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Finally, a book that tells us the honest-to-goodness truth about rabbits. All this time we thought rabbits were just cute, floppy-eared carrot-eaters with a penchant for hopping. But as Richard Adams's Watership Down teaches us, rabbits are actually violent, adventurous creatures, with a complex culture and mythology.
Okay, maybe you shouldn't use Watership Down as a textbook to pass that important rabbit exam in Biology class. This book has as much to do with rabbit biology as does the legend of the Easter Bunny. Rather, this puppy reads more like one of those ancient epics, like Virgil's Aeneid or Jim Henson's Muppets Take Manhattan (only with rabbits instead of people or Muppets). Richard Adams's novel tells the story of a group of furry characters who leave their comfortable (but doomed) home and try to make a new, better one, over the river and through the woods. They face dangerous predators, like dogs and humans; make unlikely allies; and fight a war against another group of rabbits led by the bunny equivalent of Hitler or Mussolini.
If you're saying to yourself, "a book about violent bunnies—who would want to read that?" then pat yourself on the back (or get a bunny to do so), because you're as smart as all the publishers who originally rejected this book. Of course, they're poorer and less famous for having given this book the ax, so don't pat yourself on the back too hard. History has proven those guys oh so very wrong, even though we're betting the average Joe probably would have agreed with them at the time.
See, a rabbit epic is not typically bestseller material. And nor was it meant to be. Originally, Richard Adams made up this story for his daughters as they were driving around the English countryside. (See "Setting" for more on that.) When Adams finally got around to writing the story down, a bunch of publishers passed saying that (a) only young kids liked bunnies, but (b) the book was too violent for young kids. Eventually, a small publisher called Rex Collings sent the book to the presses in Britain in 1972; and then the book was published in America in 1974.
How'd it do? Very well, thanks for asking. In fact, it was an instant bestseller and has never been out of print since. (So take that, publishers who don't like violent epic adventures starring bunnies.) The truth is, on all those road trips with his daughters Richard Adams was onto something. Something good. So good in fact, that Watership Down won the Guardian Award for children's literature (1972) and the Carnegie Medal (1972).
And yet you're still wondering: a book about rabbits? What makes it so well loved? Shmoop's got two theories:
It's super realistic. Adams set the story where he lived in Southern England, using the names and descriptions of real places. And many of the characters are based on people (not, sadly, bunnies) that Adams knew, mostly from his experience in World War II. And the rabbits—except for the war, politics, and myth telling—behave a lot like real rabbits, which Adams researched extensively, using R. M. Lockley's book on rabbit life, The Private Life of the Rabbit.
It's super fantastic.When Adams wrote his story about rabbits facing rabbit problems, people (we mean "Americans") were facing people problems, like the Cold War and the Vietnam War and the War against Bell-bottoms. Judging from the outfits people wore, the 1970s weren't a great time to be alive. So rather than read about human wars and the horror of disco, how great would it be to escape into a story about rabbits having rabbit adventures?
And once you've read about it, how great would it be to wallow even more in rabbit warrens? Watership Down was made into a movie (1978) and a TV show (1999-2001); and Richard Adams later published a sequel of sorts—a book of nineteen short stories titled Tales from Watership Down (1996).
But Lapine literature ain't the only thing this guy had up his sleeve. Besides his rabbit stories, Richard Adams wrote several other books, most of which have to do with animals and the environment in some way. For instance, Shardik (1974) is about a mythical giant bear; The Plague Dogs (1977) is about two dogs who escape from a laboratory; and Traveller (1988) tells the story of the U.S. Civil War through the eyes of Lee's horse, Traveller. So we can pretty confidently state that Adams liked clean air and wild places. In fact, Adams showed his interest in the environment beyond writing books: he served as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals from 1980 to 1982; and he has fought to keep the actual Watership Down safe for rabbits. But you'll have to read the book to truly understand why it was worth saving.
We can say this because we're just about to have an election in America or have just had an election (which is kind of always the case here—there's always an election somewhere): you should care about Watership Down because it's about what sort of world you want to live in, just as an election is. In Watership Down, Hazel and the other rabbits have to figure out who they want leading them; whom they trust; what they want their home to be like; and what they're willing to sacrifice in order to make their world the way they want it to be. See? Just like an election.
Even if you don't vote (or don't care about politics), this is a book for you, because this isn't just political in the sense of elections and voting. The question of "What sort of world do I want to live in?" goes beyond voting once in a while. That's the question that Hazel and his rabbits ask themselves when they go out to start a new home. And it's a question that each of us has to ask and act on as we go out and try to make a life for ourselves, especially when we're young and questing out into the world to find (or make) a place for us.
This isn't just some abstract philosophical question that we ask ourselves while sitting around in smoking jackets playing gin rummy. (Or however you spend your Friday nights.) In Watership Down, this life-or-death question gets asked whenever Hazel's rabbits meet a group of rabbits who are living according to certain choices. And these are choices that we have to face as well:
Should we stay in Efrafa, where we can be safe and secure but not free? Should we enjoy the luxuries of Cowslip's warren and ignore the potential death that could get us at any time? Should we listen to the powerful rabbits and just stay in Sandleford Warren, no matter what the little rabbits like Fiver say? Or should we give up everything that we know and risk everything we have for the chance of a better home on Watership Down?
