Oct 19 2010 10:03am

Rabbit realism and folklore: Richard Adams’s Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard AdamsWatership Down (1972) is a very clever book. It’s fantasy, certainly, but what Adams does is takes the realistic details of the lives of rabbits and then writes about them as if they were sapient. They talk and tell stories and prophecy (which is what makes the book fantasy rather than science fiction) but they are still and always rabbits and you can’t forget that for an instant. The plot is straight from Livy—it’s the story of the founding of Rome—but the story is so essentially steeped in the natural history of the downland and the rabbits that the allegory never becomes intrusive. This is the story of Hazel and Fiver, not Romulus and Remus, and stealing the does from Efrafa, not the rape of the Sabine women. Or rather it’s both, and the classical resonances give weight and shape to the story of the rabbits. It’s one of those things where you wonder how anybody could have thought of it.

Things I noticed reading it this time—it’s probably ten years since I last read it—this is a very specific moment of countryside, as well as a very specific place. This is forty years ago, it’s 1970, with the myxomatosis plague only just over, and with the methods of farming not yet changed to the agribusiness of today. Also, humans inevitably smoke. I don’t think we see a human who doesn’t smoke—smoking is what distinguishes humans, the white sticks are their spoor. Yes, that was 1970 in Britain, I remember it well. Who says things don’t get better?

Even as a child I always found the authorial intrusions annoying. I didn’t want the bit of human point of view. And I liked working out what the rabbits didn’t understand, I didn’t need it explained in human terms. There’s a definite narrator here, and an implied human audience, and I’d prefer not to have that. He stops the story to say that rabbits don’t think about does with human ideas of romance, and it just isn’t necessary. But I suppose he wasn’t writing for an science fiction reader—goodness knows who he thought he was writing for, with his chapter start quotations. I was also a little startled to find references to the way animals and primitive humans can sense things and feel things that civilized humans have lost. I don’t know who he thinks primitive humans are. Gah.

Fortunately, there isn’t too much of this kind of thing. In contrast, I like the way the rabbits do struggle to understand new things, the way ideas like boats and inter-species co-operation are new and frightning to them. I think Adams does very well at conveying the rabbit point of view—alien, but not too alien to identify with. Most books about animals, especially books in which animals talk, and especially books for children in which animals talk, sentimentalise the animals. Adams doesn’t do this, and that’s why it works.

He also differentiates the characters extremely well—and they are memorable characters. There are also some beautiful bits of description of scenery—though skimmers can feel free to skim them without being afraid of missing anything except atmosphere and pretty prose.

I love the folklore, the stories of El-ahrairah. The stories feel so real, so much like actual folklore. And the best thing of all is the way that at the end the stories of what the characters have done themselves have become El-ahrairah stories. There’s something about this whole thing, the whole oral storytelling culture of the rabbits, that lifts the book above itself. Of course they have a thousand enemies, of course they have a thousand tricks, of course the Black Rabbit of Inle is in the moon. It all feels absolutely right.

I like the way it teaches you some words of the rabbit language, especially because this means that it can have Bigwig tell General Woundwort to eat shit, which isn’t something you usually get away with in a children’s book. I like the other two warrens they encounter, the warren with the snares and Efrafa, and how different they are. Adams may have meant them as parables about decadent America and totalitarian Russia, but that’s too much allegory for me. They work as very different rabbit warrens.

I can’t tell how true to life the rabbit lives are, as almost everything I know about rabbits comes from having read this at an impressionable age. I was walking in the Trough of Bowland at sunset once and rabbits were bounding off all around, and I said to my companion that we’d disturbed them when they’d come out to silflay, and he agreed, because we had. I don’t think I have seen a wild rabbit for the last thirty years without thinking of this book. I’ve used the word “tharn” of people. It’s so wonderfully immersive and atmospheric and real that I can’t really believe that Adams might have got any of the rabbity things wrong.

I’ve been to Watership Down, the actual place. I didn’t go there on purpose, I just happened to be there one day. There was a sign there saying it was Watership Down, which considering the ominousness of the sign in the book didn’t seem appropriate to me. There’s also an appalling travesty of a movie—avoid it if you can do so without biting off your own leg to escape.

When I was a child this was a long book, and the last time I read it I read it aloud a chapter at a time. So I was surprised to race through it in one day’s lying down straight-through reading.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. grilojoe77
It's a book that I had to be patient with because it takes about 40 pages or so (maybe more, I don't remember) to really get going. When I loaned my copy to a good friend, I had to tell her to be patient and when she returned the book, she understood what I meant. I think the part that is always so memorable to me is the bird. It's accent was kinda funny to me ('poat' instead of 'boat') and I remember how when the rabbits first bring him into the den they sort of look down on him because he's..erm.. messy. The ending (I won't spoil it) I liked because by then it felt justified and was handled tastefully.

thanks for the review. I might need to go back and read this one again soon.
2. DontDriveAngry
Thanks for the review. I haven't read this book, and I really think I'd like to at some point.

The reason I haven't is that one of my early memories of childhood was being somewhere in the age 3-5 range, and being at a family/friend-of-family event. As was usually the case all of the children were shuffled off to a side room or basement and plopped in front of a television. Whoever was in charge put the animated film adaptation of this book in the VHS, because for all appearances, it seemed to be a cartoon about rabbits.

I couldn't tell you what the story was actually about, or who the characters were, but I distinctly remember being utterly horrified by the graphic and violent things that happened to the rabbits, and their deaths, where blood would pour out of their mouths. I was a wreck that day and had nightmares for a long time after.

