My Heart Has Joined the Thousand: Watership Down

Bookworm Wednesday: Watership Down

“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”

— Lapine Mourning for the Dead, Richard Adams, Watership Down

(I would like to take just a moment to once again thank the WordPress admin people for featuring my post about Literary Tattoos on Freshly Pressed, and to thank all the lovely people who liked my post, left wonderful thoughtful comments, or even subscribed to the blog.  Thank you all.)

Last Friday, in my post about literary tattoos, I mentioned that I was thinking about getting a tattoo based on Richard Adam’s novel Watership Down, and it occurred to me that I’ve never written a blog about that book.  Which is a travesty that must be rectified, as it is not only one of my favorite books but also an absolute classic.

Fiver and Hazel

Watership Down, by British author Richard Adams (1920–), tells the story of a group of rabbits who escape the destruction of their warren by a humans and must face a number of trials and dangers in order to find a safe place to live.  The main characters are the rabbits Hazel and Fiver.  Hazel is the leader of the group of rabbits who escape the warren, though he is not the biggest or strongest, he is loyal, brave, and clever.  Fiver is Hazel’s brother and a runt; he is a seer who has visions of danger, is highly intelligent and intuitive.  (Fiver is also my favorite character.  I identify with him quite strongly.)

It is Fiver’s warning that allows the rabbits to escape the destruction of their warren at the beginning of the book, as well as several other dangers throughout their epic journey.  Some of these dangers include hunters and dogs, but the largest threat is from another warren.  The main antagonist of the novel is General Woundwort, the tyrannical leader of the Efrafa warren, who rules his warren with brutal efficiency, and kills any dissenters.

El-Ahrairah and Frith

While the rabbits live in the wild (and Adams based much of their behavior on The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964), by British naturalist Ronald Lockley), they are obviously anthropomorphized.  They have a system of government, language, poetry, proverbs, and religion.  Their god is Frith (meaning ‘sun’ in Lapine); their mythical founder El-Ahrairah, The Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and their grim reaper is The Black Rabbit of Inle (Inle meaning either ‘moon’ or ‘darkness’ in Lapine).

The name of the novel comes from the place the rabbits are trying to reach, Watership Down (down as in hill) a real hill in the north of Hampshire, England, near where Adams grew up.  In fact, several of the locations described in the novel, including the farm, are based upon real locations.

According to an audio interview with Richard Adams (found here), the novel began as a series of stories he told to his two daughters, based on some of the struggles he and his friends encountered in the Battle of Oosterbeek, Amhem, the Netherlands, in 1944.  His daughters insisted her write the stories down, but the resultant novel was rejected 13 times before it was finally got picked up in 1972 by a small publisher who could not even afford to give Adams an advance.

Now, it has been made into a movie (1978) and a television show (1999-2001), and it is Penguin Books’ best-selling novel of all time.

Watership Down follows many of the tropes of classic epic storytelling, exploring themes of exile, survival, heroism, political responsibility, and the “making of a hero and a community.”  Many critics have drawn comparisons between Watership Down and the Aeneid or the Odyssey.  And many of the themes of the novel were, without a doubt, influenced by Adams’ reading of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

Watership Down is incredibly touching, suspenseful, intense, and beautiful.  Adams ability to balance a wide range of main and secondary characters, a adventurous plot, and lyrical almost philosophical prose is downright magical.  It is one of those novels that will never leave me, and I hope I may one day be able to read it to my children (or my friends’ children, which is more likely).

If you’ve only seen the movie, or if you’ve never even heard of it before now (though that’s probably unlikely), you definitely need to read this book.  In my opinion, everyone over the age of 10 needs to read this book.

“El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

Richard Adams, Watership Down

If you have read it, please feel free to chime in!  Favorite characters?  Favorite scenes?  Favorite lines?  I’ll be honest, if you didn’t like the book, I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it.  You might break my heart.

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43 thoughts on “My Heart Has Joined the Thousand: Watership Down

  1. You inspired me to watch the movie, and I love the narrative so far! Thank you for suggesting it. I had always overlooked this one on my reading list from way back when. Please do keep writing — you’ve got such distinct style and are clearly motivated by topics that impassion you. 🙂

    • Oh, please read the book! The movie is fantastic, but the book is so much more nuanced and truly touching.

      And thank you. I enjoy writing so much, which I think makes all the difference.

  2. Watership Down is one of those ‘children’s books’ that I came to as an adult, and was incredibly grateful because I don’t think I would have fully appreciated the book as a child. I have a terrible memory so I can’t recall specific scenes or characters, but I do remember how much I loved the book and how the cover blurb is so true.

    • Yes, you have to be careful when you introduce this book to a child. It was originally labeled a children’s book simply because it was about animals (as was the movie), but it has some very dark elements that I think make it inappropriate if the children are TOO young. I think I was 7 the first time I saw the movie, but my mother just saw that it was animated and didn’t realize how dark it would be. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I read the book, which I think is a slightly better age for really appreciating it.

