepid yearlings move through harrowing circumstances in their search for a safe haven in which to set up a new homestead. The plot is varied and exciting with great rising and fall action and many surprises – And that is all I am going to tell you about the plot, because you have to READ it!

Richard Adams uses the anthropomorphic style of Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book) to develop rabbit characters that think and talk, but can not do anything physically that real rabbits can not do.  Each rabbit has a finely drawn, individual personality.  “I took characteristics and features from real people I had met over the years.  To Hazel, I gave the qualities of an officer under whom I had served (in WW II).  He had the natural power of leadership.  He was not only brave but modest and retiring, yet with excellent judgment.” (p.xii Introduction, Watership Down, Scribner, 2005)  Bigwig, the staunch fighter of the group, is based on a Norwegian resistance fighter, Mr. Adams knew in the war.   Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, Blackberry, Dandelion, Hawkbit, Pipkin, Buckthorn, Speedwell, Acorn, Silver: all are needed and yet each are unique.

This novel delves deeply into themes of leadership, belonging, bonding, and the importance of  the uniqueness and gifts in the individuals of a group.  To me, this is an echo of a biblical truth that shows up in the gospels: Jesus chooses twelve extremely diverse men as disciples,  and in Paul’s writing that admonishes Christians to accept and value one another: “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”  Romans 12: 3-5 (italics added).  I suppose this is my favorite theme of the book.

Richard Adams, goodreads.com author page

Richard Adams, goodreads.com author page

Mr. Adams, born in 1920, is still going strong.  His grandson assisted him several months ago to answer online fan questions.  Mr. Adams expressed fascinating insights about his novel and gratitude for the many enthusiastic compliments from readers. “I’m still making up stories, reading and writing. I read anything I can find, spending at least 3 hours a day reading. I find this very stimulating for the imagination.” http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1n3quw/i_am_richard_adams_author_of_watership_down/

All editions in print have a lapine glossary (a list of rabbit language) developed by the author and a map of the North Hampshire region of England in which the novel is set.  As Mr. Adams commented in his recent online interview: “Lapine just occurred really. The point was that as the story was told, certain things that hadn’t got a word for them came up, so a word had to be invented to cover them, to mean what they meant. Owsla is a good example.”
In 2008, Italian painter Aldo Galli created over forty paintings in 2008 inspired by the novel and the artist’s hikes over the downs.  Mr. Adams chose Galli to illustrate Watership Down as the first-ever illustrated edition of the classic novel which was published in October 2012 by Scribner Classics Series to mark its fortieth anniversary.

Illustration by Aldo Galli

Mr. Adams, a lifelong student of natural history, describes in detail the flora and fauna of the downs of England with which he was so familiar.  It would a great pleasure to me to see a future edition published with an illustrated glossary of trees, birds, and wildflowers.

It is wonderful that Richard Adams is still with us.  My goal this year is to read his autobiography, The Day Gone By, write him a fan letter and read Shardik, a much darker story.

If you missed Watership Down, put it on your list of top ten novels to read in 2014 and then write me after you’ve read it to tell me what you think.

Categories: British novels, Children's Books, Classics, Fantasy, Inspiration, Read Aloud, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Watership Down by Richard Adams

  1. M E Cheshier

    I loved this book. Thank you for the great review! It prompts me to read this great book again!

    • Some books are truly worth re-reading! This is surely one of them! Thanks for re-blogging my post. Very kind!

      • M E Cheshier

        You are most welcome! Yes, Watership Down is a definite re-read! Thanks for sharing.

      • Hello

        My name is Charles Blanchard. I have been a fan of Richard Adams for many years. His work inspired me to write my own animal themed novel, Kingdom’s End, an adventure story set in an urban landscape where the main characters are rodents. The main setting is an abandoned motion picture palace from the 1920s that has been closed for thirty years and is set for demolition. It is here where the rats in the story make their massive colony and fight to protect it.

        I dedicated the work to Mr. Adams and I received a letter from his assistant telling me that he received the copy I sent him and that he was pleased that I dedicated the book to him, etc. It made my day.. Please see my Facebook page below.. Regards, Charles

  2. M E Cheshier

    Reblogged this on Book Reviews Current and commented:
    A favorite!

  3. Robbie

    Hi, I just read your post and I admire your enthusiasm for Watership Down. I really liked the insights and quotes from the author your provided from the introduction to the 2005 edition. This book has been among my favorites since a high school teacher first recommended it to me several years ago. Currently I’m working on comparing Watership down to Alice and Wonderland, and I’ve found several comparisons between the two and they’re a lot more similar than I would have thought. In addition to literary comparisons, I’m doing biographical comparisons between the authors. However, I don’t know how to tie the two parts together to make it an interesting topic. I’m thinking about arguing that the similarities between the two authors is responsible for the similarites of their writing, but I don’t know if it’s strong enough. Do you have an suggestions for an angle I could take, or an interesting way to tie biographical comparisons with literary comparisions? I would appreciate any feedback, or ideas you may have.

    Thanks for writing your blog. I’m excited to see what new discoveries I can make here.

    • Thanks for your kind comments about my blog and the Watership Down post. I am intrigued by your work on comparing the book with Alice in Wonderland and investigating the common themes of the authors’ lives. I know next to nothing about Lewis Carroll, so I can’t help at all there! Richard Adams, however, has given many interviews and, of course, there is his autobiography for research sources. Please check back in to let me know about your progress!

  4. Okay, I guess 40+ years later I’m finally going to have to read this book! I just couldn’t get into the rabbits back then, but I’ll try it now and let you know what I think.

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