There is nothing that cuts you down to size like coming to some strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.
That’s not a quote about the Interwebs.
It’s from a strange and marvelous tome about a band of rabbits fleeing a housing developer.
Watership Down is more than four decades old and its author Richard Adams. He was born in 1920 and as of this writing, still going strong at 95.
But Watership Down may not be Richard’s greatest late-blooming accomplishment.
Did you know England and Wales owe their improved air quality to him?
The Antidote To “Are We There Yet?”
Adams conceived Watership Down in the grandest storytelling tradition—as a way to avoid the “Are we there yet?” syndrome parents experience the world over. His elder daughter announced,
Now daddy we’re going on a long car journey, so we want you to while away the time by telling us a completely new story, one that we have never heard before and without any delay. Please start now!
Adams spun his tale as he drove, creating plots and settings from the English countryside. His girls loved the story and encouraged him to write it down.
But Adams worked long hours for the British government. World War II had interrupted his college education, but at age 28, he earned a degree in Modern History from Oxford and sat the civil service exam.
For 25 years, Adams climbed the civil service ladder, eventually heading the air quality standards department for England and Wales. Beside Watership Down, he’s most proud of authoring Britain’s Clean Air Act of 1968.
And there he was at age 50, putting to paper his daughters’ favorite bedtime story. He bought a 14-inch legal tablet and wrote after supper.
Adams completed Watership Down in eighteen months. He just wanted a “modest hardback edition” for his girls, but three agents and four publishers rejected the book. Most considered the story too realistic, not proper reading material for kids who want their bunnies sweet and cuddly.
In 1972, a small press accepted Watership Down for a 2500-copy run, but they couldn’t pay Adams an advance. Nor could they promote it. But, he says, they “got a review copy onto every desk that mattered.” And the reviews were stellar.
Penguin Books published the U.S. edition and brilliantly marketed it as both a children’s story and an adult allegory.
Long before Harry Potter, Watership Down became a crossover bestseller. The American edition sold over a million copies, and Adams became a literary sensation at 52. In 1972, it won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for the best children’s book of the year. Watership Down remains Penguin’s all-time bestseller.
The Second Oldest Profession
Adams considers himself a storyteller first, a proud member of the “not quite oldest profession.” Joseph Campbell, his inspiration, mentor and friend, showed him the way. Through The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Adams
. . . learned that God meant me to be a storyteller. If it wasn’t for Joseph Campbell, I wouldn’t have written anything.
Adams wrote nineteen books after Watership Down. My favorite—Maia, which he wrote to celebrate the “sheer beauty, joy and dignity of physical love.” Maia is a lush epic, an imagined origin story of the goddess who fittingly gave her name to Adams’ birth month.
Richard Adams passed away on December 24, 2017, aged 96. In European folklore, Christmas Eve is the magical night when animals and birds can talk.
Richard’s daughter observed, “It was absolutely typical of Dad that he would choose such a night on which to leave this world.”
Have you read Watership Down? Do you think it’s too much for children?
More About Richard Adams
- Wired For Books, March 1, 1985: Richard Adams Interview with Don Swaim (currently offline)
- Whitechurch Arts: Celebration of Richard Adams 90th Birthday (currently offline)
- CBS BNet: Richard Adams At 80
- BBC: Watership Down Author Richard Adams dies aged 96
Artwork: Rabbit by fellow late bloomer Henri Rousseau (1908)