  3. Whats REALLY awesome? TODAY Watership Down is one of the books on sale for just $7.95 on Audible.com (way cheaper than using a credit).

    http://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B003NAKQPI
    So, you [uh, the blog readers] can LISTEN to it (and its very well read) if you don’t have the time to read it — or if you have kids and want to enjoy the story together].

    I’ve read this book at least once a year since I first discovered it in Jr High.

  4. I once told a friend I was re-reading this and she was surprised, saying it wasn’t like me to be reading a book about “fluffy bunnies”.
    Clearly, she’s never read Watership Down.

    I love it because it’s anything but a ‘cute’ book – instead the dark narrative and edgy characters really evoke a sense of brooding paranoia that allows you to imagine what it might be like to sit slap bang at the bottom of the food chain.
    It’s impossible to choose my favourite scene – the snare, the escape from the Efrafa, the farm doe rescue mission, or the tear-jerker ending of course? – but I agree that Fiver has to be the most interesting character.

    Thanks for the review anyway – it’s made me want to read it again!
    Love it, love it, love it…

    • Yes, I’ve been wanting to re-read it too! It’s actually kind of driving me nuts. But I don’t have time in between reading for my graduate courses right now. More’s the pity.

      And you’re right, it’s definitely NOT a “cute” book. But it is so amazing. I wish I could get everyone to read it.

  5. Right now I could say I LOVE YOU!
    I did see that movie as a kid, always remembered it BUT… I’ve never remember the name of the movie… So thank you so very much! 😀

  6. I just stumbled on your blog, and i have to say, seeing that you had a post about Watership Down has me hooked already. It’s definitely one of my top favorite books, and I’ve read it many times (Its actually just about time to re-read it again!)

    Such a great book. cheers on having good taste

    • Thank you! It’s always nice to find more people who love the book as much as I do. And I hope my future posts continue to keep your interest. I try to do a variety of things, so here’s hoping!

  7. I’d heard of this book before, because my best friend loved it (and I assume still does love it) when we were younger — but I had no idea what it was about, aside from rabbits, and as she was rabbit-obsessed I sort of dismissed it, thinking “Of course she’d like it, it has bunnies.” (Not that I have anything against rabbits; I just didn’t think that was a good enough reason to read a book. I also wrongly assumed it would be light and fluffy and that has never really interested me.)

    Anyway, your blog post has convinced me that I must check it out! It definitely sounds more interesting, the way you describe it, than what I had assumed.

    • Oh yes, it is definitely not a light and fluffy book. It’s pretty dark and heavy in parts. But it is so wonderful (I wonder how many times I need to say that before Penguin Books starts paying me for running their publicity and marketing campaigns 😀 ). You should definitely give it a try!

  8. I own the movie and will surely now add the book to my list of wants. The Audio book sounds very appealing. So many great books… not enough minutes in the day! Great post; thanks for the heads up.

  9. Well this is really cool! I love animal stories. Thanks for posting this review. It will be really exciting to check it out from the library soon.

    Like you, I love reading, writing and learning. I started a blog this summer called Clay River that’s dedicated to writing and literature. Can you check it out and let me know what you think? @ clayriver.wordpress.com

    I’m trying to connect with other bloggers on here who are interested in reading and writing, too. I’ll be coming back to see more on yours =]

    from,
    Shannon

    • I’m so glad my review was useful to you.

      And I’ll definitely take a look at your blog (probably this weekend, when I have a little more free time). I’m a firm believer in bloggers supporting each other.

  10. You know, I’ve never read this book. I had a penpal in Pennsylvania for ages growing up and I remember this being her favorite book; it’s strange I haven’t gotten to it yet. Consider it on my list. What a great review, no idea how in depth mythologically it was. Very interesting, thanks Amanda!

  11. Eating so much that there was none for the other animals . . .
    You must controll your people – there are too many –
    Thats because you made them the best in the world I can’t controll them.
    If you can’t controll them I will . . .

    All the bad things that happen to any species can eloquently
    be summed up in that creation myth –

    “How dare you entitle your people to more then your fellow creatures?
    Very well, every beast for itself!”

    If only the gods of men were so wise –
    though who’s to say they arn’t?

  12. I think I was one of those kids who watched the movie too early. There is a sense of excitement associated with the memory, as well as panic. I remember a lot of blood and intensity. My daughter is nine and I really want to share it with her but I think I’ll wait just a little longer. Haven’t read the book but have been meaning to. This post has inspired me to pick it up. Thanks!

    • Yes, it can be hard for younger children. My brother is 3 yrs younger than me so it really scared him. He STILL can’t watch it, and he looked at me like I was insane when I watched it again for the fun of it a few weeks ago. But he did read the book and really enjoy it. I’m sure you’ll love it!

    • It’s sad to me that people always automatically assume its a children’s book, when it has a much broader reach than that. Thank for the high praise, and I hope you enjoy reading Watership Down!

  13. I have read a lot of book reviews and they have rarely actually made me want to interrupt my busy reading schedule and go buy a book. You, however, have managed to do just that. I am intrigued. I will go buy the book next week. Thanks for the review. Well done and all that. Cheers.

