Watership Down was first published in 1972, when Richard Adams had almost given up on having it published at all without resorting to paying for the publication out of his own pocket. The book, which originally began as a series of stories Adams told to his two young daughters on long car trips, was originally published by a small press, Rex Collings, and then reprinted by Penguin as a juvenile title, and by Macmillan as an adult title. Surprisingly, Adams's tale of a band of adventurous rabbits became a huge success, and eventually won the Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal. The book's success led to a great surge in the publication of other fantasies set in animal communities. Adams was not the first writer to use animals as his main characters, and noted that the animal stories of Ernest Thompson Seton served as inspiration for the book. However, Watership Down had the rare distinction of being read by both children and adults and of receiving wide critical acclaim. In the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Peter Hunt called the book "the most successful single postwar [World War II] animal story."
Watership Down is not a sweet fable about bunnies; it's a gritty, often frightening tale, in which characters die or become injured and these facts of life are not disguised. Hunt quoted an interview with Adams, in which Adams said of his writing style, "I derived early the idea that one must at all costs tell the truth to children, not so much about mere physical pain and fear, but about the really unanswerable things—what [writer] Thomas Hardy called 'the essential grimness of the human situation.'" Paradoxically, Adams chose a tale about rabbits to do just that.