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11 Fascinating Facts About Watership Down

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Like a lot of classic books, Watership Down almost didn’t make it to print. After at least seven rejections, author Richard Adams, then 54 and a civil servant, was on the verge of self-publishing the novel when it was finally picked up by Rex Collings, a one-man publishing outfit in London. Collings wrote to a friend at the time, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?

His decision may have been mad, but it paid off. In 1972, Collings printed as many books as he could afford, a run of 2,500. They sold out immediately. The book went on to win the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Prize, to sell more than 50 million copies worldwide, and to launch Adams’ second career. Though Watership Down was far and away Adams’ most successful book (which he acknowledged, telling an interviewer in 2007, “You can't expect another miracle like Watership Down. One's enough for any lifetime!”), Adams continues to write. His last book, Daniel, was published in 2006 and in 2014, at the age of 94, he told a Telegraph interviewer that he was still working, thinking up a story about an ordinary boy who finds himself on the deck of a ship fighting the Spanish Armada.

Here are a few things that you might not have known about the phenomenon that became Watership Down.

1. Watership Down wasn’t called Watership Down.

Rex Collings, the intrepid publisher who took a chance on the then-unknown Adams, was the first to suggest calling the novel Watership Down. The original title was Hazel and Fiver, after the quiet leader Hazel and his seer brother, Fiver, whose visions of the destruction of their home inspires the group’s epic adventure.

2. Fiver's prediction was disturbingly accurate.

Watership Down starts in Sandleford Warren, a real place in rural(ish) Berkshire, England, which is quite likely home to many rabbits. But perhaps not for much longer: In February 2012, the West Berkshire council approved a plan to bulldoze and pave over what was Sandleford Warren to make way for 2000 new homes, despite protests from Adams and others. As of this writing, however, the proposed development, Sandleford Park, was still in its early planning stages.

3. Watership Down began as a way for Adams to entertain his daughters …

Adams told BBC in 2007 that the story started on a long car ride: He and his two daughters were going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Judi Dench in a production of Twelfth Night. His elder daughter demanded a story to pass the time. "This called for spontaneity, it had to, and I just began off the top of my head: 'Once upon a time there were two rabbits, called eh, let me see, Hazel and Fiver, and I'm going to tell you about some of their adventures,'” he explained. “What followed was really the essence of Watership Down.” The story continued over the next few months during the morning school run; Adams told The Telegraph in 2014 that he’d go to bed forming the narrative in his mind, ready to tell the girls the next morning. In a way, the continually-forming story was Adams’ attempt to be a constant, steady presence in his daughters’ lives: “I’ve got a thing about that. Parents ought to spend a lot of time in their children’s company. A lot of them don’t, you know.”

The girls demanded that he write down the ensuing story, although it took 18 months for him to actually put pen to paper.

4. ... But it's not really for children.

When it was published in America in 1974, The New York Times' reviewer noted that though the story began as a tale for little girls, he doubted that the novel was really “aimed at children,” explaining, “I can’t imagine many readers under the age of 13 or 14 … having the patience and grasp of extended allegorical strategies to persevere to the end of a 426-page epic about a community of rabbits.” Adams agreed—but not because of the book's length, or because of its dark, fairly grim imagery. He later noted“I’ve always said that Watership Down is not a book for children. I say: it's a book, and anyone who wants to read it can read it.” 

5. Adams likes that his book is scary.

Parents were surprised that a book about anthropomorphized rabbits could have so much death and violence. One of his daughters reported not being able to sleep after his stories, and Adams’ wife, Elizabeth, even tried to get him to take out the scene in which Bigwig gets caught in a snare. When asked by a 12 year old fan why the book was so scary, Adams responded, “Good stories ought to be exciting and if they are exciting they are inevitably scary in parts!”

6. The rabbits were modeled after WWII officers ...

Lieutenant Richard Adams commanded C Platoon in 250 Company’s Seaborn Echelon, and, as he wrote in his autobiography, he based Watership Down and the stories in it around the men of the 250 Airborne Light Company RASC—specifically, on their role in the battle of Arnhem. The battle, fought over nine days in September 1944 in and around the Dutch towns of Arnhem, Oosterbeek, Driel, and Wolfheze, resulted in devastating losses for the Allied forces, including in Adams’ company. Adams says that two characters were directly drawn from life. Hazel was inspired by Adams’ commanding officer, Major John Gifford, a man he described as “brave in the most self-effacing way” and an “excellent organizer” who rarely raised his voice, adding, “Everything about him was quiet, crisp and unassuming.” Gifford survived the war; Captain Desmond “Paddy” Kavanagh, on whom warrior Bigwig was modeled, did not. Daring, debonair Kavanagh was, Adams wrote, “afraid of nothing,” a “sensationalist,” and “by nature entirely the public’s image of a parachute officer.” He was killed in action outside Oosterbeek while providing covering fire for his platoon, at just 25 years old.

As for Adams, he said in 2014 that he identifies more with Fiver: “Rather timid and not much of a fighter … but able to contribute something in the way of intuitive knowledge.”

7. ... But also behaved like, well, rabbits.

Adams’ knowledge of group dynamics in extremely stressful situations was well-founded, as was his knowledge of the habits of actual rabbits. To better understand the creatures, Adams turned to British naturalist Ronald Lockley’s 1964 book, The Private Life of the Rabbit. After the novel came out, Adams and Lockley became friends and—as friends do—took a trip to Antarctica together, and later collaborated on a book about the experience.

8. Adams didn't want anyone to read too much into it.

In the 40-plus years since its publication, Watership Down has been assigned all kinds of different meanings by readers who think they know what it’s really about. Theorists often latch on to the folkloric elements of the story, or attempt to interpret it as a religious allegory. Adams rejects these efforts: “It was meant to be just a story, and it remains that. A story—a jolly good story, I must admit—but it remains a story. It’s not meant to be a parable. That’s important, I think. Its power and strength come from being a story told in the car.”

9. It inspired its own role-playing game.

In 1976, the bestseller encountered another phenomenon sweeping the world: Role-playing games. Dungeons & Dragons had come out in 1974, opening up a new and surprisingly lucrative niche market that seemed adaptable to just about any genre, from space opera to the Wild West to Ancient Japan. Fantasy Games Unlimited saw an opportunity and seized it, grafting Adams’ lapine world onto a D&D gaming structure and calling the result Bunnies & Burrows. Participants pretended to be “intelligent rabbits” trying to survive food shortages and outsmart humans. Unlike D&D, however, B&B hasn’t exactly stood the test of time.

10. Art Garfunkel sang a song about it.

When you think about it, anthropomorphized rabbits inhabiting an idealized, if dangerous, natural world seem like a logical topic for a folk song. In 1978, Art Garfunkel was tapped to sing “Bright Eyes,” written by Mike Batt, a song largely considered to be the theme song of the animated version of Watership Down. The song, which Garfunkel later recorded for his 1979 album Fate for Breakfast, became the number one single in the UK that year.

11. Adams wishes he had started writing earlier.

Before Watership Down, Adams hadn’t written a word. In an interview with The Guardian in 2015, he said, “I was 52 when I discovered I could write. I wish I’d known a bit earlier. I never thought of myself as a writer until I became one.” But Adams also acknowledges that nothing he’s done since has matched the power of his debut: “I try to look at it in a positive way, to say to myself, ‘Look at Watership Down – if you can do that, you can do any ruddy thing.’ Of course you can’t expect to have another success like that, but it does give you the confidence and the enjoyment to go on writing.”

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LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
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In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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