I read up that there were disclaimers to parents added to the packaging of the film regarding the violent content, but as was obvious, the adults in charge of us must've missed them.

Over the years, even as I learned later on that this book might be something I'd like to read- I would see it on the bookstore shelf, or even a cheap paperback copy at a sale, and I would immediately associate the title with that memory, and just sort of walk away- not out of fear, but just a general unease. Funny how that works, because I've obviously seen worse things since then, yet that one lingers.

Maybe I should finally read it for my own sake.
3. Doug M.
The last 50 pages of the book -- Woundwort's expedition against Watership Down, the fight with Bigwig, the dog and the cat -- are some of the best written action-suspense scenes in any fantasy novel ever. (Stephen King once said that the bit with Hazel releasing the dog made his hair stand on end.)

The quotes blow hot and cold, but they really come through in those final chapters. ("Hard pounding, gentlemen. Let's see who pounds the longest.")

Doug M.
John Cater
4. katre
By El-ahrairah's tail, I don't think I'd realized before how this is the story of Rome. My old classics teacher would just sigh.

I think this is one of the stories that taught me how to read SF. The slow introduction of Lapine, until you can read lines like Bigwig's, and not even have to translate to yourself. The way you have to learn to think like the rabbits, and see things the way they do, before you can then see that same thing the way a human would. And the way they are very clearly not human, and never will be, and that's okay because this is their story. These are all good skills to have when reading SF, and I think that's part of why some people can't get into SF, because they've never learned these skills.
David Platt
5. The Not So Dark One
Aw, I liked the film, childhood memories and all that.
Bob Bruhin
6. bruhinb
Thanks for reminding me of this one! I read this one over and over in school. For a few weeks after each reading, no other book was quite good enough, anymore.

Somewhere along the line I totally forgot about it... NowI need to grab a copy and read it again as an adult.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Doug M: Yes indeed, it is really exciting, and it's so well set up too. It's such a pity it had to be undercut with the human point of view.
M Linden
8. mlinden
My oldest girl has recently gotten into the Warriors series, which I have glibly labeled "A Toned-Down Watership Down, With Cats". Same basic premise, I suppose; sapient animals that are still recognizably Animal, rather than little furry humans. I feel the need to re-read Watership Down, now, to see if my comparison is valid. It's been many, many years.
Chris Johnston
9. Khoram
I picked this up about eight years ago at a garage sale - I had remembered the animated tv show, and I had enjoyed it a bit, when I was a kid. I picked the book up out of nostalgia, and when I read it, I went through it in a day - even though it was one of the shortest books I had read, it was, and still is, one of my favourite books. I have yet to read it again, but I can remember different scenes - one of the scenes that has stayed with me is the scene with the dog and cat on the farm. I think I will re-read it now. I'm very pleased with the review. Thanks.
Leigh Butler
10. leighdb
My 7th grade English teacher did a number of horrible things to us - including making a bunch of twelve-year-olds read both Anna Karenina and Hard Times, which effectively turned me off both Russian literature and Dickens for all time - but she will forever have a Get Out Of Jail Free card for the simple fact that she also introduced me to Watership Down, which still stands as one of my most favorite books in existence.

I don't really think it deserves, empirically, such an exalted place in my estimations, but it doesn't have much to do with logic. I just loved the ever-living crap out of this book; it happened to come along at just the perfect juncture for me to latch onto it and adore it and re-read it a hundred times and immediately want to find more stuff like it.

I very much agree with katre @ 4, then, that it was a primer on how to read - and love - sf. When I got to Bigwig's line "silflay hraka, u embleer rah", and realized I had just laughed at a dirty joke in a made-up language I had just been taught over some three hundred pages of awesome story... well.

And Jo, you are completely spot-on with how organic and real the mythology and lore of the rabbits feel; El-ahrairah feels just as inevitable a mythical figure as Coyote or John Henry. And I still think the showdown at the end of the novel is one of the most gripping, tense, and well-executed action scenes I've ever read.

I could wish, of course, that the female characters in it were more like characters and less like goalposts, but this is something I'm sadly used to ignoring in adventure stories, and this adventure was awesome enough that even now I can let it go. (Mostly.) Because, Bigwig! And Hazel! And Kehaar! And the word "tharn", which is one of those words that it is amazing there is no English equivalent for! And the last hundred pages!

Yeah, pretty much yay.

Man, now I'm going to have to go re-read this again.
11. Neville Park
I also hadn't noticed that it was the story of Rome. Whoops.

oodness knows who he thought he was writing for, with his chapter start quotations.

I must've been only nine or ten when I read Watership Down, but those mysterious epigraphs really stuck with me. Since then, on a number of occasions I've come across a familiar line, or an author, or the name of a poem, and realized that I knew it from Watership Down.
12. SummerStorms
Watership Down is my favorite novel. I first read it in 1978, at the age of 13, and AFAICR it certainly wasn't being marketed as a children's or even YA book back then! Is that something that happened more recently? This is all before there was ever a cartoon, television show or movie made of it, mind you. (And I actually haven't watched any of those.)

I must admit, I'd never realized the Roman connection before, and I have made a habit of re-reading this book at least once annually ever since that first reading so long ago. *facepalm*

But honestly, I don't think I've ever actually thought of this as anything other than a book written with an adult audience in mind, so the references to it as a children's book are a bit puzzling to me. What is it that makes us as adults automatically categorize something as being "for children" if it involves animals as characters?
13. SummerStorms
Oh, forgot to mention: I didn't read it as a school assignment. It was something I talked my parents into buying for me after I saw it on a bookstore shelf, because I loved rabbits - we lived in a rural neighborhood and there was a warren on our property.
14. TxGator
This was my first "big" book when I was 10. Have thought about it occasionally since 1972, usually when a rabbit is sighted. Now hearing people talk about Lapine, Tharn and Silflay. As soon as I get off work today I am going to find it, read it and pass it on to the kids. Wonderful, wonderful memories this brings back.
Sean Arthur
15. wsean
Wow. Add me to the list of people who never spotted the Rome thing.

