Thursday, 29 December 2016

Richard Adams and the Rabbit World of Literature

Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down and other novels for children and adults, died on 24 December. He was 96 years old.

In a year where celebrity deaths seemed nonstop, his passing was overshadowed moments after it was announced, by the death of actress Carrie Fisher, who sadly was only 60. But it was particularly hard to hear that Richard Adams was gone, given the importance of Watership Down in my life.

As a child I loved talking-animal books, a genre which seems to have gone thoroughly out of fashion (for anyone older than picture book age, at least). It was inevitable that I would read Watership Down. My first attempt was when I was seven or eight and I didn't get very far. I found the style a bit heavy and the action a little too frightening, and abandoned it. When I picked it up again I think I was ten or eleven, and I was hopelessly lost in the best possible way. I followed Hazel, Fiver and their friends out of the Sandleford warren and never looked back.

Many books have moved me, but I think there are only a few (another important one being The Lord of the Rings) which on repeated readings have proved so emotionally overwhelming that they leave me physically drained. I read and re-read Watership Down with cold shivers, with the complete disappearance of the world around me, in tears. Again and again I seemed to find myself physically in the midst of scenes - 'racing through the ochre light' of a thunderstorm ahead of a murderous gang of thugs, trying to save my friend from the deadly snare, staring awestruck at the enormous, silent movement of clouds over the downs. I have finished it and started it again immediately. I have read it several times in a year, although not for quite a few years, I admit. Despite that, its words and images are always within me. My visualisations of the book play through my head sometimes, or I hear the words, or read them behind my eyes.

Watership Down can be read as a really great adventure story blending the fantasy of anthropomorphic animals and their society with accurate details about the natural life of the rabbits and the English countryside they move through. It also has elements of allegory, particularly about the dangers of totalitarian rule. I have, however, read many beautifully written adventure stories, or allegories about fascism (I was even younger when I read Orwell's Animal Farm). What makes Watership Down unique is the way it subtly draws the reader into a literary world. It contains so many literary references that reading it is a remarkable education.

The book is famous for its epigraphs at the start of each chapter, which range from Xenophon to the Bible to Joseph Campbell to Jane Austen to Dostoevsky to WH Auden - and many others. In subsequent years, every time I have come across one of these quotations within the work of literature it was taken from, I feel a kind of time-shock and I am in Watership Down again. I discovered the World War II poet Sidney Keyes through one of these epigraphs, and he has become one of my favourites. Robinson Jeffers' poem 'Hurt Hawks' also came to me in this way. But the epigraphs are far from being the only references. Within the text itself, Richard Adams compares the adventures of the rabbits to those of Odysseus. The poem recited by Silverweed, the eerie rabbit-poet who appears in one of the book's most sinister passages, contains the phrase 'the heart of light, the silence', which is a quotation from TS Eliot's The Waste Land. (The blunt Bigwig refers to Silverweed as 'that lop-eared nitwit of a poet'.) There are glancing references to Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, to 'Everyone Sang' by Siegfried Sassoon, to the Psalms, and more.

Watership Down has thus been a kind of slow-release of literature into my bloodstream throughout my life. I have finally realised that this, more than anything else, has made it so important to me. It has created echoes everywhere and has accustomed me to walking through a world where I see and hear literature in everything. It seems that this is how Richard Adams saw the world, or at least how he wanted his readers to see it. I am used to carrying quotations and stories and references and poems with me wherever I go, seeing and hearing them everywhere. And because of this book, I know that it's ok to do so. Some of us see the world in this way, and it enriches us. It makes life a little easier and a little more beautiful. It helps us to understand the interconnectedness of things, to see cause and effect, and to act with compassion and understanding. It shows me that understanding my connections to literature is a way of understanding connections to the world around me.

I don't think Watership Down, which first appeared in 1972, would be published now. If it were, it would be in a massively butchered form. The style would not pass an editorial team today. It would be viewed as too dense and difficult, too prescriptive of the pantheon of literature, too paternalistic. Most books aimed at adults today don't have a tenth of the complexity and beauty of Watership Down. But despite that complexity, it is also far less didactic than many books published now, which tend to hit the reader over the head with a dumbed-down style and a painfully obvious worldview. Richard Adams wrote this book at a time when authors still allowed their convictions and principles to imbue their writing, but not to overwhelm it. This is rare today, but it's good to know that so many people still love his work.

Goodbye and thank you, Richard Adams.


  1. That's a lovely, thoughtful piece, Clarissa, recapturing the feeling of reading as an absorbed child and a fascinating account of the 'slow-release of literature into my bloodstream'. I fear you are right, too, that it wouldn't pass an editorial team today. I could tell horror stories...

    Thank you for this. I've still got the old first Puffin edition. You've reminded me to share it with our grandchildren.

    1. Hi Tom - thank you for stopping by and commenting.

      While I think a lot of us know that the book probably wouldn't be published today - and that is another sad comment on the state of publishing - we are so happy that it was published when it was! (Even then, he had a hard time finding a publisher for it.) It is also fascinating that Richard Adams was in his 50s by then, and that he hadn't realised he had such writerly talents before. Hope for anyone who considers themselves a late bloomer in anything...

  2. Thank you, Clarissa, for your recent comment on my blog. I also loved 'talking animal' books as a youngster and find it hard to believe that my enjoyment of stories like 'Animal Farm' (long before I appreciated what it was perhaps really about) and 'The Wind in the Willows' was anything but 'a good thing'. It got me reading, and while animals remained a first love, other subjects (the sea in 'Treasure Island'; the possibility of parallel/fantasy/allegorical universes in 'The Hobbit' and 'Gulliver's Travels'- not forgetting the sense of adventure in 'Jamaica Inn' and 'The Island of Sheep') soon followed.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Caroline! Yes, books such as you've mentioned (especially Wind in the Willows and Tolkien) really opened my imagination as well. Those books have a way of living in me even when I don't read them for years, and I know I'll return to them at some point. I think when books have a major impact in childhood, those themes that fired the imagination then tend to return in various forms throughout your life.