  14. I read this for the first time this year and I really enjoyed it. It was a really powerful story and had some really well-realized scenes. You really, really came to hate You Know Who (and I don’t mean Voldemort).

  15. this is my all time best movie / book/ animation. it has been with me since my childhood and shall stay with me till the day i die. it gets you in the heart and stays there. there are no words for the amount of love i have for watership down xxxx

  16. I’m a third of the way through this book, but I’m thinking of stopping reading it…because it’s breaking my heart (I just finished Holly’s story about the warren).

    But that said, it’s so well written and very compelling–one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I would completely recommend it–but it’s a little too intense for me right now.

    • It is definitely intense and heart-breaking to read. But then, that’s one of the things I really look for in good fiction. Maybe I’m just a masochist… *shrug* I hope you have better luck getting through it at a later time.

      Thanks for commenting!

  17. I love watership down. My 1st ever film I saw at the pics then I read the book & loved it even more. It still influences my life today. Every ramble mission i embark on with my 3 children. Along with Kes and Durham miners gala its my contribution to bringing my children to a simpler time bound by trust loyalty and heratige, away from pc’s ds’s & nick jr. Quality 🙂

  18. I’m 39 years old, and just now read it. I had heard of it, of course, but never took the time to read it. When my current girlfriend left her ex, he threatened to give away her bunny. I took the rabbit in and studied everything I could find about them. That was about 2 years ago. A couple months ago she told me Watership Down was her favorite book, so I read it. I did not have high hopes. A fictional book about bunnies just didn’t seem like it was up my alley.

    I was wrong. It’s not only a book about rabbits. There are many themes and situations that I could relate to. Social hierarchy, political hierarchy, friendhip, loyalty, respect, strife, oppression… They’re all addressed, and much more. Add to this that the book left me wanting to keep turning the pages. There was suspense throughout, and even when it wasn’t particularly suspenseful, I cared about the characters enough that I wanted to keep reading. I’ll be honest with you. I read on the crapper. I kept reading until I was finished doing my business and I’m sure the toilet seat left a nice ring around my bum because I sat there for many minutes after I was finished passing hraka.

    I’m a Steven King fan, and Richard Adams kept me more captivated than King ever did. If I ever had to tell the Title of my favorite book, it would have been The Outsiders or The Stand. Motley Crue’s The Dirt would have been 3rd. Watership Down has joined that list. It’s that good.

    I’m currently reading Tales From Watership Down. It’s a great companion piece to Watership Down. After I read Watership Down, I ordered “Tales” from Amazon. I was not disappointed. So far, it has quenched my thirst for more or Richard Adams’ story. I’m going to watch the movie tonight or tomorrow. After that, I plan on reading his other work.

    Thanks for reading..

  19. I have loved this book since I read it at 15 and have read 3 more times since then. I saw the movie when I was 8 or 10 and absolutely loved it. I found your page today by accident as I was looking to quote the line: “My heart has joined a thousand, for my friend stopped running today” and I wanted to reference it correctly. My friend Chuck who was nicknamed Bunny stopped running at approximately 3AM this morning because of a Gran Mal seizure and I am having a hard time dealing with it. Friends and family probably wont get the reference but he would have and I can think of no better tribute. I have been listening to “Bright Eyes” by Art Garfunkel all day which was in the movie and deals with the grief one feels after losing a loved one.

  20. I loved this book as a kid. Years later, I moved south to Hampshire, living in a village called Overton, the name of which I realised I recognised: I dug out my (by now battered) copy of the book and saw that Overton is marked on the map in it. There was a thriving pub quiz league at the time and I joined the Old House at Home’s team. I was delighted to find that Mr Adams lived in the next village down, Whitchurch, and was in the Bell’s team! I took said book to our away fixture and he very graciously signed it. He was very much as I expected him to be: a rather unassuming bookish intellectual and, one suspected, something of an eminence grise. To cap a perfect evening, we won the quiz!

    Adams’ writing perfectly evokes that part of the world. The book is something of a love letter to its countryside, but, as you say, so much more besides. It is utterly un-sentimental, unflinching in its approach to mortality and touches upon so many fundamental themes. This and the ‘Mouse and His Child’ are two of the books I read to all my daughters that they demanded be re-read.

    The relationship between Hazel and Bigwig is what I remember the most, I think. Hazel is a model leader, the antithesis of Woundwort, who can only picture a world where the strongest rule. I love how this belief plays has such a major impact on the climactic battle.

    So no heart-breaking regarding ‘Watership Down’ from me! Though I ain’t getting a tattoo of it. Or anything else, for that matter.

  21. I think it was one of the first books I read. When I was in hospital having my tonsils out (back then that lasted a few days)
    The part where Captain Holly describes the destruction of the warren .. broke my heart then and still hurts now when I read it or listen to it.
    Reading it as an adult of course – when one reads things like “My heart has joined a thousand, for my friend stopped running today” and one has a lifetime of classical reference to this compare to … unbelievably wonderful.

    I recently watched the film – and only now realised that Kehar is Russian – classic stuff.

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