I haven't read this one in years. Maybe I need to do so soon.
16. a-j
SummerStorms - it was certainly marketed as a children's book in the UK on original publication, or to be precise, as both a children's book and an adult's book (YAs didn't exist in those days!). There was the Penguin edition and the Puffin (Penguin's children's book division, apologies if I'm telling everyone what they already know) which were published simultaneously, iirc, the only difference being the logo.
Karen Grant
17. Summer
(For some reason I had problems logging in earlier, and so posted as SummerStorms above)

Just looked at my original copy and the secondhand one I bought later to give to my husband when we first started dating. Both are identical Avon editions, and honestly, at the time I first read it I really don't remember it's being marketed as a kids' book in the United States, for all that it did have its roots in tales the author told his own children. I don't know; perhaps for me the lines are blurred because I've seen a lot of things interpreted as being for kids that really weren't in terms of their actual content, and a lot of other things as being labeled as adult material that isn't, as well. Certainly the bulk of what's contained in Watership Down doesn't seem juvenile to me at all, and never did.

Regardless, I just love the atmosphere of the book and always have.
18. BrennanPeterson
I reread it recently, and wasn't quite as thrilled. It didn't help that the Bryan Adams theme song kept sneaking into my head.

The fantasy/animal books have some real gems. Tailchasers Song is very good. Duncton Wood is an absolute gem: it has the mythopoeic sensibility of Watership Down, with more depth of feeling. I didn't enjoy the sequals, but Duncton Wood deserves a wider readership. If you haven't read it, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh is also a very good book, and very different from the (also good) movie.

19. The Literary Omnivore
I have always loved Watership Down, but I hadn't thought of it in a speculative fiction context before–perhaps that's why it appealed to me…
20. Emsy
Oh, this!

I was in 5th grade, and my parents had brought me to England. I was over the moon, and we went into an extremely picturesque bookstore, and my mother bought me this. At the time, I was nuts for anything seafaring, and I was sure that, despite the rabbits on the cover, the book was about a shipwreck.

And I loved the heck out of it anyway. I think I was still getting used to books treating me like an adult and not over-explaining, so the world (and the language!) was a total treat.

I was grumpy, though, when I found the Redwall series and discovered that they were hailed on the cover as "In The Glorious Tradition of Watership Down!" No they're not. Fiver didn't need a sword.
Joe Romano
21. Drunes
Jo, SummerStorms and a-j: I read Watership Down in the late 70s when I was in my mid-20s. Like SummerStorms, I don't remember it being marketed as anything other than an adult book (in the U.S.). I seldom re-read books, but you have me curious about how I would view it now. Nonetheless, it remains one of my favorite books.
22. Dr. Thanatos
By coincidence just finished listening to the new audiobook 30 minutes ago. I first read this as a high-schooler and loved it; why my kids are reluctant to read it I don't know.

I missed the Rome thing, but I do like how the author slips in sly references to El-ahrairah being You-Know-Who ]. I also liked how even the putative bad guy gets turned into a folk hero . And the ending is surely one of the best handled main-character deaths I've read in fantasy literature.

BTW in the new prologue, Adams says this novel grew out of stories he told his kids on long driving trips to keep them from getting bored; obviously they were tweaked and adultified in the editing process but that perhaps is the source of the somewhat multiple-personality nature of this book, flickering between what seems like a children's story and a very adult novel.

I also missed the Rome thing.
Nick Eden
23. NickPheas
The film isn't that bad, but for God's sake don't leave little kids to watch it alone. When I first saw it I was 10, it was half term and a lot of mothers had dropped their kiddies off at the cinema while they did their shopping. You could do that kind of thing in those days.
And then the warren was gassed and there was much screaming. Some of it on the soundtrack.

No, never noticed a roman analogy. But I still can't read"my chief told me to stay" without the hairs rising n the back of my neck.
24. HelenS
Zilpha Keatley Snyder riffs on Watership Down in her excellent Libby on Wednesday, in which a character writes a parody of it.
25. garetjax
We were scheduled to read this book when I was a sophomore in high school, but my class, for whatever reason, never got to it. So my copy languished on the bookshelf for years, and I continued to believe it was a nautical tale (the compass rose on the cover didn't help). Fortunately, in the past few years I decided to read some of the classics that my literature classes had never chosen to cover. Now, I adore this book.
Terry Lago
26. dulac3
I too love, love, love this book. I think Jo's a bit harsh on the movie as do some others...it was actually my first introduction to the story (at a double bill with Bakshi's Fellowship of the Ring that my older brother took me to). Indeed I found the book a hard slog on my first read as a youngster, but subsequent re-reads have only gotten better and better in my mind.

I am also mystified at the misnomer of 'children's lit' for this book. I can understand why the booksellers and marketers characterized it as such, it involved rabbits after all, but to my mind once you've read it I don't see how you could consider it anything but an adult novel (a few asides to the reader notwithstanding).

Also agree with everyone about the numerous moving scenes in the book that raise the hairs on one's neck, esp. the final battle, Bigwig's words to Woundwort in the Watership Down warren, and Hazel's end (gee and Fiver's prohecy in Cowslip's warren and...)

