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Rabbits Before Wizards

by Darryl McGrath on October 25, 2012

Watership Down
by Richard Adams
Puffin UK, 496 pages, $12.99


Once upon a time, a British bureaucrat who had never published anything and who had no aspirations of being a novelist finally ceded to the pleadings of his little girls that he write down the whimsical story about talking rabbits that he had made up to amuse them during long car trips.

Richard Adams’ editor called the nearly 500-page-long novel Watership Down, taking the title from the real-life name of one of the countless expanses of rolling, open land in the English countryside known as downs. The book was so difficult to categorize that Adams had trouble finding a publisher. Watership Down seemed at first a children’s story, populated by rabbits who thought and schemed like human beings. Their quest for freedom in the face of oppression could be found in many adult classics: Emile Zola’s Germinal, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, or just about anything by Shakespeare. Yet the quirky fairy-tale tone would appeal to teenagers—the same kind of kids who would later make Harry Potter and Twilight into mega-hits.

Eventually, a small publishing house in England bought Watership Down in late 1972. Two months later, Macmillan’s published a much larger printing of the first American edition, and the novel was on the way to becoming one of the most talked-about books of the decade. Forty years later, it has never been out of print and has been translated around the world. It remains a timeless tale of heartbreaking drama and adventure—the kind of story that has you rooting for the underdogs, gripping the edge of your seat and hoping the villains get their just rewards.

This month, Simon & Schuster—the current U.S. publisher—is releasing a 40th-anniversary commemorative edition of Watership Down under the firm’s division for children, with new illustrations by the artist Aldo Galli.

“I read this book when I was 14 years old, and it blew me away,” recalls Jon Anderson, executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. “I can still tell you that even 34 years later, there are aspects of that book I still have vivid memories of.”

Watership Down has had that effect on other readers. Teri Lesesne, a professor of library science at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, teaches courses in literature for children and young adults, and is also executive director of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents for the National Council of Teachers of English. But some 30 years ago, she was a middle-school teacher searching for a novel that would grab the fancy of her students.

Lesesne bought a copy of Watership Down and “was just charmed—just struck to the core by how [Adams] could make me care about a warren full of rabbits,” she recalls. “And that’s the mark of a really great fantasy.”

In a literary era when other stories featuring talking animals offered lame plots and plenty of bad writing (Richard Bach’s dreadful Jonathan Livingston Seagull wins, places and shows in this category), Watership Down presented a complex, carefully composed story. Given the Cold War timing of its publication, many readers insisted the story was an allegory about democratic and communist societies. Richard Adams, who at 92 no longer gives interviews, spent the rest of his career refuting that theory. The story was really just a tale about rabbits, he said, with no symbolism.

The adventure begins in a rabbit warren in the English countryside and unfolds in the course of one summer. A small group of rebels in that warren, prompted by the foresight by one of their members, leaves to found a new home. They cannot convince anyone else to go, and only later learn that the warren was destroyed after their departure by a developer clearing the land for a housing project. The description of automobile exhaust being pumped into the warren’s tunnels, as told by two rabbits who escaped and were reunited with their rebel comrades, rivals the panic-stricken hunting scene in Felix Salten’s Bambi, minus the Walt Disney sugar-coating.

The escapees elect a new leader from their little band—a rabbit named Hazel—and proceed to travel through a countryside filled with strange new objects (a bridge over a stream completely confounds them), hungry predators and human-set snares. When they find a place to start a new warren, they discover it is in the territory of some hostile rabbits ruled by a tyrant. Rather than once again flee, the peaceful rabbits defend their new home against a siege by their warmongering neighbors.

The nearly 500 pages melt away toward a climatic chase scene that is hands-down the best version of this dramatic device you will ever read. The hero of this scene, a rabbit named Dandelion, is assigned by Hazel to be the first runner in a life-and-death relay race to lead a farm dog back to the besieged warren so that the attackers will flee:

“Dandelion had not expected the dog to be so close behind him . . . ‘It’s too fast for me!’ he thought. ‘It’s going to catch me!’. . . he tore over the crest and down toward the cattle shed. When Hazel had told him what he was to do, it had seemed to him that his task would consist of leading the dog on and persuading it to follow him. Now he was running simply to save his life, and that at a speed he had never touched before, a speed he knew he could not keep up.”

Does Dandelion pull off this heart-stopping feat? Does Hazel save his warren? Do all of the good rabbits survive? Does Fiver, the rabbit who foretold disaster, ever get his doe? Millions of readers have done their own race to the last page to learn the answers, and so will you if you have not yet discovered Watership Down.

Adams published a number of other novels, all of them built on the same fairy-tale-for-grownups theme of Watership Down. One of them, The Girl in a Swing, is a love story of such eroticism that it’s difficult to believe the same clerkish-looking man wrote both books. But it is Watership Down for which Adams is receiving his just attention this month, more than 40 years after Hazel and his followers hesitantly hopped out into a frightening new world.