We may not face the exact dangers that Hazel's rabbits face—no farmer is going to kill and cook us (we hope). But we do have to ask ourselves these questions about our values and which values we value more. What's most important to you: freedom, security, luxury, authority, power?
If your edition of this book doesn't have the glossary at the end, here's a copy of it so you can be as fluent as you'd like.
Famous Rabbits through History
Hilarious and exhaustive, this list covers everything from the Chinese Zodiac to the Energizer Bunny.
This website is mostly entertaining, but it might provide some starting points for more research on the issue of rabbits in folklore.
Commonsense Media Review
This website for parents seems a little confused about this book—but then, so are we. The book seems perfect for young kids in some ways, but not all ways. What do you think? (Also, they say there are no good role models in the book, which we disagree with. What did Fiver ever do to them?)
Watership Down: Actual Pictures
Check out the real Nuthanger Farm, iron road, and plank bridge where Hazel's rabbits board the boat. And there's a helpful chart comparing the warrens.
Map and Photos
And here are even more photos of the real setting where this book takes place. This site is especially helpful for its maps of the area.
The Many Covers of Watership Down
This fan offers his collection to show the many covers—books, CDs, movies—that have been made for this now 40-year old bestseller.
This Tumblr (where did the "e" go?) is dedicated to Watership Down, which mostly means that it has rabbit paintings and quotes from the book. It's yet another example of how this book has an active legacy. (Especially among people who love rabbits.)
Watership Down (1978)
The movie keeps pretty close to the book in many respects—which means that, though it looks like a fun animated movie, there's a lot of death and violence. It also features a pretty distinguished cast, which wasn't really normal for animated films back then. And while the animation style looks dated today, the opening myth (the Blessings of Frith) is pretty cool.
Watership Down TV show (1999-2001)
This TV show lasted three seasons. The first season was pretty close to the book, but later seasons started stretching the material and changing some of the characters. But at least some fans liked it, judging from this comprehensive fan page.
Richard Adams discusses how the story started and how real the setting is. He also discusses an alternative ending. (Bigwig was supposed to die but his kids protested, and we are grateful.)
Afternoon with Adams
This interview with a rabbit fan site (no, really) has lots of little fun notes. For instance, with Richard Adams's accent—he really rolls his R's—"hrududu" really is the sound of a tractor/engine. (You can easily imagine him telling this story to his kids.)
Appreciation of Watership Down
Jo Walton, science fiction and fantasy author (and professional British person), offers an appreciation and some criticism of Watership Down. Especially interesting is her complaint about the omniscient point of view, which she says gives too much information to the reader. What do you think?
Watership Down Movie Trailer
Yes, it's animated; no, it's not really for kids.
Watership Down Opening (Frith's Blessing)
Why do you think the film animates myth of El-ahrairah one way, and the rest of the story differently?
Watership Down TV opening credits
Now that you've seen how the movie starts (with an El-ahrairah story), check out how the TV show starts, with a view of the map/landscape that the adventure takes place in. (Also, the song here is the theme song from the movie, "Bright Eyes" by Art Garfunkel (ask your grandparents).
Figurine Review of General Woundwort
Okay, this is so bizarre that we just had to show you. If we were to tell you that they made figurines for these characters, would you believe us? Because they did and here's a review of one. Yes, a review.
Interview with Richard Adams
Here's a 1985 interview with the rabbit-man himself, Richard Adams. Here he talks about the hero's journey of Joseph Campbell (which gets a "Shout-Out" since it's mentioned in one chapter's epigraph).
BBC Radio on Watership Down (the Location)
This is a radio show about landscapes, but it does include a little interview with Richard Adams, which starts at around the 13:00 minute mark. It's nice to hear him talk about the Downs as his homeland. Also, considering how much he describes the sounds of nature in his book, it's interesting to hear them for oneself.
BBC Adaptation of Watership Down
In addition to the movie and TV versions, there was also at least one radio adaptation, in 2002. Though currently unavailable on the BBC website, this adaptation was reviewed as superb by the Guardian newspaper.
Watership Down Original Cover (UK)
Imagine this book hot off the presses as you check out the cover for the UK first edition.
Watership Down Original Cover (US)
Of course if you lived in America at the time, this is the version you would have had.
Watership Down Movie Poster
Imagine this hanging out the wall of your local theater. Yeah, that would creep us out, too.
General Woundwort in Watership Down Movie Still (Not for Kids)
General Woundwort is pretty dangerous and scary-looking, if you ask Shmoop. We might have some trouble falling asleep tonight.
Young Richard Adams
Here's Adams as a younger man, before rabbits took over his life.
Old Richard Adams
That rabbits have taken their toll. (Just kidding.)
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