“Watership Down” Author, Richard Adams, Dies at Age 96

Posted by at 11:06 am on December 27, 2016

Richard Adams, a British writer whose novel about rabbits, “Watership Down,” sold 50 million copies and mesmerized generations of readers by creating an ornately detailed fantasy world and subverting the Flopsy-Mopsy stereotype of warm and cuddly bunnies, has died at 96. A daughter confirmed his death to the British newspaper the Independent, but other details were not immediately available.

Mr. Adams was an Oxford-educated public servant when “Watership Down,” his first novel, was published in 1972. The book follows a band of rabbits who search for a new home after Fiver, the runt of his litter, has a vision of their grassy home covered with blood — a result of the land’s being developed by people for “high class modern residences.”

Led by Fiver’s older brother Hazel, the rabbits journey across woods and stream to arrive at Watership Down, where they battle a totalitarian bunny named General Woundwort before establishing a new, utopian warren. Expecting a tale of friendly anthropomorphic animals in the spirit of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” or Beatrix Potter’s “Peter Rabbit” series, publishers and literary agents rejected “Watership Down” seven times, telling Mr. Adams that it was too childish for adults and too adult for children.

Many of the book’s rabbits are snared, gassed and killed in battle; chapters begin with epigraphs drawn from the Greek tragic playwright Aeschylus and the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz; and Mr. Adams’s leporine world is so detailed as to include rabbit mythology and an onomatopoeic rabbit language. But discovering that the rabbit word for car is “hrududu” was apparently part of the book’s magic. It won prestigious prizes for children’s literature in England and earned the previously unknown Mr. Adams comparisons to Grahame and J.R.R. Tolkien.

“If there is no place for ‘Watership Down’ in children’s bookshops,” the Economist magazine wrote, “then children’s literature is dead.”

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