British author Richard Adams wrote the Carnegie Medal-winning novel, Watership Down, a children’s book known for the anthropomorphic rabbits that serve as its main characters as well as for its dark subject matter. Adams also wrote Shardik, The Plague Dogs – both featuring anthropomorphized animals as key characters – and The Girl in a Swing, a novel featuring elements of dark fantasy and romance.
Adams, 96, died peacefully on Christmas Eve after succumbing to a blood disorder, according to an Associated Press article on KomoNews.com.
1. Watership Down Began as a Story Adams Told His Children
Adams is best known for Watership Down, his first novel which began as a series of oral stories he would tell his two daughters as he drove them to school.
“The stories I told in the car had nearly always been shaped and cut and edited by myself for oral narration,” Adams said in a 2014 interview with The Telegraph. “When I was lying down to go to sleep in the evening I would think out the bit of story I was going to tell the girls the next day.”
While Adams wove most of his stories while taking his daughters to school, his tales about adventurous rabbits began when he and his family were on a trip to see Twelfth Night at Stratford-upon-Avon, according to the BBC’s Nick Serpell.
“His bored children asked for a story and he began telling them a tale about a group of rabbits attempting to escape from their threatened warren,” Serpell said in an article written shortly after the announcement of Adams’ death.
Adams’ daughters encouraged him to write down the tales he told, and they eventually became Watership Down.
2. Watership Down was Rejected 14 Times
After two years of writing, Adams was ready to take his novel to publishers, but was rejected 14 times before being picked up by Rex Collings Ltd. in 1972, Serpell said in his article.
“I couldn’t bear to take the copy away from the publisher,” Adams told The Telegraph. “My wife Elizabeth used to go and collect the rejected stuff.”
The publisher, who saw some potential in Adams’ tale of the rabbit warren, committed to an initial print run of 2,500 copies.
“As soon as we sat down he said, ‘I like your book and I’d like to publish it,’” Adams said during his interview with The Telegraph. “This blew a trumpet in my heart.”
The book has gone on to sell more than 50 million copies worldwide, according to a 2015 Mental Floss article.
3. Adams was an Animal Welfare Advocate
While Watership Down touched on the impact humans have on the natural world, it was subsequent novels Shardik and The Plague Dogs that demonstrated Adams’ feelings regarding the cruelty he felt humankind inflicts upon the animal kingdom.
In Shardik, Adams tells the tale of a bear who serves as a god to an imaginary world in which he is abused by human beings, a BBC article said. The Plague Dogs was an “outspoken attack on animal experimentation,” according to the same article.
Adams admitted to the BBC that his feelings regarding experiments on animals may have gotten the better of him while he wrote The Plague Dogs, but the novel went on to become another best-seller – though not nearly as successful as Watership Down.
This led to him becoming the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), but he lost favor with conservative members of the ruling council in his efforts to turn the charity to a more campaigning stance, the BBC article said. Adams later resigned from the position.
However, despite being an animal welfare advocate, he insisted to the BBC that he was not a sentimentalist.
“He refused to condemn a decision to gas rabbits on the real Watership Down in 1998 after their burrows began undermining the hill,” the BBC article said. “‘If I saw a rabbit in my garden I’d shoot it,’ he once said.”
4. Adams was Influenced by Horror Fiction
Adams’ books are fantasy, but with a tinge of darkness to accompany the whimsy, due in part to the books he read as a child.
“I was allowed to read anything I liked when I was little, and I liked all sorts of things that I shouldn’t have been reading,” Adams told The Telegraph. “I stumbled upon frightening literature. Poe. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Algernon Blackwood’s Ancient Sorceries.”
This led The Telegraph’s Jasper Rees to ask, “Was he aware of his daughters’ terror as warrens were gassed and rabbits snagged in barbed wire?”
“I think I was really,” he told Rees. “Perhaps I didn’t water it down enough.”
5. Adams Served in the Royal Army During World War Two
Adams was sent to boarding school at the age of nine, and he won a scholarship to Worcester College, Oxford. His time at college was cut short, however, by the advent of World War Two.
He served for five years in the army before returning to college, according to the BBC.
However, he did his best to stay out of combat, and instead enlisted into the Royal Army Service Corps.
“I never fired a gun at a German or anything like that,” Adams told The Telegraph. “(I’m) rather timid and not much of a fighter, I’m prepared to admit, but able to contribute something in the way of intuitive knowledge.”