Watership Down is a fantasy adventure novel by English author Richard Adams, published by Rex Collings Ltd of London in 1972. Set in southern England, the story features a small group of rabbits. Although they live in their natural environment, they are anthropomorphised, possessing their own culture, language, proverbs, poetry, and mythology. Evoking epic themes, the novel follows 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. Although it was rejected by several publishers before Collings accepted it, it won the annual Carnegie Medal, annual Guardian Prize, and other book awards. It was adapted into an Watership Down (film)">animated feature film in 1978, and later a Watership Down (TV series)">television series which ran from 1999 to 2001.
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 Watership Down characters">El-ahrairah and the rabbits of the Watership Down warren, with "Notes on Pronunciation" and "Lapine Glossary".
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 Rosamond 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." 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 behaviour were based on The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964), by British naturalist Ronald Lockley. The two later became friends, embarking on an Antarctic tour that became the subject of a co-authored book, Voyage Through the Antarctic (A. Lane, 1982).
Watership Down was rejected seven times before it was accepted by Rex Collings. The one-man London publisher Collings 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." Collings had little capital and could not pay an advance but "he got a review copy onto every desk in London that mattered." Adams wrote that it was Collings who gave Watership Down its title. There was a second edition in 1973.
Macmillan USA, then a media giant, published the first U.S. edition in 1974 and a Dutch edition was also published that year by Het Spectrum. According to WorldCat, participating libraries hold copies in 18 languages of translation.
In the Sandleford warren,[a] Fiver, a young runt rabbit who is a seer, receives a frightening vision of his warren's imminent destruction. When he and his brother Hazel fail to convince their chief rabbit of the need to evacuate, they set out on their own, accompanied by nine other rabbits who choose to go with them. The first challenge in the small band's search for a new home comes immediately, as they are forced to elude the Owsla, the warren's military caste.
Once out in the world, the travelling group of rabbits finds itself following the leadership of Hazel, who, until now, has been just another unimportant member of the warren. The group travels far and through dangerous territory. Bigwig and Silver, both former Owsla and the strongest rabbits among them, do well to keep the others protected, along with Hazel's keen observations and good judgement.
Eventually they meet a rabbit named Cowslip, who invites them to join his warren. At first Hazel's group are relieved to finally be able to sleep and feed well – all except for Fiver who senses only death there. When Bigwig is nearly killed in a snare, the group realize that the new warren is managed by a farmer who protects and feeds the rabbits, but also harvests a number of them for their meat and skins. The residents of the new warren are simply using Hazel and the others to increase their own odds of survival. Fiver and the rest of the group work together to rescue Bigwig from a snare, then continue on their journey, along with a rabbit from the new warren called Strawberry, who asks to join them after his doe is killed in a snare.
Fiver's visions have promised them a safe place in which to settle, and the group eventually finds Watership Down, which matches Fiver's description of the perfect home exactly. There they are soon reunited with Holly and Bluebell, who were with Bigwig in the Owsla. The two are nursing severe injuries which, they reveal, were inflicted as they escaped the violent human destruction of Sandleford and then later at Cowslip's warren. Holly also confesses that it was he who had tried to stop them leaving that first night, but Fiver's vision coming true has left him a changed rabbit and he is there to join them in whatever way they will have him.
Although Watership Down is a peaceful habitat, Hazel realizes there are no does (female rabbits), thus making the future of the warren certain to end with the inevitable death of the rabbits present. With the help of their useful new friend, a black-headed gull named Kehaar, they locate a nearby warren called Efrafa, which is overcrowded and has many does. Hazel sends a small embassy, led by Holly, to Efrafa to present their request for does.
Meanwhile, Hazel and Pipkin, the smallest member of the group, scout the nearby Nuthanger Farm, where they find two pairs of hutch rabbits. Despite their uncertainty about living wild, the hutch rabbits are willing to come to Watership. Hazel leads a raid on the farm the next day, during which he rescues both does but only one of the bucks. When the emissary returns soon after, Hazel and his rabbits learn that Efrafa is a police state led by the despotic General Woundwort. Holly and the other rabbits dispatched there have managed to return with little more than their lives intact.
