In 1988, I wrote a review of Watership Down for the very first issue of HRJ. For many, this 1972 fictional story of wild European rabbits (who are in fact the ancestors of our domesticated companion bunnies) represents the spirit of real rabbits, by giving the rabbits complete personalities and looking at the world from the rabbits’ viewpoint. Watership Down is a story about survival and Nature, following the trials of a small band of displaced wild rabbits trying to establish a colony of their own. It is also a novel about community and camaraderie, qualities also found in real-life domestic rabbit groupings. The following is an abbreviated version of HRS member Jamie Cohen’s visit with author Richard Adams.
It was a cool, but sunny day when we pulled up to the home of Richard and Elizabeth Adams in the charming village of Whitchurch, England. My friend Kirstin and I were so excited to meet the author of Watership Down. I loved the book and characters so much that I wrote Richard after first reading it four years before. To my delight, he responded with a letter thanking me, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. When I wrote that I was planning a trip to England in October 1998, he invited me to lunch at his home and a visit to the real Watership Down!There was so much I wanted to know about the story. “I know that Watership Down began as a story you told your children,” I began. “Can you tell us how it came to be?” Wishing to expose his two daughters to Shakespeare’s works early, he’d drive them to Stratford-on-Avon to attend plays. The drive was long, and Richard recalled saying he’d tell a story on the way. Once in the car the girls said, “Daddy, start immediately.” I can understand their impatience. Richard has a lovely voice, beautifully British, and when he tells a story his words are as well put together as when you read his books. His dramatic intonation is riveting. And so began the wild rabbits’ epic tale.Richard said, “The first thing that came into my mind was the story of Agamemnon, one of the earliest Greek tragedies.” Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War with Cassandra, who’s been cursed by Apollo to prophesize the truth but never be believed. At one point, Cassandra sees the palace walls dripping with blood but no one believes danger is imminent.
I saw the connection, that he gave Cassandra’s vision to Fiver in Watership Down. “Ah, yes,” he smiled. “Fiver saw the field running with blood, and Hazel wouldn’t believe it… I thought I’ve got a good character. And the story just went on from there…It continued on morning drives to school…before we came to the conclusion, and then the little girls said, ‘You know, Daddy, that’s too good to waste. You ought to write that down.'”
“I resisted this for a long time and one night I was reading to them at bedtime and it wasn’t a very good book…I threw it across the room and said, ‘I could write better than that myself.’ And the nine-year-old Juliet said very acidly, ‘Well, I wish you would Daddy instead of keep on talking about it.’
So thus stimulated, I got some legal paper and started writing in the evenings…I remember when I was writing the part when Bigwig goes into Efrafa, I couldn’t stop…As I was writing I would put in a lot of things that hadn’t been in the original story… Kehar was a character that I put in on the spur of the moment when writing.” Remembering the delightful bird, I commented that to give him a different language and have him speak the rabbit language with an accent was so clever.
He laughed and replied, “I’m glad you liked it. Also, General Woundwort was a character who came in more or less on the spot. I knew they were going to…have bad times, but I hadn’t invented General Woundwort.” “One aspect about the book that I loved,” I said, “was the way you gave the rabbits a language since we have no English words for certain things. I find I use the words! When I take my rabbits outside to a pen in the grass, I tell them they are going to silflay.”
He smiled with amusement. I told him how I enjoyed how the rabbits would call any motorized vehicle a hrududu. Like the word zipper, derived from the sound a zipper makes, hrududu is the sound of a tractor, but I’d not realized it until I heard Richard roll his r’s and say “Hruududududu.”
We were amazed, and he chuckled, “[The rabbits] didn’t often see cars, but anything where they could smell petrol was a hrududu. The other word that people often find difficult is the name of the rabbit hero El-ahrairah. Ideally you should roll the r’s.-A lot of people can’t do it.-The prince with 1,000 enemies: Elil, enemies; rair, a thousand; rah, a prince or leader. Hence, the word.” I was fascinated to hear him explain how he put together small words he invented to make a larger word.
