Books

Watership Down (Richard Adams) – Throwback 50

There are few titles that seem to get as immediate and visceral a reaction as the name Watership Down. More than once I’ve brought it up and I’ve seen people immediately crumple in on themselves, saying ‘oh no’, as they remember the events of the story (though to be fair, this is also in large part down to the film adaptation). You’d think a story about rabbits would be lovely, that it would be a tale that people remember fondly and love, but it often feels like reminding someone about an awful tragic event. It might not be the cultural impact author Richard Adams intended for his story, but it’s a pretty decent one nonetheless.

Originally crafted as a series of stories that Richard Adams would make up as he drove his two daughters around, he was encouraged by his kids to write down his stories about rabbits and their adventures; much in the same way that Tolkien went from telling The Hobbit to his children at bedtime to actually writing a book. Going from making up stories off the top of his head in his car to producing a finished manuscript was no easy task, and Adams took eighteen months to finish his story. And after their encouragement, the book ended up dedicated to his daughters.

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His story, however, proved to be pretty unpopular at first, and was rejected by every publisher he went to. None of the major publishing houses wanted anything to do with this strange tale about rabbits and visions of the future, and the book eventually ended up on the desk of Rex Collings, a one-man publisher with few books under his belt. Reading the manuscript, Collings felt that there was something in it worth pursuing, even if his associate thought it was a bad idea. But Collings took a chance on the novel, and in 1972, Watership Down was published.

The book tells the story of Fiver, a small, runtish male rabbit living in Sandleford warren. Fiver is a seer and has strange visions of the future; he dreams of the warren’s imminent destruction and the death of the rabbits. Fiver tries to convince the leader of the warren that danger is coming, and tries to get them to evacuate; but he’s not believed. When only nine other rabbits choose to follow his advice, the small group leaves Sandleford, setting out into the wide, dangerous world.

The group falls under the leadership of Hazel, a young rabbit who proves to be smarter and braver than first thought, and he starts to lead the rabbits towards what they hope will be their new home. Along the way the group is beset by dangers such as a raging river, vicious dogs, badgers, and humans. After several dangers, the rabbits arrive at Watership Down, where they hope to make their new home amongst the relative safety of the area. However, the group still face dangers in their future.

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Upon its release Adams received no advance for Watership Down due to Rex Collings having little capital to launch the book. However, he was dedicated in getting review copies of the book into the right hands, and thanks to his push to get others to read the book, buzz quickly spread about the new novel. Several publications across the UK sung the praises of the book, claiming that it was one of the best new children’s novels in years. Despite being produced by a relatively unknown publisher, and sporting a rather drab and dull cover, the book was nominated for several awards, and won the 1972 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in its first year.

Despite a small beginning, Watership Down continued to grow in popularity, and received a second print run the following year, before being picked up by US publisher Macmillan in 1974, where it would go on to be published around the world. Its biggest leap in fame, however, came in 1978, when an animated film version of the story was released with several star names attached to it. The film became a huge success, and is often referenced as something that traumatised many of the kids who watched it.

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A great deal of Watership Down‘s legacy is in large part due to the film, with more people having watched it than have read the book. Despite that, the book continues to remain popular, with multiple new and special editions of the book having been released over the decades.

Whether you’ve actually read the book, watched the film, or even just heard of it, the name Watership Down tends to produce a visceral response in those that hear it. A simple series of stories told to a couple of children in a car has gone on to become one of the most recognisable children’s books ever produced; one that continues to receive new adaptations and gains new audiences. Thanks to that popularity, it’s likely to be a book that will last for many more decades to come.

Watership Down was released in the UK in November 1972.

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