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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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10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
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Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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Why a Readily Available Used Paperback Is Selling for Thousands of Dollars on Amazon
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At first glance, getting ahold of a copy of One Snowy Knight, a historical romance novel by Deborah MacGillivray, isn't hard at all. You can get the book, which originally came out in 2009, for a few bucks on Amazon. And yet according to one seller, a used copy of the book is worth more than $2600. Why? As The New York Times reports, this price disparity has more to do with the marketing techniques of Amazon's third-party sellers than it does the market value of the book.

As of June 5, a copy of One Snowy Knight was listed by a third-party seller on Amazon for $2630.52. By the time the Times wrote about it on July 15, the price had jumped to $2800. That listing has since disappeared, but a seller called Supersonic Truck still has a used copy available for $1558.33 (plus shipping!). And it's not even a rare book—it was reprinted in July.

The Times found similar listings for secondhand books that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than their market price. Those retailers might not even have the book on hand—but if someone is crazy enough to pay $1500 for a mass-market paperback that sells for only a few dollars elsewhere, that retailer can make a killing by simply snapping it up from somewhere else and passing it on to the chump who placed an order with them.

Not all the prices for used books on Amazon are so exorbitant, but many still defy conventional economic wisdom, offering used copies of books that are cheaper to buy new. You can get a new copy of the latest edition of One Snowy Knight for $16.99 from Amazon with Prime shipping, but there are third-party sellers asking $24 to $28 for used copies. If you're not careful, how much you pay can just depend on which listing you click first, thinking that there's not much difference in the price of used books. In the case of One Snowy Knight, there are different listings for different editions of the book, so you might not realize that there's a cheaper version available elsewhere on the site.

An Amazon product listing offers a mass-market paperback book for $1558.33.
Screenshot, Amazon

Even looking at reviews might not help you find the best listing for your money. People tend to buy products with the most reviews, rather than the best reviews, according to recent research, but the site is notorious for retailers gaming the system with fraudulent reviews to attract more buyers and make their way up the Amazon rankings. (There are now several services that will help you suss out whether the reviews on a product you're looking at are legitimate.)

For more on how Amazon's marketplace works—and why its listings can sometimes be misleading—we recommend listening to this episode of the podcast Reply All, which has a fascinating dive into the site's third-party seller system.

[h/t The New York Times]

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