If you don’t know what Watership Down is, then you missed out on a weird area of childhood. The novel written in 1972 and then adapted into a film in 78 and then adapted into various series that have been on tv and streaming services. The book “Watership Down is a survival and adventure novel by English author Richard Adams, published by Rex Collings Ltd of London in 1972. Set in southern England, around Hampshire, the story features a small group of rabbits. Although they live in their natural wild environment, with burrows, they are anthropomorphized, possessing their own culture, language, proverbs, poetry, and mythology. Evoking epic themes, the novel follows the rabbits as they escape the destruction of their warren and seek a place to establish a new home (the hill of Watership Down), encountering perils and temptations along the way.” Wikipedia
The novel is quite odd and the movie adaptation was just as bizarre. I recall as a child being a bit frightened of rabbits having ‘visions’ of the future. On reflection the topics that this book covers are quite directed at covering a governing principle of what I believe is important when it comes to children’s books. That children are not stupid. Several older books (before around 2000, although its hard to pinpoint) were more ‘watered down’, the myths, the fairytales, the core sagas/Eddas were always labeled as unsuitable for reading to our children. Children were instead given very base novels historically, not just limited to the scope of time that I am discussing, but in general, children’s reading materials have been either non-existent or very limited in its scope. The first readers were designed to give a basic language skill and formed the baseline of what we call ‘comprehension’. This is the Dick and Jane type book.
Dr. Seuss would not change that much until way later, but for a long time, it was just important that kids learn ABC’s. But, it’s odd that we think about it so simply. Before Carrol and Adams and a few others, children would have been brought out to storytelling events. The ‘campfire’ is a long tradition in which children were included in tribal shares of stories, of things that came from the ancestors, of the things that lurked in the dark, etc.
What would form Grimm’s and Lang stories were the stories that made you afraid of the little old lady in the wood. The absence of realistic tales and discounting the intelligence of children is odd but it seems that this was a thing for a long period, then there was a period in which we changed again, forming a slew of more down to earth, realistic novels, and Watership Down is one of those. There are others but this is truly a novel in which we see the truth borne out more clearly than the stories in which princesses save themselves, or are saved, or not saved, or whatever.
Watership Down is a tale that reminds us of the visual and imaginative landscape that can go a bit into the macabre in some way or another, but connect to a deeper truth. The world is not all sprinkles and rainbows, but worms and dirt. I think Watership Down is a real example of this, it is the simplistic fact-based world that life in all forms, big and small, is affected by the disruption/destruction of nature.
We will go into this a bit more when we talk about The Velveteen Rabbit and the reworking of Grimm Fairy Tales to be in the original format.