“Watership Down,” My Take on a Classic

Back in the 1970s whenever I mentioned to friends the title of my favorite latest read—Watership Down—I was sure to get a reply something like this: “I like a good World War II story. Is this one about submarines?” When I explained that this book is about rabbits, I watched eager faces turn to confusion.


It always seems important to preface any explanation about Watership Down with: “It’s about rabbits!” not only to prepare the reader for a new perspective but also to celebrate the fact that someone could write one of the best stories (or the best, paws down) ever told and have it be about lagomorphs. It is a classic that ranks up there with the works of Michener, Hemmingway, Dostoevsky, Proust, and Proulx. In the decade that followed its release, this novel became required reading in select colleges, mainly in civics, political science, and government classes. Now here we are half a century later and when someone asks me my favorite all-time book, guess what falls right off my tongue?

Watership Down.

The late Richard Adams, the author of this masterpiece, created the narrative as a travel story for his children as they motored across England one summer. In other words, he winged it as he drove. Surely he smoothed it out with detail and color when he sat down to put it on paper, but still the original theme is probably intact, which makes this an incredible bit of ad lib.

I had read a mountain of books before his and have read a mountain chain since, but never before have I reacted to a writer’s prose with such strong emotion. I remember vividly one section that sent tingles of inspiration trickling up my spine. (This from a rabbit!) I’ve experienced that feeling with music many times, but Watership Down is the one and only book to have affected me so profoundly. In another section, I simply closed the book, looked out my window, and watched the forest outside my little rented cottage fade into a blur. I cried those kind of tears that feel as if they are forced out by the ballooning of the heart.

I have no shame about those tears. They are jewels.

The story is about an epic journey made by a band of rabbits who must flee construction crews working in their habitat. Humans are invading their territory, and they must find greener meadows. In this journey they encounter various individuals and organized bands (there’s the government study angle) and great dangers. The travelers’ extraordinary leaders succeed through it all but at a price. These characters are filled with such “rabbitity” (think “humanity” for humans), I can almost guarantee the reader you’ll have a new collection of heroes. And friends. Remember these names: Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver. After reading the book, you’ll never forget them.

As a composer of music, I was destined to write a piece for Mr. Adams’s rabbits. When I completed it, I knew I had something special, and I knew the composition had to go home—to England. I recorded it (about a five-minute-long piece) and mailed a copy to Mr. Adams and thanked him for his contribution to my life. He received it and wrote back to me, and I felt like this barter across the ocean was one of the most fulfilling interactions I had ever been a part of.

This experience brought home to me one of the inspirations for my own career as a writer. Besides being afflicted with the need to write, I cherish the unspoken transaction that exists between writer and reader. A man in England I never met (except through an exchange of letters) set a very substantial stone into the rock wall of my life. Never to be forgotten. Making me a better person than I was. Now as a writer, every now and then, I get to be on the other side of the equation. It’s one of the grandest feelings I can imagine.

My latest effort (I’m eight chapters in) is a tribute to Mr. Adams and his book. The story will be my own original work, but the rabbits of Watership Down are looking over my shoulder as I write. It was very tempting to write about rabbits, but of course I needed to choose my own species so I would not appear to be a Richard Adams wannabe (which I am), so I opted for another little critter that fascinates me: squirrels . . . more specifically, the Eastern Gray Squirrel. It could easily have been beavers or mice. I’m not sure what it says about me that I am drawn to rodents, but so be it. These squirrels of mine are coming up with a fine story and good dialogue. Coming soon to a bookstore in your area. I hope.