Richard Adams was born May 9, 1920, in Newbury, Berkshire, England. After earning a degree from Worcester College, Oxford, he married Barbara Elizabeth Acland on September 20, 1949; the couple subsequently had two children. At the age of 50, Adams, who worked as a British civil servant and had never published anything, produced a bulky typewriter manuscript. His story about rabbits had delighted his daughters and he was anxious to have it published. Unfortunately, his animal fantasy was turned down by four publishers and four literary agents. Finally a small publishing house, Rex Collings, accepted the manuscript. The 2,000 copies printed by Collings sold surprisingly well. When Penguin reprinted the book in paperback and promoted it as a novel for children, it sold over one million copies. In the United States Macmillan then printed a hard cover edition which became a best seller, selling over 700,000 copies. Adams’s unwanted manuscript turned out to be the best-selling Watership Down.
Watership Down portrays the issues of survival and trust from a variety of perspectives. The story begins in the threatened rabbit warren, Sandleford. It is an ordinary society, pleasant but imperfect, neither an Eden nor a tyranny. Its doom comes from without, not within; only a half-dozen rabbits, sensing some ill-omen, flee the warren and survive its destruction. Now in a hostile environment, the band, led by Hazel, must rebuild the rabbit community even as it travels. To survive, the group pools its wisdom, and each individual takes responsibility for what he does best: the fastest scouts ahead, the biggest confronts enemies, the most cunning chooses a place to rest.
The concern for the environment and the focus on leadership combine to form the central theme of the novel, which is the formation of community. In the leporine world of Watership Down, community is achieved when a group of individuals share a common purpose in life, realize that cooperation is essential to survival, and trust the complementary talents of others.
The success of Watership Down results from several stylistic features. The first technique is the use of epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. These epigraphs, drawn from the Bible, classical literature, English poetry, science, and folklore, serve the narrative function of indicating the direction the action will take. They also serve the thematic function of suggesting the seriousness of the action. If passages from Shakespeare, Blake, and Saint Paul illuminate the tale, then surely it is more than an entertaining story about rabbits. The epigraphs also place Watership Down in the tradition of the 19th-century English novel, which frequently used such epigraphs as a sign of seriousness.
Adams’s tribute to the English countryside is less pastoral than ecological. His account of rabbit habits and habitat reflects the ecosystem of a rural landscape where all living things constitute a delicate balance. If one part of the ecosystem is carelessly destroyed, the whole environment suffers. Adams’s offers a positive image of leadership to a society that seems to have lost its ability to accept direction from anyone other than media celebrities, well-groomed politicians, or ideological bullies.
1. Why do the rabbits believe that it is necessary to leave Sandleford Warren?
2. Which is your favorite rabbit? Which is your least favorite? Why?
1. Watch the movie Watership Down and compare it to the novel.
2. Pick several of the epigraphs and explain how they relate to their chapters.
Though many readers of Watership Down hoped for a sequel, Adams has so far not obliged them. Perhaps he believes that part of the charm of the story is that it is a unique, imaginative experience of the rabbit world.