In the space where a twitching nose meets the scent of danger and nature writing meets fiction, lies the beautiful, haunting prose of Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down. His inimitable style of anthropomorphic storytelling became his trademark, evident in novels including Traveller and The Plague Dogs but his imagination also strayed into mythical fantasy with the novels Shardik and Maia.
It is appropriate that a story which so many readers remember (certainly many of our booksellers remember) as the first that really terrified them, should be one which was made up precisely with the intention of doing just that.
‘When you’re little,’ Richard Adams said, "you don’t distinguish between fiction and reality. It’s all reality. And thank goodness for that. I do not believe in talking down to children. Readers like to be upset, excited and bowled over. I can remember weeping when I was little at upsetting things that were read to me, but fortunately my mother and father were wise enough to keep going."
Digger, Listener, Runner, Prince with the Swift Warning
Adams was something of a latecomer to fiction, having begun writing in 1966 when he was 46 and already established in a career with the Civil Service.
The first ideas for the novel that was to become the classic, Watership Down, began as stories for his children, told in the car, designed to scare them – his children confirm that he used to terrify them: "he told us scary stories. And I wasn’t able to sleep", said Ros, one of his daughters.
Encouraged to write the stories down, the adventures of Hazel and Fiver and the rabbits of the warren searching for a new home became Watership Down. The book was rejected numerous times before finally being published in 1972 to critical acclaim; winning Adams the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Prize.
Watership Down’s enduring success was no doubt cemented by the 1978 animated film version of the book, with the haunting and evocative soundtrack ensuring that the theme song, Bright Eyes, sung by Art Garfunkel, remained top of the UK charts for six weeks the year it was released.
Although he would never repeat the commercial success of his first novel, Adams went on to write several more novels including Shardik, The Plague Dogs – widely viewed as a fictional protest against animal testing – The Girl on the Swing, Traveller and a loose sequel to Watership Down, Tales from Watership Down. Adams wrote poetry too, including his children’s story in verse, The Ship’s Cat, and various volumes of nature writing.
Joining the Thousands
Adams continued writing until his death and at his ninetieth birthday, was still regaling guests with his stories and poems, including his infamous and impromptu ‘Ode to Whitchurch’, his home for many years.
A tireless campaigner for animal rights, Adams was sanguine that Watership Down would always be the novel he was remembered for. In a late interview before his death he commented: "write a grown-up novel for grown-up people. Well, that’s not my line. I’m a fantasist. I live in a world of fantasy really."