11 Fascinating Facts About Watership Down

istock (blank book)
istock (blank book) / istock (blank book)

Like a lot of classic books, Watership Down almost didn’t make it to print. After at least seven rejections, author Richard Adams, then 54 and a civil servant, was on the verge of self-publishing the novel when it was finally picked up by Rex Collings, a one-man publishing outfit in London. Collings wrote to a friend at the time, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?

His decision may have been mad, but it paid off. In 1972, Collings printed as many books as he could afford, a run of 2,500. They sold out immediately. The book went on to win the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Prize, to sell more than 50 million copies worldwide, and to launch Adams’ second career. Though Watership Down was far and away Adams’ most successful book (which he acknowledged, telling an interviewer in 2007, “You can't expect another miracle like Watership Down. One's enough for any lifetime!”), Adams continues to write. His last book, Daniel, was published in 2006 and in 2014, at the age of 94, he told a Telegraph interviewer that he was still working, thinking up a story about an ordinary boy who finds himself on the deck of a ship fighting the Spanish Armada.

Here are a few things that you might not have known about the phenomenon that became Watership Down.

1. Watership Down wasn’t called Watership Down.

Rex Collings, the intrepid publisher who took a chance on the then-unknown Adams, was the first to suggest calling the novel Watership Down. The original title was Hazel and Fiver, after the quiet leader Hazel and his seer brother, Fiver, whose visions of the destruction of their home inspires the group’s epic adventure.

2. Fiver's prediction was disturbingly accurate.

Watership Down starts in Sandleford Warren, a real place in rural(ish) Berkshire, England, which is quite likely home to many rabbits. But perhaps not for much longer: In February 2012, the West Berkshire council approved a plan to bulldoze and pave over what was Sandleford Warren to make way for 2000 new homes, despite protests from Adams and others. As of this writing, however, the proposed development, Sandleford Park, was still in its early planning stages.

3. Watership Down began as a way for Adams to entertain his daughters …

Adams told BBC in 2007 that the story started on a long car ride: He and his two daughters were going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Judi Dench in a production of Twelfth Night. His elder daughter demanded a story to pass the time. "This called for spontaneity, it had to, and I just began off the top of my head: 'Once upon a time there were two rabbits, called eh, let me see, Hazel and Fiver, and I'm going to tell you about some of their adventures,'” he explained. “What followed was really the essence of Watership Down.” The story continued over the next few months during the morning school run; Adams told The Telegraph in 2014 that he’d go to bed forming the narrative in his mind, ready to tell the girls the next morning. In a way, the continually-forming story was Adams’ attempt to be a constant, steady presence in his daughters’ lives: “I’ve got a thing about that. Parents ought to spend a lot of time in their children’s company. A lot of them don’t, you know.”

The girls demanded that he write down the ensuing story, although it took 18 months for him to actually put pen to paper.

4. ... But it's not really for children.

When it was published in America in 1974, The New York Times' reviewer noted that though the story began as a tale for little girls, he doubted that the novel was really “aimed at children,” explaining, “I can’t imagine many readers under the age of 13 or 14 … having the patience and grasp of extended allegorical strategies to persevere to the end of a 426-page epic about a community of rabbits.” Adams agreed—but not because of the book's length, or because of its dark, fairly grim imagery. He later noted, “I’ve always said that Watership Down is not a book for children. I say: it's a book, and anyone who wants to read it can read it.” 

5. Adams likes that his book is scary.

Parents were surprised that a book about anthropomorphized rabbits could have so much death and violence. One of his daughters reported not being able to sleep after his stories, and Adams’ wife, Elizabeth, even tried to get him to take out the scene in which Bigwig gets caught in a snare. When asked by a 12 year old fan why the book was so scary, Adams responded, “Good stories ought to be exciting and if they are exciting they are inevitably scary in parts!”

6. The rabbits were modeled after WWII officers ...

Lieutenant Richard Adams commanded C Platoon in 250 Company’s Seaborn Echelon, and, as he wrote in his autobiography, he based Watership Down and the stories in it around the men of the 250 Airborne Light Company RASC—specifically, on their role in the battle of Arnhem. The battle, fought over nine days in September 1944 in and around the Dutch towns of Arnhem, Oosterbeek, Driel, and Wolfheze, resulted in devastating losses for the Allied forces, including in Adams’ company. Adams says that two characters were directly drawn from life. Hazel was inspired by Adams’ commanding officer, Major John Gifford, a man he described as “brave in the most self-effacing way” and an “excellent organizer” who rarely raised his voice, adding, “Everything about him was quiet, crisp and unassuming.” Gifford survived the war; Captain Desmond “Paddy” Kavanagh, on whom warrior Bigwig was modeled, did not. Daring, debonair Kavanagh was, Adams wrote, “afraid of nothing,” a “sensationalist,” and “by nature entirely the public’s image of a parachute officer.” He was killed in action outside Oosterbeek while providing covering fire for his platoon, at just 25 years old.

As for Adams, he said in 2014 that he identifies more with Fiver: “Rather timid and not much of a fighter … but able to contribute something in the way of intuitive knowledge.”

7. ... But also behaved like, well, rabbits.

Adams’ knowledge of group dynamics in extremely stressful situations was well-founded, as was his knowledge of the habits of actual rabbits. To better understand the creatures, Adams turned to British naturalist Ronald Lockley’s 1964 book, The Private Life of the Rabbit. After the novel came out, Adams and Lockley became friends and—as friends do—took a trip to Antarctica together, and later collaborated on a book about the experience.

8. Adams didn't want anyone to read too much into it.

In the 40-plus years since its publication, Watership Down has been assigned all kinds of different meanings by readers who think they know what it’s really about. Theorists often latch on to the folkloric elements of the story, or attempt to interpret it as a religious allegory. Adams rejects these efforts: “It was meant to be just a story, and it remains that. A story—a jolly good story, I must admit—but it remains a story. It’s not meant to be a parable. That’s important, I think. Its power and strength come from being a story told in the car.”

9. It inspired its own role-playing game.

In 1976, the bestseller encountered another phenomenon sweeping the world: Role-playing games. Dungeons & Dragons had come out in 1974, opening up a new and surprisingly lucrative niche market that seemed adaptable to just about any genre, from space opera to the Wild West to Ancient Japan. Fantasy Games Unlimited saw an opportunity and seized it, grafting Adams’ lapine world onto a D&D gaming structure and calling the result Bunnies & Burrows. Participants pretended to be “intelligent rabbits” trying to survive food shortages and outsmart humans. Unlike D&D, however, B&B hasn’t exactly stood the test of time.

10. Art Garfunkel sang a song about it.

When you think about it, anthropomorphized rabbits inhabiting an idealized, if dangerous, natural world seem like a logical topic for a folk song. In 1978, Art Garfunkel was tapped to sing “Bright Eyes,” written by Mike Batt, a song largely considered to be the theme song of the animated version of Watership Down. The song, which Garfunkel later recorded for his 1979 album Fate for Breakfast, became the number one single in the UK that year.

11. Adams wishes he had started writing earlier.

Before Watership Down, Adams hadn’t written a word. In an interview with The Guardian in 2015, he said, “I was 52 when I discovered I could write. I wish I’d known a bit earlier. I never thought of myself as a writer until I became one.” But Adams also acknowledges that nothing he’s done since has matched the power of his debut: “I try to look at it in a positive way, to say to myself, ‘Look at Watership Down – if you can do that, you can do any ruddy thing.’ Of course you can’t expect to have another success like that, but it does give you the confidence and the enjoyment to go on writing.”