However, Holly's group has managed to identify an Efrafan doe named Hyzenthlay who wishes to leave the warren and can recruit other does to join in the escape. Hazel and Bigwig devise a plan to rescue Hyzenthlay's group and bring them to Watership Down, after which the Efrafan escapees start their new life of freedom.
Shortly thereafter, however, the Owsla of Efrafa, led by Woundwort himself arrives to attack the newly formed warren at Watership Down. Through Bigwig's bravery and loyalty, and Hazel's ingenuity, the Watership Down rabbits seal the fate of the Efrafan general by unleashing the Nuthanger Farm watchdog. As the Efrafans flee in terror, Woundwort, a formidable fighter by rabbit standards, fearlessly stands his ground as he and the dog simultaneously lunge at each other. Woundwort's body is never found, and at least one of his former followers continues to believe in his survival. Hazel is nearly killed by a cat, but he is saved by the farm girl Lucy, the owner of the escaped hutch rabbits.
The story's epilogue tells the reader of how Hazel, dozing in his burrow one "chilly, blustery morning in March" some years later, is visited by El-ahrairah, the spiritual overseer of all rabbits, and hero of many rabbit stories. El-ahrairah invites Hazel to join his own Owsla, reassuring him of his warren's success and its future. Leaving his friends and no-longer-needed body behind, Hazel departs Watership Down with the spirit guide.
This section needs additional citations for verification. (February 2017) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
"Lapine" is a fictional language created by author Richard Adams for the novel, where it is spoken by the rabbit characters. The language was again used in Adams' 1996 sequel, Tales from Watership Down, and has appeared in both the Watership Down (film)">film and Watership Down (TV series)">television adaptations. The language fragments in the books consist of a few dozen distinct words, used mainly for the naming of rabbits, their mythological characters, and objects in their world. The name "Lapine" comes from the French word for rabbit.
Watership Down has been described as an allegory, with the labours of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and Silver "mirror[ing] the timeless struggles between tyranny and freedom, reason and blind emotion, and the individual and the corporate state." Adams draws on classical heroic and quest themes from Homer and Virgil, creating a story with epic motifs.
The book explores the themes of exile, survival, heroism, leadership, political responsibility, and the "making of a hero and a community". Joan Bridgman's analysis of Adams's works in The Contemporary Review identifies the community and hero motifs: "[T]he hero's journey into a realm of terrors to bring back some boon to save himself and his people" is a powerful element in Adams's tale. This theme derives from the author's exposure to the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell, especially his study of comparative mythology, Hero with a Thousand Faces">The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and in particular, Campbell's "monomyth" theory, also based on Carl Jung's view of the unconscious mind, that "all the stories in the world are really one story."
The concept of the hero has invited comparisons between Watership Down's characters and those in Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. Hazel's courage, Bigwig's strength, Blackberry's ingenuity and craftiness, and Dandelion's and Bluebell's poetry and storytelling all have parallels in the epic poem Odyssey. Kenneth Kitchell declared, "Hazel stands in the tradition of Odysseus, Aeneas, and others". Tolkien scholar John Rateliff calls Adams's novel an Aeneid "what-if" book: what if the seer Cassandra (Fiver) had been believed and she and a company had fled Troy ( Sandleford Warren) before its destruction? What if Hazel and his companions, like Odysseus, encounter a seductive home at Cowslip's Warren (Land of the Lotus Eaters)? Rateliff goes on to compare the rabbits' battle with Woundwort's Efrafans to Aeneas's fight with Turnus's Latins. "By basing his story on one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Adams taps into a very old myth: the flight from disaster, the heroic refugee in search of a new home, a story that was already over a thousand years old when Virgil told it in 19 BC."
It has been suggested that Watership Down contains symbolism of several religions, or that the stories of El-ahrairah were meant to mimic some elements of real-world religion. When asked in a 2007 BBC Radio"> BBC Radio interview about the religious symbolism in the novel, Adams stated that the story was "nothing like that at all." Adams said that the rabbits in Watership Down did not worship, however, "they believed passionately in El-ahrairah". Adams explained that he meant the book to be, "only a made-up story... in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls". Instead, he explained, the "let-in" religious stories of El-ahrairah were meant more as legendary tales, similar to a rabbit Robin Hood, and that these stories were interspersed throughout the book as humorous interjections to the often "grim" tales of the "real story".
