Richard Adams, English Author of ‘Watership Down,’ Dies at 96

  • His first novel has sold about 50 million copies since 1972
  • He produced more than 20 titles during his writing career

Richard Adams

Source: PA Wire/PA Images via AP Photo

Richard Adams, the English author who brought the rabbit world alive with the best-selling adventure novel “Watership Down” during the 1970s, has died. He was 96.

He died on Dec. 24, the Associated Press reported, citing his daughter Juliet Johnson.

Adams’s first book sold more than 50 million copies worldwide and has remained in print since it was published in 1972. Initially rejected by several publishers, it was conceived as a story that Adams had told to his daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, on a long car trip. It won the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and led Adams into a writing career that included more than 20 titles. “Watership Down” also became an animated television series and film.

Set in the English countryside, “Watership Down” tells the tale of a rabbit named Fiver who has a vision that the warren he inhabits with a group of other bunnies is facing destruction. This leads a small group of them, including his brother Hazel, to search for a safer home before finding a peaceful place called Watership Down. New challenges arise and they are forced to ward off the perils posed by a rival warren.

Survival Tale

“Adams’s work is a glorious paean to man’s (or rabbit’s) resilience, to the instinct for survival against all odds,” Selma Lanes wrote in the New York Times Book Review.

Critics drew parallels to Homer’s “Odyssey” and Virgil’s “Aeneid” for its epic qualities and saw religious symbolism in the story line, though Adams rejected this.

“It’s only a made-up story,” he told the British Broadcasting Corp. in a 2007 interview. “It’s in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls.”

Richard George Adams was born May 9, 1920, in Newbury, a town in the English county of Berkshire. The youngest son of a doctor, he attended Horris Hill School in Newbury and Bradfield College, Berkshire, before studying history at Worcester College, Oxford. After serving in the British Army in World War II, he completed his modern history degree and became a civil servant in 1948.

Multiple Rejections

He wrote what was to be his best-seller each night after work. The manuscript was initially rejected by four publishers and three firms of agents who, according to Adams, all said that the writing style was “too ordinary for adults” and that it was much too “grown up” to appeal to children. “Well, who’s talking about children or adults?” Adams told the Independent newspaper in an interview in 2010. “This is just a book. Anybody who finds it enjoyable is welcome to read it, whether they’re six or 66.”

After 20 years in the Housing and Local Government Ministry, Adams left the civil service to concentrate on writing after his second novel, “Shardik” (1974), which he cited as his favorite work, according to the Independent. He followed up with “The Plague Dogs” three years later, an attack on humans’ use of animals in research.

The English writer with a childhood fascination for wildlife was president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals from 1980 until 1982 and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Adams was a writer in residence at the University of Florida in 1975 and at Hollins University in Virginia in 1977.

He stood for the British parliament in 1983 as an independent Conservative in the seat of Spelthorne, garnering 5.5 percent of the vote.

In 1996, Adams returned to the setting of his best-known work with the release of “Tales From Watership Down,” a collection of 19 stories.

He lived with his wife, Elizabeth, in Whitchurch, Hampshire, in the U.K.

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