Poetic fields encompass me around,
And still I seem to tread on classic ground.
(Joseph Addison, Letter from Italy)
Watership Down is, as we all know, one of the few books that has been a great success for readers of all ages for some decades. So it's unsurprising that Penguin have kept the book in print in both adult and juvenile (Puffin) imprints these thirty years. Now, however, the Great Work has achieved what may even be a unique achievement - parallel publication in both Puffin Modern Classics and Penguin Classics editions.
The first thing one notices about this edition on the bookshop shelf is its spine - not the traditional Penguin orange of the "main" edition, but a striking silver, with the author and title in a stark sans-serif black. The next thing one is aware of is the book's size, an inch or so taller than Penguin standard, thus meaning that it might not fit in some bookcases! The cover is a wrenching break with previous versions, which have almost without exception shown at least one actual rabbit. Here, we get a colour photo (above, by Roy Mehta) of what seems to be a metal trap or snare hidden in dry grass, and the image has some power.
The blurb and quotes
The back cover is silver with a highlighted review extract from the Evening Standard: "A masterpiece ... very funny, exciting, often moving ... it is also educative and tough". I don't think many of us would argue with that! There is also a smaller quote from the Guardian: "A great book ... A whole world is created". The blurb itself is quite lengthy, and perhaps gives away just slightly too much plot, but there's no real cause for complaint, especially when it begins "Richard Adams's astonishing novel..."! Inside the front cover, we get four more glowing quotes, from The New York Times Book Review, The Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman and the Sunday Telegraph. Not a bad collection, really!
The most interesting aspect of this edition is the introduction by Nicholas Lezard, Guardian (books) and Independent on Sunday (radio) columnist and one-time Literary Editor of the Modern Review. Not that any of us need converting, but it's great fun to watch him laying into those critics who consider that "no novel about rabbits is ever to be taken seriously" by adults. As Lezard says, perhaps only The Lord of the Rings is sneered at from on high in such a manner. Incidentally, he considers Watership Down to be a better story even than LotR - well said that man. He announces boldly "it is not an allegory", which will give quite a few people something to chew on, though rather oddly he later states "Watership Down is an allegory of authority, its abuse and rediscovery"! We can all agree, though, on his closing sentence: "Watership Down, you can't help feeling, will last".
The Puffin Modern Classics edition experimented with completely resetting the type, but it didn't really work, especially as page numbers did not agree with the original Penguin edition of 1974, which is the one usually referred to in the UK. This edition, thankfully, sticks by the original, and the only differences are welcome cosmetic ones: the pages are slightly enlarged, and the map is much clearer. The typeface (Monotype Baskerville) does perhaps appear a little old fashioned, but I think that's a good thing, as is the decision to keep the part titles (eg "Hazel-Rah") on the top of the left-hand pages, rather than simply using "Watership Down" throughout, as the Puffin Modern Classics book does.
The book's cover price is £7.99, which is a little steep for a popular novel but quite cheap for a literary work, so I suppose it's acceptable. Watership Down is not exactly a difficult book to find second-hand in any case, if a reading copy is your aim. Its ISBN is 0-141-186-666, which will doubtless have the lunatic fringe up in arms... =;)
Copyright © David "Loganberry" Buttery 2002. Updated 12/10/02.