The Economist heralded the book's publication, saying "If there is no place for Watership Down in children’s bookshops, then children’s literature is dead." Peter Prescott, senior book reviewer at Newsweek, gave the novel a glowing review: "Adams handles his suspenseful narrative more dextrously than most authors who claim to write adventure novels, but his true achievement lies in the consistent, comprehensible and altogether enchanting civilisation that he has created." Kathleen J. Rothen and Beverly Langston identified the work as one that "subtly speaks to a child", with "engaging characters and fast-paced action [that] make it readable." This echoed Nicholas Tucker's praise for the story's suspense in the New Statesman: "Adams ... has bravely and successfully resurrected the big picaresque adventure story, with moments of such tension that the helplessly involved reader finds himself checking whether things are going to work out all right on the next page before daring to finish the preceding one."
The "enchanting" world Prescott admired was not as well received upon its 1974 American publication. Although again the object of general approval, reception in the United States was more mixed, unlike the predominantly positive reviews of 1972. D. Keith Mano, a science fiction writer and conservative social commentator writing in the National Review, declared that the novel was "pleasant enough, but it has about the same intellectual firepower as Dumbo." He pilloried it further: "Watership Down is an adventure story, no more than that: rather a swashbuckling crude one to boot. There are virtuous rabbits and bad rabbits: if that’s allegory, Bonanza is an allegory."
John Rowe Townsend notes that the book quickly achieved such a high popularity despite the fact that it "came out at a high price and in an unattractive jacket from a publisher who had hardly been heard of." Fred Inglis, in his book The Promise of Happiness: Value and meaning in children's fiction, praises the author’s use of prose to express the strangeness of ordinary human inventions from the rabbits' perspective.
Watership Down's universal motifs of liberation and self-determination have led to the tendency of minority groups to read their own narrative into the novel, despite the author's assurance (in 2005) that it "was never intended to become some sort of allegory or parable." The author Rachel Kadish, reflecting on her own superimposition of the founding of Israel onto Watership Down, has remarked "Turns out plenty of other people have seen their histories in that book...some people see it as an allegory for struggles against the Cold War, fascism, extremism...a protest against materialism, against the corporate state. Watership Down can be Ireland after the famine, Rwanda after the massacres." Kadish has praised both the fantasy genre and Watership Down for its "motifs [that] hit home in every culture...all passersby are welcome to bring their own subplots and plug into the archetype."
Adams won the 1972 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising 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.[b] In 1977 California schoolchildren selected it for the inaugural California Young Reader Medal in the Young Adult category, which annually honours 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.
The 1993 Puffin Modern Classics edition of the novel contains an afterword by Nicholas Tucker, who wrote that stories such as Watership Down "now fit rather uneasily into the modern world of consideration of both sexes". He contrasted Hazel's sensitivity to Fiver with the "far more mechanical" attitude of the bucks towards does, who Tucker considers are portrayed as "little more than passive baby-factories".
In "Male Chauvinist Rabbits", an essay originally published in the New York Times Book Review, Selma G. Lanes observed that the does are only "instruments of reproduction" to prevent the achievement of reaching Watership Down from "becoming a hollow victory". Lanes argued that this view of female rabbits came from Adams rather than his source text, Ronald Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit in which the rabbit world is matriarchal, and new warrens are initiated by dissatisfied young females.
In similar vein, literary critic Jane Resh Thomas stated that Watership Down "draws upon ... an anti-feminist social tradition which, removed from the usual human context and imposed upon rabbits, is eerie in its clarity". Thomas also called it a "splendid story" in which "anti-feminist bias ... damages the novel in only a minor way".
Adams' 1996 sequel, Tales from Watership Down includes stories where the female rabbits play a more prominent role in the Watership Down warren. It has been suggested that this might have been an attempt to modernise the story, to make it more in tune with the political sensibilities of the 1990s, when it was published.
In 1978 Martin Rosen wrote and directed Watership Down (film)">an animated film adaptation of Watership Down. The voice cast included John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne, and Roy Kinnear. The film featured the song " Art Garfunkel song)">Bright Eyes", sung by Art Garfunkel. Released as a single, the song became a UK number one hit.
