Published in 1972 in England, Watership Down was already labeled as a classic when it came to America. The novel became an instant best-seller in America when it appeared in 1974. London and American reviewers praised the original rabbit civilization created by Richard Adams' rich imagination. The epic quality of the novel recalls the heroic adventures of Odysseus and Aeneas and captivates the reader in a suspenseful story. Watership Down served as an escape for American readers who wanted to leave behind the political upheaval concerning President Nixon and the remaining social and emotional effects of the Vietnam War. Born in Berkshire, England, Richard Adams grew up wandering around the English countryside. The author's descriptive narratives of wildlife reveal his special love of the country and aids in authenticating his story. Homepages on the Internet centered on Watership Down reflect the novel's ongoing popularity. The continuing appeal of Watership Down to readers of all ages explains the novel's lasting popularity.
Watership Down was published in America on March 18, 1974. The novel qucikly became a top ten best-seller and by March 25, 1974, it reached number seven. By April 15, 1974, Watership Down reached Number One on Publishers Weekly's Best-Seller List. The book remained the number one best-seller until July 22, 1974. The novel did not permanently drop out of the top ten list until February 10, 1975. Many book reviews praised and criticized Watership Down during the year of its release. After 1974 not many reviews exist on the novel. A few critical essays focus on the epic quality of Watership Down. Most reviews, both positive and negative, also touch on the epic qualities of the novel. Part of the success of the book seems to come from Hazel's heroic adventures. Like The Aeneid and The Odyssey, Watership Down centers on a hero and his followers. The rabbits leave their home warren to strike out on their own and establish a new warren. They also set out to find does and in the process encounter an enemy. The Watership Down rabbits fight battles and use their cleverness to aid their victory. The popularity of Watership Down continues today. Over ten homepages dedicated to the novel exist on the Internet. Not all the homepages are American or English. A Finnish, along with a few other pages in other languages, page also exists. The novel has translations in French, Russian, Italian, Korean, German, Spanish, Polish and Hebrew. The many translations and the diverse hompages exemplify Watership Down's universal appeal to readers everywhere. Some of the homepages discuss the novel, the real Watership Down countryside, and the movie based on the novel. The movie, released in 1978, did not seem to have much of a significant effect on sales of the novel. However, many of the homepages claimed the movie first motivated them to read the book. Short reviews of the book by modern day readers also appear on the Internet. Pages exist where readers can post their personal opinions and thoughts on Watership Down.
Published in the United Sates in 1974, contemporary political events of the early seventies might have influenced the Watership Down's initial popularity. Major political upheaval occurred in the United States at that time. The last American troops in Vietnam returned home in early 1973 and the war remained fresh in everyone's minds. The Watergate scandal was also a major event of the time and Nixon resigned in August of 1974. The Vietnam War was an emotional and confusing war. Many Americans did not have a clear idea of who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" were in the war. Without a direct threat to the United States, many Americans did not understand or want to become involved. Broadcast daily on television, the war became known as the "television war." Due to the massive coverage by the media, Americans could not avoid hearing about the war. The general population of the US did not support the war and their opposition caused much social unrest and violence.
Watership Down provided an escape to the unresolvable conflicts over the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Nixon. In Watership Down, the Watership Down warren characterizes a democratic government. Hazel acts as Chief Rabbit upon the agreement of all the rabbits of the warren. When the Watership Down warren requires does to ensure their long-term survival, a group of rabbits set out to a neighboring warren. In their attempt to ask the neighboring Efrafa warren to for some of their does, they are held as prisoners. Controlled by General Woundwort, a tyrant who uses torture and oppression to keep his warren subservient, the Efrafa warren symbolizes a corrupt dictatorship. To simplify, Hazel's rabbits manage to escape and the "good" warren and the "bad" warren later engage in battle. Ultimately, the "good" warren wins. Unlike the Vietnam War, the battle between Watership Down and Efrafa does not produce differing opinions among the readers. All readers support Hazel and his warren. The Vietnam War caused heated debate and uncertainty among the American people. Over 58,000 Americans died in the war. Watership Down depicts a small war with little causalities. American readers could lose themselves in a novel that did not cause them to ask the same unanswerable questions or to feel the incredible loss of someone close. Readers, amidst the Watergate scandal, read about the fair and democratic government of Hazel's warren in Watership Down. One of the many book lists where the novel reigned as number one dubbed the book "Watergate Down." Intermixing the scandal with the title of the novel illustrates the public's concern with the politics of the day and the slight connection they made with Watership Down.
