On his web site, Richard Adams’ family gently eulogizes the 96-year-old who passed away on Christmas Eve with a brief passage from Watership Down, his best known work. It fits beautifully. And it resonates:
It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be alright — and thousands like them.”
In a detailed obituary, the New York Times tells readers about Adams’ early life as “an anonymous civil servant in London who wrote government reports on the environment.” This insight into the environment combined with Adams’ latent flare for fiction would combine into a book that was, quite actually, decades ahead of its time. From the New York Times:
When he was 50 … he began turning his stories into a book intended for juveniles and young adults, writing after work and in the evenings. It took two years. Set in the Berkshire Downs, where he had grown up, a quiet landscape of grassy hills, farm fields, streams and woodlands west of London, “Watership Down” was a classic yarn of discovery and struggle.
Facing the destruction of their underground warren by a housing development, a small party of yearling bucks led by a venturesome rabbit named Hazel flees in search of a new home. They encounter human beings with machines and poisons, snarling dogs and a large colony of rabbits who have surrendered their freedoms for security under a tyrannical oversize rabbit, General Woundwort.
The pioneers realize that founding a new warren is meaningless without mates and offspring. With a sea gull and a mouse for allies, they raid Woundwort’s stronghold, spirit away some of his captive does and confront his forces in a pitched battle in defense of their new warren on Watership Down.
It was a timeless allegory of freedom, ethics and human nature. Beyond powers of speech and intellect, Mr. Adams imbued his rabbits with trembling fears, clownish wit, daring, a folklore of proverbs and poetry, and a language called Lapine, complete with a glossary: “silflay” (going up to feed), “hraka” (droppings), “tharn” (frozen by fear), “elil” (enemies).
Despite its originality, the book had an unpromising start, rejected by literary agents and publishers. But in 1972, a small house, Rex Collings Ltd., printed a first edition of 2,500 copies. British critics raved, comparing the book to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and to the fantasies of J. R. R. Tolkien, Jonathan Swift and A. A. Milne. A year later, Penguin issued the novel in its Puffin Books children’s series.
Mr. Adams readily acknowledged criticisms that “Watership Down” borrowed much rabbit lore from R. M. Lockley’s nonfiction study “The Private Life of the Rabbit” (1964). But the authenticity of Mr. Adams’s book as an anthropomorphic fantasy with classic motifs was not challenged, and in Britain it won the Carnegie Medal in Literature in 1972 and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 1973.
Juliet Johnson, the author’s daughter, said that though her father had been ailing for some time, he died peacefully on Christmas Eve, which she described as “rather a magical night,” in a BBC interview. “It’s the night that traditionally the animals and birds can talk. It was absolutely typical of Dad that he would choose such a night on which to leave this world.” ◊