Although the essentials of the plot remained relatively unchanged, the film omitted several side plots. Though the Watership Down warren eventually grew to seventeen rabbits, with the additions of Strawberry, Holly, Bluebell, and three hutch rabbits liberated from the farm, the movie only includes a band of eight. Rosen's adaptation was praised for "cutting through Adams' book ... to get to the beating heart".
The film has also seen some positive critical attention. In 1979 the film received a nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Additionally, British television station Channel 4's 2006 documentary 100 Greatest Cartoons named it the 86th greatest cartoon of all time.
From 1999 to 2001, the book was also adapted as an animated television series, broadcast on CITV in the UK and on YTV in Canada. It was produced by Martin Rosen and starred several well-known British actors, including Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, Dawn French, John Hurt, and Richard Briers, running for a total of 39 episodes over three seasons. Although the story was broadly based on that of the novel and most characters and events retained, some of the story lines and characters (especially in later episodes) were entirely new. In 2003, the second season was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Original Music Score for a Dramatic Series.
In July 2014, it was confirmed that the BBC would be airing a new animated series based on the book. In April 2016 it was announced that the series would be a co-production between the BBC and Netflix, and would consist of four one-hour episodes. The series will have a budget of £20 million.
In 2006, Watership Down was again adapted for the stage, this time by Rona Munro. It ran at the Lyric Hammersmith in London. Directed by Melly Still, the cast included Matthew Burgess, Joseph Traynor, and Richard Simons. The tone of the production was inspired by the tension of war: in an interview with The Guardian, Still commented, "The closest humans come to feeling like rabbits is under war conditions ... We've tried to capture that anxiety." A reviewer at The Times called the play "an exciting, often brutal tale of survival" and said that "even when it’s a muddle, it’s a glorious one."
In 2011, Watership Down was adapted for the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago by John Hildreth. This production was directed by Katie McLean Hainsworth and the cast included Scott T. Barsotti, Chris Daley, Paul S. Holmquist, and Mandy Walsh.
Watership Down inspired the creation of Bunnies & Burrows, a role-playing game in which the main characters are talking rabbits, published in 1976 by Fantasy Games Unlimited. It introduced several innovations to role-playing game design, being the first game to allow players to have non-humanoid roles, as well as the first with detailed martial arts and skill systems. Fantasy Games Unlimited published a second edition of the game in 1982, and the game was modified and republished by Steve Jackson Games as an official GURPS supplement in 1992. Template Template-Fact" style="white-space:nowrap;">
This section possibly contains original research. (January 2017) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
In the 1970s, the book was released by Argo Records read by Roy Dotrice, with musical background—music by George Butterworth performed by Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the direction of Neville Marriner.
In 1984, Watership Down was adapted into a four-cassette audiobook by John Maher in association with the Australian Broadcasting Company's Renaissance Players. Produced by John Hannaford and narrated by Kerry Francis, the audiobook was distributed by The Mind's Eye.
In 1990, a 16-hour, 11-cassette recording read by John MacDonald was published by Books on Tape, Inc. of Santa Ana, CA.
In an episode of the British comedy show The Goodies, entitled Animals, nature presenters from the BBC are forced to escape in rabbit suits from the fury of animals now granted equal rights with humans. It features the music and animation in the style of the movies. Template Template-Fact" style="white-space:nowrap;">
In 1964 he had published The Private Life of the Rabbit. This study of the habits of the wild rabbit gathered by Mr Lockley persuaded Richard Adams to write Watership Down, a kind of Disney story for adults, which became an immediate bestseller.
In his acknowledgments, Mr. Adams credited Mr. Lockley's book for his own description of bunny behavior in his tale of wandering rabbits.
There were probably more than five rabbits in the litter when Fiver was born, but his name, Hrairoo, means "Little Thousand"--i.e., the little one of a lot or, as they say of pigs, the "runt."
The closest humans come to feeling like rabbits is under war conditions. Imagine what it would be like if every time we stepped out on the street, we know we could be picked off by a sniper. We've tried to capture that anxiety in the way the rabbits speak—lots of short, jerky sentences.
|Carnegie Medal recipient
Ghost of Thomas Kempe">The Ghost of Thomas Kempe