I am hard-pressed to state which element of the book I found more impressive: the excellent folktales of El-Ahrairah which indeed ring very true, or the deft handling of the rabbits so that they appear and behave like 'real' rabbits (not just people in furry suits), but still remain intelligible to a human reader (both already noted by Jo).

Add me to the people that missed the connection to Rome.

I just re-read _Watership Down_ not too long ago, but I may need to pick it up again soon as a result of this review.

As an aside has anyone been able to read any of Adams' other books? I've tried many times to get into _Shardik_ to no avail and I also have _Maia_ which I haven't yet tried. I imagine that _The Plague Dogs_ is the closest to _WD_ in content/style?

brightening glance
27. brightglance
I reread this earlier this year and realised just how much it influenced me as a reader. In a way this book dominated my childhood, since it came before I read the Narnia books or anything else of the stuff I love best. At the age of eight I found a copy in a box with a pile of Reader's Digests and other tat. ( It was a Penguin edition so not bought for us children.) It's the first book I can remember turning back to the start immediately to read again, and the first book I remember rereading every year or two. For years I searched all over our house at intervals in case there might be anything else that wonderful stashed away somewhere.

I had little interest in the cartoon since it clearly bore no resemblance to the real thing.

The parallels went over my head at that age although I noticed the connection to the Bre'r Rabbit tales which I came across in other books. The chapter headings actually had quite an impact in themselves, particularly later on when I came across some of the originals such as The King Must Die. They still for me denote a "proper" book. (I loved the chapter headings in The King's Peace et. seq.)

Agreed that the final action is wonderfully done, but for the switch away from the rabbit viewpoint which irritatingly damps the drama.
Jo Walton
28. bluejo
Film: Yes, it is that bad. I saw it when I was a teenager and it traumatized me -- I've never forgiven it, or trusted movies of books since.

My version is the 1974 reprint of the 1972 original, and I was given it for my tenth birthday, in 1974. It's a Puffin book, and it's definitely in all its semiotics a children's book of the early seventies. This is a good thing, incidentally. I wouldn't have been given it if it didn't look that way.

I haven't read any of the books marketed as "Watership Down with ", except, obviously, for my own Tooth and Claw. When Kirkus reviewed is and said it was "Watership Down with dragons", or I should have tried harder to make it like Watership Down with dragons (I don't know where they thought I was going to get the realistic details about natural history for dragons -- there are no dragons in England now) I was absolutely teeth-gnashingly horrified on behalf of Watership Down.

I'm surprised how many people didn't notice the Romulus story parallels. Maybe it isn't as obvious as I always thought it was.
29. Dr. Thanatos
The only Romulus vibe I can see in retrospect is the journey to build a new home . What is missing is the two brothers being raised by another species, killing a usurper and restoring their grandfather, founding a city, and one brother killing the other. Did any of that happen to Hazel and Fiver? I still don't see it...
Cait Glasson
30. CaitieCat
I've loved and recommended this book for ages. I liked the movie (but again, not for kids; also, from personal experience, not for those who partake of a certain green herb which is much less illicit here in Canada than in our southern neighbours' laws - just trust your Auntie Cait on this one), too. Like most of you, I never caught the Rome allusion, either, but then (not being Christian) I didn't catch the Christian bits in Narnia, either. *shrug* It makes sense to me that I wouldn't recognize allusions to things that have no relevance to me. :)

I, and many of my friends, still use tharn all the time; I've been known to call out "homba!" on seeing a fox, too. I don't think anyone would so much as blink if I were to suggest I needed a stop on a road trip for hraka, either.

I found this one when I was in the throes of the Great Expansion, that time when I discovered there were more books out there than just series of kids' books (like Encyclopedia Brown, or Secret Seven/Famous Five, et c., et c.), that led me to I, Robot and The Hobbit, and set me on a path I'm still on 35 years later.
Jo Walton
31. bluejo
Dr Thanatos: Two brothers and a small group of friends driven out of their city, trying to settle in another city, escaping and founding their own city, noticing they don't have any females and therefore no next generation and deciding to steal some from a neighbouring city and starting a war with that city -- what story is this? No wolves and no supernatural parentage, true, but it's still a pretty obvious parallel.
32. Dr. Thanatos
Except for the critical part of the story relating to sibling rivalry and one brother killing the other at the founding of the city; that pretty much ruins the parallel for me...
Andrew Mason
33. AnotherAndrew
Two brothers and a small group of friends driven out of their city, trying to settle in another city, escaping and founding their own city

In what version of the Romulus and Remus story does this happen? They were thrown out as infants, certainly, but as adults (according to Livy) they returned, restored their grandfather to the throne, and then left of their own accord, because they were 'seized with a desire to found a city' (as one is).

I had always supposed that the first part of Watership Down was based on the Aeneid. The original warren, which is destroyed, is Troy (with Fiver's prophecy echoing that of Cassandra); the warren which offers a false hope is Carthage. The place they finally settle is Italy. I'd agree that the later part of the story is inpired by the Sabine war.
Andrew Barton
34. MadLogician
I found the book in my teens after Bernard Levin used his Times column to rave about it. I don't remember him having a good word for any other fantasy except the Ring cycle.
Sam Kelly
35. Eithin
I remember reading the book early on, perhaps before I was 12, and watching the film afterwards - it was a bit of a letdown, but I've never liked the-film-of as much as the-book, so I wasn't surprised.

