Rabbits, squirrels, birds, oh my! Have you ever wondered what goes on in the minds of these backyard creatures? In 1972, Richard Adams dedicated over four hundred pages to describing the fictional adventures of a group of rabbits in what has become a classic called Watership Down. This particular group of rabbits escaped from their warren, after Fiver sees a vision which reveals their home will soon be destroyed by humans. For the first two days this week, I’ll share a little biographical information about author Richard Adams. The other two days, I’ll give some trivia about Watership Down itself.
English: Richard Adams, author of ‘Watership Down’, reads from his book at the Whitchurch Arts presentation of Aldo Galli’s paintings, which were inspired by the book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Born May 1920 in England, Richard Adams has always been a storyteller. In contrast to some classic authors, he grew up a happy child. He lived in a nice house, with three acres of garden. Being an only child, he mostly played by himself, but told the BBC that this developed his imagination. At school, he developed his writing skills by doing everything he could “to get the masters to give me a job writing short stories as part of the school work”.
The rest of what I could garner online about Adams reads like a resume. In 1938, he went to Worcester College, Oxford to read Modern History. In July 1940, shortly after the declaration of war between the UK and Germany, Adams was called up to join the British Army. He served in the Middle East and India, but saw no action against either the Germans or the Japanese. After being released from the army in 1946, Adams resumed his studies and earned two degrees. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts, Adams joined the British Civil Service and held the rank of Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Fortunately, for all of us who love his literary works, it was during this period that he began writing fiction in his spare time.
If I could count them all, I wonder how many authors told their best stories first orally to entertain their children or relations? Adams is certainly not an exception. He used to weave tales for his two young daughters whenever they had a long car journey.
Myself, I have spun epic stories about fruit (of all things!) battles for my cousins, along with more realistic and whimsical tales about my pets for my siblings. The latter I collected and once sold in booklet form for five dollars. Obviously, the latter pales in comparison to the success which Adams achieved.
Cover of Watership Down
One day as Adams to headed to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Judi Dench in Twelfth Night, his eldest daughter, who was eight at the time, reportedly said ‘Now daddy we’re going on a long car journey, so we want you to while away the time by telling us a completely new story, one that we have never heard before and without any delay. Please start now!’.
As Adams told the BBC, “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.’ What followed was really the essence of Watership Down.”
Once Adams finished concocting his rabbit tale, his two daughters encouraged him to publish it. It took him two years to revise. Seven publishers rejected it, before Rex Collings agreed to publish it for a two-thousand copy run. Watership Down gained international acclaim almost immediately, selling over a million copies worldwide. It was awarded both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award for Children’s Fiction. Today Watership Down is considered a classic. Pretty good for a rabbit tale!
In 1974, following publication of his second novel, Shardik, Adams left the Civil Service to become a full-time author. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1975.
What tales have you told to others? Have you written any of them down?
What do you think of when you hear the word “fantasy”? Do you envision authors weaving tales strictly from their imagination or do you see them as research fiends?
If the former you might be surprised to know that although Watership Down is labeled a classic fantasy, it’s also entirely based in the Berkshire countryside. Adams told the BBC, “The route which the rabbits took in the story, it’s all quite real, it’s all there for anyone to see. In fact several people have actually amused themselves by walking the route of the rabbits from south of Newbury up to Watership Down.”
Yes, Watership Down is a real place in England that you can visit. You might use A Visit to Watership Down at Bits N Bobs Stones as a guide. A virtual tour is also available at The Real Watership Down website. Actually, if business investors have their way, the latter might become the only way you can visit it. The real Watership Down may be bulldozed for housing development.
You might also be surprised that Richard Adams relied heavily on the book The Private Life of Rabbit by Ronald Lockley to provide readers with a realistic portrayal of the warren life of wild rabbits. According to the preface in my husband’s borrowed version of Watership Down, Adams asked Lockley to read Watership Down. The two gentlemen became great friends, going for walks together. Lockley even devised the passage for Nuthanger Farm. Moreover, the two took a cruise together to the Antarctica and then wrote a book about their experience.
You can read more about Adams and Watership Down in his interview with: Rabbit House Society
Other interesting facts about Watership Down can be found at: Ten Facts You May Not Know About Watership Down