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Richard Adams (1920–2016)

by Legacy Staff

Richard Adams, the English novelist whose classic works include “Watership Down,” died Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016. He was 96.

Richard Adams, the English novelist whose classic works include “Watership Down,” died Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016. He was 96.

The Carnegie Medal-winning “Watership Down” has sold tens of millions of copies in the decades since its 1972 publication. But that publication almost didn’t happen – Adams’ manuscript was rejected over and over before it found a home with publishing house Rex Collings Ltd. Other publishers were unsure what to do with the unusual novel, one that told an epic tale of rabbits in episodes that ranged from heartwarming to terrifying. The novel was seen as too adult for children and too childish for adults. Who would want to read it?


The generations of both adults and children who have loved Adams’ debut novel would probably beg to differ with that assessment. Adams himself didn’t see what all the fuss was about, knowing that the book would find its audience regardless of their ages: “Well, who’s talking about children or adults? This is just a book,” he told the Independent in a 2010 interview. “Anybody who finds it enjoyable is welcome to read it, whether they’re 6 or 66.”

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Once “Watership Down” found its way to publication, it became a true phenomenon, quickly selling out of its 2,500-copy first run and winning some of the most prestigious awards in the world of children’s literature – in addition to the Carnegie Medal, Adams won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the California Young Reader Medal for “Watership Down.”

That achievement becomes all the more remarkable when weighed against Adams’ writing credentials at the time of the book’s publication. The sum of those credentials? Just the one book, written by a civil servant in his 50s during his free time on holidays and after work. He didn’t even have aspirations to be a great novelist, as many late-blooming authors do. He studied history in school, served in the Royal Army Service Corps during World War II, and had a good job with the government when his young daughters asked him to tell them a story during a long car ride.

The story he began during that trip was about two talking rabbits, Hazel and Fiver. Their adventures grew as he spun the tale during that trip and subsequent rides to and from school, and his daughters loved it. They insisted he should write it down, and he eventually gave it a shot. The result was better than Adams ever imagined it would be, and it was the beginning of a powerful writing career. “I was 52 when I discovered I could write,” Adams noted in a 2014 interview with the Guardian. “I wish I’d known a bit earlier. I never thought of myself as a writer until I became one.”

Even after receiving its lucky bid from Rex Collings, “Watership Down” received its share of criticism, with a noteworthy complaint pointing out the book’s many scary moments. Adams’ own daughters were, he reported, often scared by the story … but that was part of its universal appeal. “I do not believe in talking down to children,” he told the Guardian. “Readers like to be upset, excited and bowled over.”

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Readers who loved that aspect of “Watership Down” also may have appreciated Adams’ second book, the one he called his own favorite: the dark and brooding “Shardik” (1974). On the other hand, they may have been confused by it. Though it’s a fantasy, it’s about as far from the cute (though sometimes scary) world of rabbits Adams envisioned in “Watership Down.” “They were all expecting more rabbits, but of course they didn’t get them,” Adams told the Guardian.

Instead, they got a story about a giant bear and a mythical empire, a story in which humans play a large part, and there’s little room for the heartwarming aspects of its predecessor. Critics appreciated it, but it didn’t gain the popular affection held by readers for “Watership Down.” What it did, instead, was convince Adams that he was a writer. He quit his day job and pursued his literary career full time, embracing the writing life. As he told the Telegraph years later, “I’ve got to write or I wouldn’t know what to do.”

“Shardik” was followed by novels including 1977’s “The Plague Dogs,” an often grim story of two dogs that escape from an animal testing lab. Though Adams decried animal cruelty in a number of his books, “The Plague Dogs” may have been his most overt criticism of it.

Adams, who served for a time as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – but left because he found his colleagues weren’t concerned enough about animals – was a fervent believer in compassion toward nature’s creatures. As he told his audience in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit.com, “The plight of animals is a terrible, terrible thing in this world. A lot remains to be done. They’re hunted for sport, don’t have food and shelter, and are generally mistreated all over the world.”

Adams entered an animal’s world again in 1988’s “Traveller,” a story of the U.S. Civil War seen through the eyes of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse. In 1996, Adams revisited the world of rabbits that first won him his fame, publishing the short story collection “Tales From Watership Down.”

Adams didn’t always concentrate on animals in his writing, though he seemed to feel a bit awkward when he didn’t. 1984’s “Maia” focuses on a child slave in the same fantasy world laid out in “Shardik,” while 2006’s “Daniel” is about a black slave who travels from America to England during the era of British abolition. Adams said of “Daniel,” “It was in my mind a failure because I was trying to do what I don’t do – write a grown-up novel for grown-up people. Well, that’s not my line. I’m a fantasist.”

Adams continued to write well into his 90s, telling the Telegraph in 2014 that he was working on a new historical novel about a cabin boy on a Spanish Armada ship.

Born May 9, 1920, in Newbury, Berkshire, England, Adams is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and their daughters, Juliet and Rosamond.

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