Watership Down: A Novel

Watership Down: A Novel

by Richard Adams
Watership Down: A Novel

Watership Down: A Novel

by Richard Adams


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Now with a new introduction by Madeline Miller, the New York Times bestselling author of The Song of Achilles and Circe.

The 50th anniversary edition of Richard Adam’s timeless classic, the tale of a band of wild rabbits struggling to hold onto their place in the world—“a classic yarn of discovery and struggle” (The New York Times).

A worldwide bestseller for over thirty years, Watership Down is one of the most beloved novels of all time. Set in England’s Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they journey from their native Sandleford Warren, through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, and toward the dream of a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

“Spellbinding...Marvelous...A taut tale of suspense, hot pursuit and derring-do.” —Chicago Tribune

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743277709
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 11/01/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 9,599
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Richard Adams (1920–2016) was educated at Bradfield College and Worcester College, Oxford. He served in the Second World War and in 1948 joined the civil service. In the mid-1960s he completed his first novel, Watership Down, for which he struggled for several years to find a publisher. It was eventually awarded both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award for children’s fiction for 1972. He would go on to publish several more books, including Shardik, Tales from Watership Down, Maia, The Plague Dogs, and The Girl in a Swing.

Madeline Miller is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Song of Achilles, which won the Orange Women’s Prize for Fiction 2012, and Circe, which was short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. Her books have been translated into over thirty-two languages.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Notice Board

Chorus: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
Cassandra: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.
Chorus: How so? 'Tis but the odor of the altar sacrifice.
Cassandra: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.

-- Aeschylus, Agamemnon

The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog's mercury and the oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow. A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half choked with kingcups, watercress and blue brooklime. The cart track crossed by a brick culvert and climbed the opposite slope to a five-barred gate in the thorn hedge. The gate led into the lane.

The May sunset was red in clouds, and there was still half an hour to twilight. The dry slope was dotted with rabbits -- some nibbling at the thin grass near their holes, others pushing further down to look for dandelions or perhaps a cowslip that the rest had missed. Here and there one sat upright on an ant heap and looked about, with ears erect and nose in the wind. But a blackbird, singing undisturbed on the outskirts of the wood, showed that there was nothing alarming there, and in theother direction, along the brook, all was plain to be seen, empty and quiet. The warren was at peace.

At the top of the bank, close to the wild cherry where the blackbird sang, was a little group of holes almost hidden by brambles. In the green half-light, at the mouth of one of these holes, two rabbits were sitting together side by side. At length, the larger of the two came out, slipped along the bank under cover of the brambles and so down into the ditch and up into the field. A few moments later the other followed.

The first rabbit stopped in a sunny patch and scratched his ear with rapid movements of his hind leg. Although he was a yearling and still below fall weight, he had not the harassed look of most "outskirters"' -- that is, the rank and file of ordinary rabbits in their first year who, lacking either aristocratic parentage or unusual size and strength, get sat on by their elders and live as best they can -- often in the open -- on the edge of their warren. He looked as though he knew how to take care of himself. There was a shrewd, buoyant air about him as he sat up, looked around and rubbed both front paws over his nose. As soon as he was satisfied that all was well, he laid back his ears and set to work on the grass.

His companion seemed less at ease. He was small, with wide, staring eyes and a way of raising and turning his head which suggested not so much caution as a kind of ceaseless, nervous tension. His nose moved continually, and when a bumblebee flew humming to a thistle bloom behind him, he jumped and spun round with a start that sent two nearby rabbits scurrying for holes before the nearest, a buck with black-tipped ears, recognized him and returned to feeding.

"Oh, it's only Fiver," said the black-tipped rabbit, "jumping at bluebottles again. Come on, Buckthorn, what were you telling me?"

"Fiver?" said the other rabbit. "Why's he called that?"

"Five in the litter, you know: he was the last -- and the smallest. You'd wonder nothing had got him by now. I always say a man couldn't see him and a fox wouldn't want him. Still, I admit he seems to be able to keep out of harm's way."

The small rabbit came closer to his companion, lolloping on long hind legs.

"Let's go a bit further, Hazel," he said. "You know, there's something queer about the warren this evening, although I can't tell exactly what it is. Shall we go down to the brook?"

"All right," answered Hazel, "and you can find me a cowslip. If you can't find one, no one can."

He led the way down the slope, his shadow stretching behind him on the grass. They reached the brook and began nibbling and searching close beside the wheel ruts of the track.

