CLOSE
istock (blank book)
istock (blank book)

11 Fascinating Facts About Watership Down

istock (blank book)
istock (blank book)

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.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Smart Shopping
12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
iStock
iStock

Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

Book cover for Leave Me Alone With the Recipes
Amazon

Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

Find It: Amazon

2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

Cover of The Butchering Art
Amazon

Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

Find It: Amazon

3. FOR THE GENEALOGY OBSESSIVE: IT’S ALL RELATIVE: ADVENTURES UP AND DOWN THE WORLD’S FAMILY TREE BY A.J. JACOBS; $27

Cover of Its All Relative
Simon & Schuster

What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

Find It: Amazon

4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

Cover of The Hate U Give
Amazon

Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

Find It: Amazon

5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

Find It: Amazon

6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

The book cover for Atlas Obscura's book
Amazon.com

An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

Find it: Amazon

7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

Find It: The Public Domain Review

8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

Cover of the Big Book of Rogues and Villains
Amazon

At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

Find It: Amazon

9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

Find It: Amazon

10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

Book cover for Her Body and Other Parties
Amazon

A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

Find It: Amazon

11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

Find It: Amazon

12. FOR THE GENERALIST: A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH SUBSCRIPTION; $45 FOR THREE MONTHS

A book of the month club subscription box with gift trappings nearby
Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios