Richard Adams, best-selling British author of 'Watership Down,' dies at 96

Richard Adams, best-selling British author of 'Watership Down,' dies at 96
  1. Richard Adams, best-selling British author of 'Watership Down,' dies at 96
    Richard Adams, the British writer whose novel about rabbits, "Watership Down," sold 50 million copies and mesmerized generations of readers by creating an ornately detailed fantasy world and subverting the … Click to Continue…

Richard Adams, the British writer whose novel about rabbits, "Watership Down," sold 50 million copies and mesmerized generations of readers by creating an ornately detailed fantasy world and subverting the Flopsy-Mopsy stereotype of warm and cuddly bunnies, has died at 96.

A daughter confirmed his death to the British newspaper the Independent, but other details were not immediately available.

Adams was an Oxford-educated public servant when "Watership Down," his first novel, was published in 1972. The book follows a band of rabbits who search for a new home after Fiver, the runt of his litter, has a vision of their grassy home covered with blood - a result of the land's being developed by people for "high class modern residences."

Led by Fiver's older brother Hazel, the rabbits journey across woods and stream to arrive at Watership Down, where they battle a totalitarian bunny named General Woundwort before establishing a new, utopian warren.

Expecting a tale of friendly anthropomorphic animals in the spirit of Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" or Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit" series, publishers and literary agents rejected "Watership Down" seven times, telling Adams that it was too childish for adults and too adult for children.

Many of the book's rabbits are snared, gassed and killed in battle; chapters begin with epigraphs drawn from the Greek tragic playwright Aeschylus and the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz; and Adams' leporine world is so detailed as to include rabbit mythology and an onomatopoeic rabbit language.

But discovering that the rabbit word for car is "hrududu" was apparently part of the book's magic. It won prestigious prizes for children's literature in England and earned the previously unknown Adams comparisons to Grahame and J.R.R. Tolkien.

"If there is no place for 'Watership Down' in children's bookshops," the Economist magazine wrote, "then children's literature is dead."

I promise you it is not a fable or an allegory or a parable of any kind, It is a story about rabbits, that is all.

Richard Adams, upon the release of “Watership Down”

The novel's appeal, according to Cathryn M. Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College in Boston, rested as much on its richly textured fantasy world as its apparent parallels to the human world.

"We see qualities of ourselves in those feisty little rabbits," she said.

In one section, a rabbit named Strawberry offers a rebuke to human ways in an explanation of how animals are different from men: "If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill, they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality."

Adams later revealed that the book's rabbit heroes were based on his commanding officers in the British military during World War II, but he decried attempts to find larger meanings in the novel.

"I promise you it is not a fable or an allegory or a parable of any kind," he told the Pittsburgh Press upon its release. "It is a story about rabbits, that is all."

An animated movie was made in 1978, with voices provided by actors such as John Hurt, Ralph Richardson and Zero Mostel. A musical and an animated television series followed.

In a sign of the book's reach, it even introduced the idea of a rabbit to readers who had never seen one: The covers of some worldwide editions featured gerbils scampering over sand dunes.

Richard George Adams was born in Newbury, England, on May 9, 1920. He was the youngest of three boys, the son of a nurse and a father who, when he wasn't working as the local doctor, tested Adams on the names of the birds and other wildlife that surrounded their home, urging him to learn, as well, his knotgrass and pimpernel, heartsease and speedwell.

In interviews, Adams recalled that his father was also class-conscious and something of a snob. As a "kind of joke" and nod to his father, Adams used early royalties from "Watership Down" to buy a genuine coat of arms for himself, appropriately featuring three rabbits on a green ground.

With the outbreak of World War II, he left the University of Oxford to enlist in the Royal Army Service Corps. He later joined a British army airborne division but never saw combat.

He completed his degree after the war. He received a master's degree in modern history in 1953, also from Oxford, and moved directly into the British civil service, where he spent the next two decades.

Working on issues as varied as slum clearance and outdoor advertising regulations, he rose to the position of assistant secretary in what would later become the Department of the Environment. Because of the amount of information he was required to gorge and synthesize, the job was "good training for a novelist," he later told People magazine.

His writing career happened almost by chance. Adams had children late in life and liked to entertain them with stories. In 1966, driving from London to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, he began telling them about two rabbits named Fiver and Hazel who traveled to the real-life Watership Down, five miles from his childhood home.

Two weeks later, when he had finished his improvised tale, his daughters urged him to write it down. He completed the book over the next two years.

His next novel, "Shardik" (1…

Tags: #Novels
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