Then, at 15 or so, I picked up Maia expecting more of the same. I was, er, a bit taken aback. Finished it, though.
mark Proctor
36. mark-p
Watching the film as a child I found it terrifying and it put me off reading the book for years. Seeing the animation as an adult I still think its pretty good and reasonably close to the book compared to many films.
The beginning of the book (and film) was especially moving for me, as I was born in a village then moved onto a new housing estate being built over rabbit (and hare) warrens. We also didn't live very far from Watership down so my dad took us to see it, on one of his boring drives in the country. I don't think there are any signs there these days, its just another hill in the downs which I think is used to breed horses by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I last read it a year or two ago and really liked the way he gave the rabbits personality and a culture of their own which seems pretty realistic and not too human. Better than the other animal books I read when I was younger (Duncton etc).
Scientist, Father
37. Silvertip
Rome? (Looks puzzled). But then, the only version of Virgil I've read is Le Guin's "Lavinia," and I've never read Livy under any guise.

A great, great book. Like you, Jo, I was really struck by how the adventures of the characters were incorporated into the folklore -- it really felt right to me, and actually changed how I looked at folklore thereafter. The Efrafrans being unable to conceive that the biggest, toughest rabbit would not be Chief, and thus scaring themselves hrakaless at Bigwig's declaration, was also a nice touch, at least to my definitely non-tough adolescent self.

I've read Shardik a couple of times. It isn't as inspired a piece of writing as WD -- I'm not sure that sort of lightning ever strikes twice -- but has some interesting elements. The ending isn't nearly as satisfying.

Ian Gazzotti
38. Atrus
Just my two cents, but I just don't get the hate for the movie; I watched it recently after reading the book and I actually thought it was pretty good and faithful to the source. Yes, it's definitely not for small children, but then I don't think the book is either.
39. JohnElliott
As well as "tharn", I've seen "hrair" used in respect of humans -- as the number of objects we can take in at a glance, without having to count them. It's usually said to be 7, plus or minus 2.
40. hapax
"Hoi, hoi, u embleer Hrair, m'saion ule hraka vair."

Count me among those who have re-read this annually ever since stumbling across it in the fifth grade or so, and who have incorporated Lapine into their vocabulary ever since. I can kind of see the Rome parallel, if I turn my head and squint, but I think it's more of an extra gloss than a straight up allegory.

This was also my first experience with chapter epigraphs, which I loved then and since, and have rarely seen as well done.

Alas, I haven't read anything else of Adams that I've liked as well -- I'd especially warn people off the execrable "follow-up", Tales of Watership Down. Oddly enough, the only other thing that I've read of his that worked for me (and I do keep trying, vainly hoping to recapture the magic) was a slim volume of original "folk tales", The Iron Wolf, which charmed me mostly because of the natural framing device he provided for each story, showing how stories and myths both shape and are shaped by the lives of the tellers.
41. CJM
If you liked the folklore stories of El-ahrairah in "Watership Down," you need to read "Tales from Watership Down." It's not a sequel, but a book of short stories related to the little fables the rabbits tell. Very cute companion reading.
Chris Hawks
42. SaltManZ
My favorite part of Watership Down has to be that final scene. ("Yes, my lord. Yes, I know you.") Makes me cry every time. What ticks me off most about the movie adaptation is how they screwed that scene up.

I've read a bunch of other books by Adams, and none of them are quite the same animal. Shardik is my favorite book ever, though.
p l
43. p-l
I haven't read the book (and honestly, the book and the movie of the same story should never be compared, anyway), but the movie is truly a great animated film. The rabbits are well done, the two styles of animation mesh well, the narration is by all accounts less intrusive than that in the book, and it doesn't pull any punches - a quality that's almost impossible to find in animated films. Unlike Salt-Man Z, I thought the final scene was wonderful. Whether the words are identical to those in the book is beside the point.
Chris Hawks
44. SaltManZ

It wasn't the words that were the problem. In the movie they had the wrong mythological rabbit come for Hazel.

...or so I thought when I saw it. Looking at the Wikipedia page for the film now, the summary reads correctly. But I got the impression when watching the movie that that was supposed to be the Black Rabbit.


Well, I didn't see anything in the movie to recommend it anyway. And my wife blames her ambivalence toward the book (!) on watching the movie first (and hating it.) Of course, we first saw the movie when we were in our mid-20s--the same age as the film--it may have been better watching it in the 70s, but I don't think it aged well.
Alison Sinclair
45. alixsin
Adams had the ear for made up language. And Lapine is so cussable.

Though what I remember about the first time I read Watership Down - first paperback edition on a train returning from a Children's book fair - was the moment at which I realized 'no, he's not going to let Hazel die', and I felt myself relax fully into the book, trusting the author not to betray me. As I'd moved into adult literature I'd discovered that bad things could happen to good characters, and I wasn't sure I liked that.
p l
46. p-l
It was a black rabbit that came for him in the end, in the movie. But as I recall it seemed consistent enough with the rabbit mythology as it was set up in the movie. Certainly, I never noticed an inconsistency, and thinking hard about it I'm still not sure there is one.

Whether or not the movie's ending is consistent with the book's ending is immaterial, because the two are different entities.
47. S.Bentley
I am one of those kids who grew up on the movie, actually. I loved it to pieces, even though I never ever knew what the movie was actually called (I was young enough that I couldn't read yet, and the movie was known as "the bunny movie").

So it wasn't until high school that I finally found out the title of the movie, and that it was based on a book. And then I loved the book to death, though I still hold a soft spot in my heart for the movie (two different entities, but I love both anyways. Despite the choppy animation). Including the horrific gassing scene (I was young enough I had no idea that the rabbits were being gassed: I thought it was some sort of bizarre demon rabbits going about eating all the other rabbits. Strangely enough, nightmares did not ensue from this).

