Sunday, November 6, 2022

"Watership Down" at 50

Watership Down was first published in November of 1972:
.... Three literary agents and a host of mainstream publishers united in rejecting Adams’s pastoral rollercoaster: a reader at Puffin remembered his first response, that Adams was no Tolkien. Eventually, a small independent London-based publisher, Rex Collings, accepted the novel. .... Collings issued a tentative first print run of 2,500 copies. Following rosy reviews, these sold out almost immediately. Within less than two years, the novel had sold half a million copies in hardback in the UK and the US.

Other successful children’s novels have begun life as stories told to their authors’ children, among them The Wind in the Willows and James and the Giant Peach. Unlike Kenneth Grahame or Roald Dahl, though, Adams was not already a successful writer and did not have in mind a change of career. What Adams shared with Grahame, Dahl et al was an intense love for the rural setting of his novel, an evocation of the Berkshire downland he roamed as a child, a keen sense of justice, and a clear engagement with the predicament of the underdog, or in his case under-rabbit. ....

The novel’s frequent descriptions of setting, especially wildflowers and plants, possess a lyrical quality that has become a wake-up call to successive generations. “The rabbits sheltered in dim-green, sun-flecked caves of grass, flowering marjoram and cow-parsley,” Adams writes of the surrounds of a warren called Efrafa. They “peered round spotted hairy-stemmed clumps of viper’s bugloss, blooming red and blue above their heads: pushed between towering stalks of yellow mullein. Sometimes they scuttled along open turf, coloured like a tapestry meadow with self-heal, centaury and tormentil.” Even the familiar is apparently minted anew in Adams’s lovingly picturesque descriptions, such as his vision of clouds at sunset as the rabbits await a thunderstorm: “Copper-coloured, weightless and motionless, they suggested a glassy fragility like that of frost.”

For parents reading the novel aloud, Watership Down – like The Wind in the Willows or BB’s The Little Grey Men, of 1942, an earlier Carnegie Medal winner – is a reminder of what we have lost: the ability to pause, empty our thoughts and take comfort from “the scents of warm grass, clover and hop trefoil”.

Adams was at pains to get his rabbit details right. For “a knowledge of rabbits and their ways”, he consulted The Private Life of the Rabbit by Ronald Lockley. ....
Matthew Dennison, "‘To hell with the child’: the uncompromising origins of Watership Down," The Telegraph, Nov. 6, 2022.

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