“Is Hazel a common name for men here?” I wondered. I loved the character of Hazel so much and wanted to name a bunny after him, but could never bring myself to name a male rabbit Hazel. He said it was not. “Where did you come up with Hazel?”
“I honestly can’t tell you,” he replied. “You have to realize that a novel is not like planting a garden. A garden is deliberate, like deciding what gets planted where. With writing, you find yourself possessed by things you don’t always know why that is. I guess that’s what they call inspiration.”
Over the years Richard has been active in animal welfare. Besides helping to make it difficult to buy a fur coat in London now, from 1980-82 Richard served as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Plague Dogs,” he said of his later novel, “was deliberately set up to satirize animal experimentation as well as government and tabloid press.”
Since so many of the rabbit’s names are flowers, I asked if he’d used a book to find names. Richard said he didn’t need a book. He loves flowers and knew the names. He did choose the names appropriately. For instance, the woundwort is not a pleasant smelling flower.
Was Watership Down meant to be a children’s book? we asked. “No!” he said emphatically. “It’s not a children’s book. I’m very firm about it. It was told to the children to introduce them to a novel. It wasn’t meant to be marketed as a children’s book. I’m sometimes asked by people for what age group the book was written. I say from 8 to 88.”
I remarked that Hyzenthlay was a great character and had such a wonderful role in the sequel More Tales from Watership Down. “When the book first came out,” he replied, “a lot of people said I was a male chauvinist because there weren’t any prominent female characters. So when I was doing the Tales, I thought, I’ll put that right anyway.”
The conversation then turned to pet rabbits. “There’s an organization in the United States called House Rabbit Society,” I said. “It’s a rescue and educational group with about 7,000 members. When people get rabbits and then lose interest, they take them to shelters. This organization rescues them from the shelters, spays and neuters them, litterbox-trains them, and finds appropriate homes inside, not outside in hutches, but inside with people because they are very social animals.”
They were astonished and impressed. Elizabeth interjected that the pet rabbits in their area ” all live in hutches in the gardens.” I asked if they had ever had a pet rabbit. They never have. Currently they have two cats that we saw scampering from time to time.
Kathleen Wilsbach, the Baltimore/DC HRS chapter manager, had had the great idea to give Richard a copy of House Rabbit Handbook. When I told him that I thought he’d find it interesting, he exclaimed, “How splendid!” I mentioned how excited some in HRS were that I was going to meet him. “You gave the rabbits such personality! I had a rabbit named Casey that after reading the book I called Casey-rah in Hazel’s honor.” I handed him the copy of the Handbook. He looked through it, captivated, and said, “I’m really going to enjoy this.”
By this point it was getting late and we wanted to see the real Watership Down, about six miles away. At the risk of appearing ignorant, I asked what downs are. Elizabeth explained. “They are hills that are very smooth and round. The grass is very short and there are special flowers that only flourish on the top.” Richard explained that there would be a padlocked gate at the turnoff to Watership Down. He handed me the key. It was such a thrill to realize I was holding the key to Watership Down! We said we’d return in a while.
We cruised along the winding country roads looking out on rolling hills and patches of trees. I unlocked the gate, and, after several miles, we came to the top of the hill. Richard had said that in the rabbit’s woods was a large tree on which fans had carved the names of rabbits from the book. As we looked around, I pictured the little rabbits scampering in their adventure. Then we saw the magnificent tree! Just as he said we saw carved into the tree the rabbit’s names: Pipkin, Bigwig, Hazel, Silver, and more. It was a beautiful place, just like we pictured.
Returning to the Adamses, we marveled at our experience. Richard signed our copies of Watership Down. All too soon, our lovely afternoon had to end. We hugged goodbye and continued on the road west to Stonehenge, knowing our wonderful afternoon with Richard Adams and his lovely wife, Elizabeth, would be the highlight of our trip.
by Jamie Cohen
House Rabbit Journal Winter 2000: Volume IV, Number 2