The reviewer for The Times could barely contain himself: "I announce with trembling pleasure the appearance of a great story." Forty years ago, a hitherto unknown British civil servant named Richard Adams released Watership Down and captivated two generations of trembling fans. Here are ten things that you might not know about it.
1. The novel began as stories that Adams told his daughters on long car rides to Stratford-upon-Avon. He submitted his manuscript to many publishers, but they rejected it time and time again. Adams was about to hire a vanity publisher to produce a few copies when a small time publisher named Rex Collings accepted Watership Down for a 2,000-copy run. It has since sold millions of copies.
2. Watership Down the movie came out in 1978. It was an animated movie about rabbits. So reviewers often mistook the movie as made for children -- as they had for the novel. But the violent, bloody battle scenes were hardly appropriate for little kids.
3. During World War II, Adams was a supply officer in the British Army. He spent time in Palestine, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, India and Singapore. The war was a personally transformative experience and much of his autobiography, The Day Gone By, is devoted to it. The adventures of the officers of the 250 Company of the 1st Airborne Division inspired Watership Down:
There were about twelve or thirteen altogether, and they comprised a very strong team, much stronger than any I had yet come across. Apart from that, collectively, they have importance to this book, since later, from my memory, they provided the idea for Hazel and his rabbits in Watership Down. (304)
4. Hazel-Rah was modeled on Major John Gifford, the commander of the 250 Company. Gifford was a born leader and Adams has maintained a lifelong admiration of him. Adams writes:
Everything about him was quiet, crisp, and unassuming. He was the most unassuming man I have ever known. When giving any of his officers an order, he usually said ‘Please’, ‘Would you like to -- ?’ or ‘Perhaps you’d better -- ‘. He could be extraordinarily cutting; at least one sensed it like that because a rebuke from him was so quiet and rare, and because everyone had such a high regard for him that you felt his slightest reproof very keenly. (304)
5. The burly and courageous Bigwig was based on Captain Paddy Kavanagh, an Irish journalist turned solider. Adams writes:
Paddy was a sensationalist; by temperament entirely the public’s idea of a parachute officer; good-natured, debonair, generous, always in high spirits...a deviser of dares, afraid of nothing (including jumping), so it seemed. He once jumped with a kit bag on each leg, to show that it could be done: another time he jumped with a large wireless transmitter. He had a bucko sergeant, McDowell, and the two of them used to get up to some rare old larks. Once, Kavanagh was going to make his platoon crawl under live fire from a Bren gun, and began by setting them an example. After about a quarter of a mile he called to McDowell, on the gun, to aim closer. Afterwards, they found bullet holes in his airborne smock...Sometimes Kavanagh and McDowell would take the pin out of a live grenade and toss it between them until one of the other (‘Sissy!’) threw it down the pit or over the wall. (308-309)
Sadly, Capain Kavanagh was killed in action during Operation Market Garden.
6. Ronald Lockley, a British naturalist, published The Private Life of the Rabbit, a study of the warren life of wild rabbits. This work provided the world building that Adams used in Watership Down. 7. Adams's own father, a country doctor, makes an appearance in Watership Down. Toward the end of the novel, a young farm girl captures the wounded Hazel-Rah. She shows him to her family physician, Dr. Adams:
Twenty minutes later Lucy was holding the rabbit as quiet as she could while Doctor Adams pressed it gently here and there with the balls of his fingers. "Well, there doesn't seem to be much the matter with him, as far as I can see," he said at last. "Nothing's broken. There's something funny about his hind leg, but that's been done some time and it's more or less healed -- or as much as it ever will. The cat's scratched him across here, you see, but that's nothing much. I should think he'll be alright for a bit." (459)
8. In 1996, Adams published a collection of short stories called Tales from Watership Down. It described life in the warren after the end of the Efrafan war. Some critics of the novel complained that it had few strong female characters. In response, Adams included a story in Tales in which a doe becomes Chief Rabbit of the warren.
9. Watership Down the television show lasted for 39 episodes from 1999 to 2001. It retold much of the classic story with modifications and included other characters and adventures. 10. The novel takes place close to where Richard Adams grew up in Berkshire. Watership Down is a real place that you can actually visit.
Sources: Adams, Richard. Watership Down. New York: Avon, 1972. Print. - - -. The Day Gone By. New York, Knopf, 1991. Print. "My Afternoon with Richard Adams." House Rabbit Journal. House Rabbit Society. Winter 2000. Web. 17 May 2012. "Sidelights." Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Ed. James G. Lesniak. Vol. 35. Detroit: Gale, 1992. 3-6. Print. Images: Avon, Cinema International Corporation, Knopf.