“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today”
It was with sadness that I read about the news of Richard Adams passing away on Christmas Eve 2016. A year that has seen a number of greats taken from us, yet, none affected me in the same way as the author of Watership Down.
Adams was born in Berkshire in 1920, though was schooled in Hampshire until 1933 where he returned before embarking to Oxford to read Modern History at Worcester College in 1938. Shortly after joining, however, he was called up to action in the Second World War, and it was here that he met a number of characters later to be recalled upon for use within his most influential piece. Adams was released from duty in 1946, returning to Oxford in order to earn his bachelor’s degree, and later masters, before joining the civil service. It was during his time in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government that he proceeded to write fiction in his spare time.
One of the great anecdotes around Watership Down is that the story itself was “more or less improvised…A great deal of it was ad-libbed as they say.” The majority was told on car journeys to his two daughters, and it was them who convinced him to write it down and to pursue publication. It may seem strange that, considering Watership Down is without a doubt my favourite novel and film, I have not yet written a review. All I can claim is a fear that I could not do it justice; perhaps I should follow example considering the book was rejected seven times prior to its being picked up for publishing by Rex Collings in 1972. Later, Penguin publishing house took the unusual decision to publish the book for both adults and children.
“In Watership Down, he created a book ahead of its time, a multi-layered novel that appealed to adults and children alike. But Adams was no one-hit wonder.”
Following the success of Watership Down, winning the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Prize in 1972 and 1973 respectively, Adams went on to write Shardik, The Plague Dogs, and The Girl in a Swing among other titles. Shardik is a very different story to that of Watership Down, and this may be the biggest stumbling block it faced. When your debut is so well received by such a wide and varied audience they almost expect the same from the next work. It had never been Adams’ intention to follow in the same style throughout his works, admitting that he had no particular axe to grind and that above all he was a storyteller, not claiming to be anything else. Though he did revel in the fact that his fans “were all waiting for more rabbits you see, well, they didn’t get more rabbits”.
“THE PLAGUE DOGS, also has some wonderful sections… though it is such a dark, depressing, angry, gut-punch of a novel that I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ it.”
When George R.R. Martin considers a book dark, depressing and angry, I think it should shoot to the top of every fantasy fan’s reading list. Most of us shudder when we think of the Red Wedding, and wondered at the time ‘how much worse can this get’. With The Plague Dogs as inspiration it could only really take a darker turn; there’s no such thing as a happy ending.
Adams returned to his triumph in 1996 with Tales from Watership Down, a collection of short stories containing characters from the original story. He continued writing into 2006 with his final novel, Daniel, well into his 86th year. As someone who would eventually like to finish writing a book (for a change,) it does give hope that it may someday happen. Even if not immediately by the first, second, seventh or seventieth time of asking. What is, is what must be.
I am now looking forward in earnest to the new television adaptation set to be released in 2017 something I understand also gave Adams “great composure and comfort” and hopefully can bring an entirely new generation into the incredible world of Hazel and his friends…and more importantly, his enemies.
To finish, the words issued by Richard’s family following the announcement of his death:
‘It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body anymore, 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.”’