Richard Adams: An Appreciation

Watership Down by Richard Adams-9780743277709by Brenda W. Clough

I think we can agree that 2016 was a sucky year all around. Death has been busy among us. But I would like to mention British author Richard Adams. The Black Rabbit of Inle came for him in December. He wrote many books, but is unquestionably best known for Watership Down, his first novel and his masterpiece. A novel about rabbits! It was one of the best fantasy novels ever, a monster best-seller, one of the top selling books of the 20th century. It’s one of those books that you can reread forever. It was so popular that it became the first introduction some people had ever had to the species — there are international editions that feature gerbils on the cover.

Adams was possibly the best world-builder since Tolkien. He didn’t create any special landscape for his bunnies — they adventure in a quite small area in the countryside west of London pulled from Adams’ childhood. Everything now is surely gone in suburban development. What Adams created was an entire lapine culture: legends, language, myth, morality. He does it so slowly and gradually, never explaining but simply showing you. No vocabulary lists, no footnotes! Yet by the end of the book you can speak Lapine and understand Bigwig’s profanities.

He was so good at this, that his fellow writers offered him that ultimate accolade — they ripped him off. There was a considerable rush of books in the 80s of various creatures — ants, moles, cats — all with their own culture and doing their own thing, under the human radar but occasionally interacting with our lives. Only a few authors can boast of founding their own subgenrelet; Bronte may be blamed for all those maidens in Gothic mansions novels (the cover: a dark but moonlit sky, with said maiden all in white in the foreground running away from a great gloomy castle in the middle distance. One light in the tower is lit.). And Austen has the entire Regency romance field in her column, while Shelley and Wells share SF between them and Tolkien may be blamed for all those fantasy trilogies clogging our shelves. But this is surpassingly rare.

It could in fact be argued that Adams has Tolkien beat. Adams created not one world but several. Shardik is very different from Watership, which is again different from Maia. None of these are as entrancing as his first, but he did it. His mastery of describing landscape and weather and Nature made created settings come alive on the page.

Tolkien maintained that we writers are sub-creators, wielding our little tridents under the protection of the Creator who made us to make.  Our literary children shall come back some day and hail us, their parents. (This line of argument may have worrying implications for George R.R. Martin and Stephen King.) Richard Adams’s literary descendants do him proud. May he live in the light of Frith.




Richard Adams: An Appreciation — 6 Comments

  1. Well, he didn’t actually invent this without progenitors. There were also previous writers of generations much earlier than Adams such Felix Salten in Europe, particularly in Bambi: Life in the Woods (a life far different than the Disney version!) and. here in the U.S., Margaret Saunders’s Beautiful Joe and Beautiful Joe’s Paradise. Not to mention, among others, Kipling!

    Not did the Brontes invent the girl running away. For pete’s there was a whole gothic genre well in place by the time they published, starting with Walpole’s 1764 Castle of Otranto. Also not-gothic exactly with Richardson’s Clarissa in 1748! Which books and many more the Bronte sisters were well with acquainted!

    History is always our friend! 🙂

    • Oh you will enjoy it, Sara. Especially if you are an Anglophile. It’s deeply rooted in the English countryside — takes place within about 20 square miles.

  2. “Watership Down” was one of the great books of my young adulthood. One I could drown in, dive in and pull the hole closed over my head while I learned to live and breathe in this vivid new world. And I never quite saw rabbits the same way again.