It was not long before Fiver found what they were looking for. Cowslips are a delicacy among rabbits, and as a rule there are very few left by late May in the neighborhood of even a small warren. This one had not bloomed and its flat spread of leaves was almost hidden under the long grass. They were just sitting on it when two larger rabbits came running across from the other side of the nearby cattle wade.

"Cowslip?" said one. "All right -- just leave it to us. Come on, hurry up," he added, as Fiver hesitated. "You heard me, didn't you?"

"Fiver found it, Toadflax," said Hazel.

"And we'll eat it," replied Toadflax. "Cowslips are for Owsla -- don't you know that? If you don't, we can easily teach you."

Fiver had already turned away. Hazel caught him up by the culvert.

"I'm sick and tired of it," he said. "It's the same all the time. 'These are my claws, so this is my cowslip.' 'These are my teeth, so this is my burrow.' I'll tell you, if ever I get into the Owsla, I'll treat outskirters with a bit of decency."

"Well, you can at least expect to be in the Owsla one day," answered Fiver. "You've got some weight coming and that's more than I shall ever have."

Watership Down. Copyright © by R Adams. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Bruno Bettelheim

Delightful...have not read in many years a more enjoyable book for all children from eight to eighty.

Fuller R. Buckminster

One of those great ones that every once in a long while lets us know that the universe has something really great 'going' for humanity.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Watership Down includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


A phenomenal worldwide bestseller, Richard Adams’s Watership Down is a timeless classic and one of the most beloved novels of all time.

Set in England’s Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage, and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, the adventurers journey forth from their native Sandleford warren—through harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries—to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. On page xii, Adams says Hazel and Bigwig were inspired by men Adams knew from his days as a soldier. Did you find this surprising? Where else do you see the influence of Adams’s war experience?

2. What is it that causes Hazel to instinctually, and often with certainty, trust Fiver, even when Fiver’s claims and predictions are extraordinary?

3. How does the Chief Rabbit at Sandleford compare to Cowslip at the warren of the snares and General Woundwort at Efrafa? Discuss their motivations and leadership styles.

4. On page 80, why is Cowslip’s laughter so unnerving to Hazel and the other rabbits, even before they know anything about the strange warren?

5. As Holly tells the story of what happened to the Sandleford warren after Hazel and the others left, the rabbits “suffered extremes of grief and horror . . . Yet, as with primitive humans, the very strength and vividness of their sympathy brought with it a true release” (page 161). Why are stories and retellings so important to the rabbits? Discuss the roles stories and storytellers play throughout the novel.

6. Why does Bigwig admire Kehaar so much? What is the source of the affinity between them?

7. What motivates Hazel to go to the farm for the hutch rabbits before Holly and Silver return from Efrafa and despite the risk? How does becoming a chief change Hazel?

8. Bigwig says, “If you’re going to tell a story, there’s only one I want . . . ‘El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé’” (page 267), just before he goes to infiltrate Efrafa. Why does he insist on that story? What is its significance?

9. When the rabbits reach the river in their escape from Efrafa, Fiver proves himself to be quite strong, clever, and brave (page 295). Where is the turning point at which Fiver begins to gain confidence?

10. “To feel that rabbits were competing to risk their lives at his orders” gratifies Woundwort (page 307), despite the early loss of his family and his rough upbringing during which he had to risk his life many times. Why do you think Woundwort favors violence and competition over sympathy and harmony? In the end, is he a hero or a villain?

11. Holly says of Woundwort, “He was brave, all right. But it wasn’t natural; and that’s why it was bound to finish him in the end. He was trying to do something that Frith never meant any rabbit to do” (page 467). Why is being “natural” so important to the Watership Down rabbits? What other qualities do they value the most?

12. In the Introduction, Adams mentions that his manuscript was rejected many times because publishers worried about the style and maturity level of the book. What do you think is the ideal age to read and appreciate Watership Down?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. On page x and xi there’s a map of Sandleford, Watership Down, and the surrounding areas. Draw your own maps of the territory covered by Hazel and his compatriots based on what you imagined as you read.

2. Consider reading The Private Life of the Rabbit by R. M. Lockley and compare how the author describes nonfictional rabbits with how Adams describes his rabbits. How are they alike? How are they different?

3. Seek out some of the Uncle Remus Brer Rabbit tales and discuss the similarities and differences between Brer Rabbit and El-ahrairah.

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