Also, another person who missed the Rome allegory.
S. L. Casteel
48. castiron
dulac3@26: I'm trying to remember whether I've read the entirety of _Plague Dogs_ or just seen a movie version. My recollection is that it's a much darker story.

Haven't read _Shardik_; _Maia_ had a few good bits (the stories of a woman who eventually became a goddess were interesting, and the passage talking about how gods work harder than humans, but their work is a different kind of work, was the best passage of the book), but I remember the quantity of graphic and unusual sex scenes more than I remember what actually happened in the plot. I unloaded it in a bookshelf purge many years back and haven't really missed it.

I've learned that any book described as "Watership Down, only with !!" is probably not one I'm going to like.
49. legionseagle
While Watership Down was one of those books which I literally read to pieces when it came out (not helped by the fact that my father went into hospital at the relevant date, I lent it to him and I think it ended up being passed all around the ward) The Plague Dogs takes all the weaker spots in Watership Down which Jo has already highlighted, including the unnecessary instrusive human pov sections and allows them to dominate the story. There's also a lot - and I mean a lot - of gratuitously nasty sexism, racism and sneering at the working classes (Adams goes so far as to change the names of places in the Lake District as they appear on maps to their phonetic equivalents - Low Door for Lodore, for example - because the local people can't be expected to know how the places they live in are spelt).

And then there's the fact that one of the main narrators is a stream-of-consciousness fox-terrier with a conviction it's about to disappear down the hole in its own head, and the overall toxicity of the brew reaches epic proportions.
50. Dr. Thanatos
Not meaning to beat a dead hrududu, but on the topic of parallels and metaphor I was thinking that the story of Abraham may be a better pick than Romulus, especially given Adams' subtle biblical references along the way...
51. Meg Thornton

I first read the Boke of the (animated) Filum of Watership Down back when the movie had just come out.  It was in the restricted section of our primary school library at the time (or maybe it was part of the reserved books section, I'm not sure) and I remember going in every lunch time and reading a bit more.  This would have been when I was about seven or eight, I think, so about 1978 - 1979 -ish (I remember the film received an "NRC" rating back then - not recommended for children under 12 - so I never actually saw the film).  When I was about ten, I was tall enough to reach my Dad's science fiction books on top of the wardrobe in the spare room (if I stood on a chair) so I quickly discovered his copy of the paperback edition of the book there and dived in, and I've periodically visited it again ever since.  To the point where I now have my own copy of the paperback, and it gets hoicked out every so often.   (PS Brennan Peterson @16 - the theme for Watership Down was sung by Art Garfunkel, this being at least ten years before Bryan Adams came to prominence in the musical world.  I incidentally have the film to thank for introducing me to Simon and Garfunkel, and getting me interested in folk music as a preference). I think in a lot of ways, Watership Down for me marks the point where I stopped reading children's books, and got interested in the stuff written for grown-ups instead.  Because it was a book which showed me that grown-ups got to read about magical things and different worlds and such, and the stuff for grown-ups was a bit more interesting as well. 
Elizabeth Bear
52. matociquala
I've read this book some 26 or 27 times (I seem to have lost count). Read two copies to disintegration.

As above, it was the first grownup bookI read, and I was captivated by everything about it. I can probably still quote long passages of it more or less from memory.

My moment of moments in the book is Thlayli telling Woundwort that his Chief Rabbit told him to hold this run. I can't get through that scene without waterworks.

Bigwig, grown up from bully to hero, is one of the great character journeys in literature.

Amusingly, I now use this book to teach from--omniscient POV (the description of the down) and narrative circularity, from "The primroses were over." to the killer last line.

As to the Plague Dogs--that book scarred me for life. It's one of the few books I will admit to having been too young to read when I read it, and I read Suzy Charnas and Joanna Russ in grade school.
53. Teka Lynn
Watership Down was marketed very differently in the UK and the US. In the UK it was, as Jo says, published and marketed as a children's book. My very tattered copy dates from 1975 and the cover is illustrated with losts of rabbits. The US publisher (Random House? I can't remember) apparently decided that this *couldn't* be a children's book, and aimed it at the adult market. I was very disappointed when I saw the US cover, which has the line drawing of a compass rose and not much else. I much preferred my beautiful rabbits. BTW, I was seven when I first read Watership Down, which my mother had actually bought for herself when we were traveling in England.

Now the *movie*, oddly, was marketed for children in the US, which many viewers consider a grave mistake. At the time, I didn't care as much for the movie, not because of the violence, but because I missed the folk tales and storytelling narrative, which were among my favorite parts of the book. In retrospect, I believe that the movie is an excellent adaptation. I understand there's also a much lighter and softer animated TV adaptation, which I've never seen.

I also loved the chapter quotes in the book, which introduced me to Joseph Campbell among many other writers. I even set the first one to music.
54. Calimac
WD is the greatest quest fantasy since _The Lord of the Rings_. Period. Bar none.

Ursula Le Guin excoriated WD for its sexism. Well, yes, she's right, but it's still a great book. The sad effect of such criticisms is that it made Adams write _Tales of Watership Down_, whose sex-role egalitarianism is so painfully self-conscious that it's agonizing.

I found the film to be dull and stultifying, if anything too faithful to the book to be very imaginative, but not at all a travesty. Apparently the criticisms of it here amount to its being too frightening for children. But except for one of the traveling rabbits being carried off by a predator (which should have happened in the book: that they ALL arrive safe isn't credible), everything horrifying in the movie happens in the book too, the gassing of the warren most emphatically included. So I don't see where the "travesty" judgment comes from.