Reviewers from London and America praised Richard Adams' for the believable civilization he creates for the rabbits of Watership Down. Many made the observation that the author is a master storyteller. The critics admire the vivid imagination Adams' uses to describe the rabbits' adventures. Adams invents a rabbit language, mythology and government. Throughout the novel, the author inserts certain lapine words into the story. For the reader he has placed a "Lapine Glossary" at the end of the book for reference. The subtle use of a language unique to rabbits produces a sense of reality for the reader. The creation of mythology adds a sense of history and connection to all rabbits. The fascinating stories about Frith (the sun god) and El-ahrairah (their folk hero) enthrall the reader and keep the novel interesting. Many reviewers gave positive comments on the battles between the warrens. The critics felt they represent scenes from war movies. Richard Adams has said that he based some of the rabbits' characters on army soldiers he fought with in World War II. Adams' personal knowledge of war helps to make the story suspenseful and keeps the reader turning the page. Richard Adams' love of the countryside appears in his descriptions of Watership Down. One critic explains: "Mr. Adams has so exact a knowledge of the territory he describes, a real piece of downland and common on the Hampshire-Berkshire border, and so profound a knowledge of animal behaviour, that fantasy is contained with the real and not superimposed upon it; he colours and reinforces nature rather than obscuring or concealing ignorance of it". ("Pick of the Warren" 47). Adams grew up in the area he describes in the novel and he spent his childhood walking around the countryside with his father. Reviewers praised Adams for his beautiful descriptions of wildlife that adds reality to the novel. They also compared his descriptive narrative to the classic novel The Wind in the Willows. Many believed Watership Down followed in the tradition of intertwining the characters and the countryside. Adams' combination of rich imagination and love of the country has made Watership Down an enjoyable and believable read.
A 1974 Publishers Weekly interview with Richard Adams gives a close look of the author. The interview informs the public that Adams is not as gentle as he might seem from his novel and picture on the inside jacket. Adams "is...feisty, rather pugnacious, with a very keen sense of his own and his book's value, extraordinarily talkative and utterly unsentimental - though at the same time subject to swift tears" (Baker). His great love of English literature and children inspired Adams to write Watership Down. The story of his novel originated during long car rides with his two young daughters. Adams decided to turn his stories into a novel upon the urging of his young daughter Julie. Many critics claimed that the book was too hard and long for children to understand. Resentful of such suggestions, Adams rebuts with fan letters he received from children who read and loved the book. He also appears bitter to how he has "been written about as a domestic tyrant" because of the obedience he expects from his children (Rees). Adams' well known animosity toward the press results from erroneous claims made by the press such as the two previously mentioned. One article about Adams mentioned a new book he was working on that "includes a journalist called Nuggins, ?the man you can't gag'" (Rees). Adams acts very outspoken on the books he writes and insists they do not have hidden political meanings. He acts very private when asked about the money he makes from his novels. In 1985, People Weekly published an article on Richard Adams and his new book Maia. The article discussed a public rumor of an extramarital affair Adams' allegedly had in 1982. Claiming it was ancient history, Adams did not want to talk about the rumor. During a 1974 interview, he became sentimental over the writings of other authors such as Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth." The summation of Richard Adams' public persona appears in the following quotation: "...despite his sometimes testy surface, Adams is remarkably open to emotion" (Baker).
Watership Down appeals to readers of all ages. However, critics debate over the intended audience. The novel succeeded extraordinarily well when released in England as a juvenile novel and when released in America as an adult title. The readers answer the question asked by the reviewers in their letters to editors and personal reviews. A 12 year old boy wrote in response to Richard Gilman's March 24, 1974, review in The New York Times Book Review and said: "I find that it is untrue when R.Gilman says
?I can't imagine many readers under 13 or 14...having the patience and grasp...to persevere to the end of a 426-page epic about a community of rabbits,' as I am 12 and find the book fantastic" (Anthony). Richard Adams once displayed a folder of fan letters during an interview and showed a letter from a child under seven who loved the book. Adults also enjoy the novel. On the Internet there are book reviews of Watership Down by children and adults. Some reviews are by teachers who like the book and said that their students recommended the book to them. Other reviews exist on a page hosted by "Book/Zine Reviews" and include kids in the sixth and seventh grades talking about what they like in the novel. A good example of the inter-generational appeal appears in an April 28, 1974, letter to the editor of The New York Times Book Review. Christie Hochschild described how she read the book aloud to her children. She commented that they all found the book exciting and appreciated how Richard Adams "gets right inside the rabbits. He is so convincing when he writes about them that you are completely absorbed by their world" (Hochschild). Many of the modern day homepages on the Internet mention that the creator of the homepage first fell in love with the book when they were a child. They delighted in the book then and continue to read it over and over today as adults.
Watership Down remained on the best-seller list for ten months in 1974/1975 and has stayed a well liked book through today. Richard Adams' love of nature infuses itself into the adventurous story about rabbits. Many factors combine to make Watership Down an unforgettable best-seller. The novel enabled readers to leave political events of the day behind and engross themselves in a grand adventure story. The epic quality of the book continues to captivate the readers of today. Watership Down proves to be an excellent best-seller for readers of all ages.
Anthony, Robert W.T. "Letters to the Editor - Watership Down." The New York Times
Book Review 28 April 1974.
Baker, John F. "Richard Adams." Publishers Weekly v205 15 April 1974.
Cooper, Jonathan. "Richard Adams Follows Up Watership Down and Shardik with an
Erotic Epic Called Maia." People Weekly v23 11 March 1985: 77-8.
"Pick of the Warren" The Economist 23 Dec. 1972: 47.