MadLogician @34: Bernard Levin also admired Tolkien. He mentions him favorably in his book on utopias.
Jo Walton
55. bluejo
Calimac: It leaves out the stories, it has Hazel fly into the sun at the end, it trivialises everything especially Fiver's finding Hazel, and it doesn't have the right atmosphere.

They should not make films of books. They never get it right. I don't think translating between the forms is possible -- the best you can achieve is credible fanfic.
Jo Walton
56. bluejo
But what made it a travesty was that they were cutsified. The rabbits of Watership Down are real animals, not cute little Beatrix Potter cartoon rabbits. Gah. Thirty years since I saw that film and I'm still furious at the betrayal.
David Dyer-Bennet
57. dd-b
I don't think I've ever re-read this, but yes, it's a fantastic book. Drawing me into re-reading is somewhat independent of the quality of a book in the usual senses -- I've re-read Clancy's The Sum of all Fears several times, for example.

Never occurred to me there might be any reference to classical material in the plot outline. I'm not that familiar with the classical material -- founding of Rome, Homer, whatever. I never took to mythology; the characters aren't believable, and the world-building sucks (or at least is poorly described).
58. Nom de Plume
The plot is straight from Livy—it’s the story of the founding of Rome

Oh, dear. I can't believe I never noticed this. No wonder it felt so effortlessly epic.

I watched the movie when I was a small child of four or five, and all I can remember to this day is the scene of the rabbits, choking and dying in the gas in the warren. It took me years to gather the courage to pick up the book at a secondhand store, but I am so, so glad I did.

It's since become one of my touchstone books. I find I read it only when someone important to me dies; reading "Watership Down" is the way I mourn. I always start off in tears for one reason, and end up in tears for the opposite reason. The last time I read it was when my grandmother died.

I'm going to be rereading it again soon, as soon as my heart tells me I'm can, since I had a very bad summer which involved, among other things, my fiancee of many years breaking up with me. It's one of the two books that I took with me when I was kicked out of our home on a few hours' notice, because I knew that the act of reading those two books--the process of thinking the words in those books, one-by-one, by reading them--was my best shot at saving me from suicide, if I felt really serious about doing it, than any reasons or thoughts against it I would be ble to come up with on my own. (The other book was The Medusa and the Snail.)

I'm terrified to pick it up, this time, because reading that book is a process I go through when I need to accept the inevitable. But I'm not sure that our breakup was inevitable. I'm not sure where reading Watership Down is going to land me, this time.
Andrew Mason
59. AnotherAndrew
bluejo@56: I suspect the cutesiness is just the result of technical limitations: it wasn't possible at that time to create a cartoon rabbit which actually looked like a rabbit. My memory is that, after the deliberately stylised mythical opening, you saw an amazingly realistic bit of English countryside, and then a rabbit came hopping along, which led to a sudden loss of suspension of disbelief, since it was so clearly a cartoon.
60. Lenora Rose Patrick
For me, I liked the movie fine as a child; I rewatched it as an adult, and found exactly two bits worth watching at all; the odd opening animation of the Rabbit creation story, and the stylized music video around Hazel lying wounded in the ditch - which had nothing to do with anything at all elsewise, book or movie, but I thought worked as a kind of odd atmospheric piece of its own.

I read the book first as part of correspondence work for grade four - ie nine years old - while in Fiji, and in conjunction with the Incredible Journey, when I'd sunburned bad enough to not want to leave the cabin in full daylight for a day or two, in spite of lizards and ocean adn seashells and Lavinia (I'd sunburned my *eyelids*. It hurt to blink.)

So, clearly considered a children's book by at least one school division in Canada in the 80's. Also a good distraction from sunburn.

I wasn't the sort of child to appreciate the sort of worldbuilding spec fic specializes in and this book does ever so well. That I grasped mainly as an adult, for it being held up so often as an example.

For those who noticed the hint fo sexism in the book, a much better cure than the indifferent Tales of Watership Down is the yuletide fanfiction "Bright Moon, who goes farther still". It has much more of the poetry and feel of the original.
61. Ian Osmond
WATERSHIP DOWN is, besides everything else, one of the greatest gaming settings ever written.  Yes, the game BUNNIES AND BURROWS was written to be funny.  But that game, and the GURPS and FUDGE adaptations of it by Steffan O'Sullivan, work because WATERSHIP DOWN works, as an adventure story, as an adventure story that you want to be part of.

Horrific things happen, as they ought to in an epic story, but the valor, ingenuity, and honor of our heroes, along with a hefty dash of fate being on their side, mean that they win through.

The "sequel", TALES FROM WATERSHIP DOWN, is pleasant enough, and I enjoyed it, but it is, of course, in no sense remotely comparable to the original, which is going to stand for generations as a true classic of English literature.
Michael Dolbear
62. miketor
Richard Adams' source for the realistic details about rabbits such as the does doing most of the digging, was :-

_The Private Life of the Rabbit_ R M Lockley

: an account of the life history and social behaviour of the wild rabbit

OOP when I last checked, but used copies available.

Mike D
63. Dr. Thanatos
I don't find the charges of sexism credible; these are bunnies, people!

I suspect no one would charge an entymologist with being sexist for noting that the female mantis bites off the male's head immediately after his function is complete; given my observations of feline behavior having been owned by both types of cats, I don't think that charges of sexism in Tailchaser's Song would hold up just because the cats are ruled by a Queen and not a King...if female bunnies do the digging then they do the digging. Adams even pointed out specifically the differences between male-female relationships in rabbits vs humans fairly early in Part II.

If it were a novel about humans set in 1990's New York City and it was taken as a given that women would not hold any executive positions, that would be sexist but it's rabbits in England in the 70's...
64. Tracey C.
This is probably one of my favorite novels, if not the favorite. I was handed it at the age of 11 by one of my mother's short-lived boyfriends, and have had to limit my re-reading of it so as not to outright memorize the whole thing. I've read it aloud (to Ken), it reads aloud beautifully, although it has the same ending problem as Charlotte's Web (hard to read when you're crying).

I loved the comment above about how this is a perfect illustration of how to do world-building - introducing elements gradually and organically so that by the end of the book you're reading in a completely different world that is as familiar as any other you know. That's so true, and it's the benchmark by which I judge other sf/fantasy worldbuilding.

It might be time for another re-read, at that...
65. Damien RS
Rome? Geez.

Tip from experience: don't re-read Wind in the Willows right after re-reading Watership Down; Willows will seem intolerably twee by comparison.
66. Margaret Dean
My brothers and I discovered Watership Down probably around the time it was published in the U.S. I remember reading it aloud to them, and we also were known to use Lapine words in conversation. (Most memorable example, commenting on a contemporary VW model: "That's not a rabbit, that's a hrududu!")

Since one of my favorite aspects of the book was the rabbit folktales, I was disappointed by Tales of Watership Down, most of which I found either too pointed or too pointless--with the exception of the one about "King Fur-Rocious," which was delightful. ("...no, the other ear...").
67. KatherineC
I picked up the Penguin or Puffin edition the summer of 1973, when I was traveling in England (and Europe) with two college friends. My neighbors' dog later ate that copy (appropriately, I guess), but my neighbors gave me a copy of the hardcover, which I got Richard Adams to sign when he spoke at my college during my senior year. I agree with katre and leighdb about the language; the first time I read it, when General Woundwort says "embleer Frith" I was shocked at the blasphemy.
68. Myti
Adams even pointed out specifically the differences between male-female relationships in rabbits vs humans fairly early in Part II.

That's pretty much why it's sexist (still one of my favourite stories, but) - he points out that in rabbits, the females would be the ones traveling the countryside to create new burrows - and he chose to make them male, because humans could relate to a narrative about males better. (Yes he actually says that, though this is paraphrased from memory). The second part that came across as sexist is his idea of "rabbits value their females only on the basis of how many babies they can produce". Um... I don't think that's quite true, even for rabbits.
69. Arie Boek
I have read this book (in Dutch translation, so sorry if I mess up on translating some of the names back to English) as a teenager, then reread it multiple times over the years, and have now read it to my kids, who also loved it.


One of the great themes of the book IMO is leadership. Why is Hazel a great leader? While not weak, he is not the strongest: Thlayli and some other Owsla members are stronger and better fighters. He's not the smartest: Dandelion is, and they all acknowledge it. He figures out that wood floats, and how to break the lock of the tame rabbits' pen. Neither does Hazel have any special gifts like Fiver.

So what are is leadership qualities? First and foremost he's brave. In dangerous situations he goes in the front, most notably when they meet Captain Holly at night and Bigwig things the Black Rabbit is coming to get him. Here Hazel earns Bigwig's respect and 'fealty' where before Bigwig would be a natural candidate for chief. Secondly he is loyal and responsible, and tries to hold the group together, cheering up the weaker rabbits like Hlao-ru(?). Thirdly he recognizes and trusts the other rabbits' qualities. Bigwig's strength, Fiver's foresights, Dandelion's intelligence, Blackberry's speed. Finally, he's visionary and creative. Hazel's the one to pursue the inter-species relationships which save them twice (mouse and Kehaar). He also suggests cooperation and starting a new shared colony to Woundwort who of course cannot grasp it (although, tantalizingly, he almost does). And of course the dog.

For the rest I ditto all praise in the previous posts. Wonderful book.
70. Janet Aldrich
I love this book. My mom put it in my suitcase when I was going on a school trip and to this day (a lot of years later) I can still recall whole pieces of the book even when I don't have a copy handy. :) So I think I read it a fair number of times.

I read Plague Dogs, too. It's a really hard book to read; very painful. Loved the dogs, though ("Rowf's a good dog -- come to to think of it, Snitter's a good dog, too.")

And I didn't see the Rome allegory either, but I wasn't looking for it. To paraphrase Freud, "Sometimes a story's just a story."
71. Gardner Dozois
To this day, my wife and I will warn cats to be careful about hrududues.

Yes, rabbits really do those things, including fighting each other and ripping each other's throats out. It's actually pretty realistic in its description of rabbits.
72. Kevin Varney
I read the book eight times as a boy.
73. BPR
@Arie Boek. You got Blackberry and Dandelion mixed up (Blackberry is the smart one who figures out the wood floating, etc), while Dandelion was the fast one (who was also the storyteller). But overall, you nailed your assessment.
74. Faheem Mitha
I've loved "Watership Down" ever since I was a small child. I don't remember when I first read it.
The novel "Girl on A Swing" has not been mentioned here, but it is pretty good. I think it is the novel of Adams I like the best after "Watership Down".

i don't know much about Adams, though I did read his autobiography - which as I recall, does not have anything about his writing. My impression is that he did not become an author out of financial necessity. His Wikipedia entry says
In 1974, following publication of his second novel, Shardik, he left the Civil Service to become a full-time author.
My impression of him is that he is a highly experimental writer, since he is not writing for the money. Partly because of this, perhaps, his novels are all very different from each other. The one that is most similar to "Watership Down", though it is not very similar, is "The Plague Dogs". That is a good novel, but darker in tone than "Watership Down".

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