December 27, 2016

"For much of his life, Mr. Adams was an anonymous civil servant in London who wrote government reports on the environment."

"But he was also an unpublished dabbler in fiction, an amateur naturalist and a father who made up rabbit stories to entertain his two young daughters on long drives in the country...."

Richard Adams, author of "Watership Down" has died. Having lived to the age of 96, he makes a strange third to the celebrity death triad with George Michael and Carrie Fisher. But perhaps it is not so odd: He aimed to delight the young.
When he was 50, at [his daughters'] urging, he began turning his stories into a book intended for juveniles and young adults, writing after work and in the evenings. It took two years. Set in the Berkshire Downs, where he had grown up, a quiet landscape of grassy hills, farm fields, streams and woodlands west of London, “Watership Down” was a classic yarn of discovery and struggle.


IN THE COMMENTS: My use of the word "delight" is deplored and regretted.

68 comments:

J. Farmer said...

Delight the young? Watership Down terrified the crap out of me. I never read the novel but saw the 1978 film adaptation. I was in elementary school, and one day when we had a substitute teacher, she permitted us to choose a VHS tape from the library and watch it. I'm pretty sure at least two female students burst into tears.

Ann Althouse said...

I've never read the book or seen the movie, but I just watched that 3-minute trailer. Man, the 70s were dark. Good lord! Who would want to see that?

I'm sorry I used the word "delight" in the post.

I tried reading a page of Adams's book "Traveller" -- the story of the Civil War as told by Robert E. Lee's horse, and it was unreadable. The horse is speaking in an American Southern dialect that's ridiculous and a chore.

No offense to the old man. I'm glad he had a good experience being a father encouraged by his daughters and finding huge success. Not my cup of tea, but so what?

Ann Althouse said...

"Delight the young? Watership Down terrified the crap out of me."

LOL. You were writing that as I was regretting writing "delight."

Kate said...

I loved Adams. I read "Watership Down" the same year I found Tolkien. My whole fictional world opened up with those two. Adams had such a beautiful, delicate touch in that book.

"The Plague Dogs", was an incredibly complicated read, including a dog that spoke Scots-English. And "Shardik" was incomprehensible to me. But I always loved that he wrote at the highest difficulty setting, pushing himself and the reader.

harrogate said...

I read WATERSHIP DOWN in middle school and it hit me very hard. First book rk make me cry.

It's beautifully written and has intellectual weight.

Leslie Graves said...

Blogging is a journey of discovery and struggle.

Michael K said...

"I've never read the book or seen the movie, "

I read the novel to my children when they were small. When they were teens, I took them to the real Watership Down in England. I also read his "The Private Life of the Rabbit" which was the non-fiction product of his studies.

I think I saw the movie and did not like it.

The book is reality, which may frighten more modern children. The older generation, like me, read fairy tales. Did you think they were all Walt Disney stories ? Jack and Jill and Hansel and Gretel were NOT happy tales. Hansel and Gretel was about children abandoned in the woods.

Nor was "Little Red Riding Hood."

Some memorialized the Black Death.

Michael K said...

"the same year I found Tolkien."

Yes, I have to chuckle at the snow flakes who expect these stories to be Disney versions.

J. Farmer said...

Michael K:

Very true. I think a lot of people have forgotten that old fairy tales and fables were often cautionary tales. In the end of the original Cinderella, the stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by a bird.

Gabriel said...

@Michael K: I also read his "The Private Life of the Rabbit"

That book was by R. M. Lockley.

Michael K said...

Blogger Gabriel said...
@Michael K: I also read his "The Private Life of the Rabbit"

That book was by R. M. Lockley.


You're right. I don't know why I thought that but I did read it. It's been a few years. Like 30.

JRoberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. Farmer said...

@Michael K:

"Yes, I have to chuckle at the snow flakes who expect these stories to be Disney versions."

The Dick Van Dyke Show did an episode riffing on this very topic way back in 1964. In an episode titles "See Rob Write, Write Rob Write," van Dyke pens a children's story to accompany illustrations done by a neighborhood kid and then pitches it to a children's book publisher friend. Besides being inadvertently plagiarized, his friend chastises him for writing such a dark, violent story for children, which Rob defends by saying he was going for a "new concept." His friend replies, "Oh no, no, Rob. That's the old concept. Mother Goose has been scaring children for years. That crazy old broad was vicious."

JRoberts said...

"Yes, I have to chuckle at the snow flakes who expect these stories to be Disney versions."

Why the chuckle?

It appears many snowflakes expect their entire life to be like a Disney fairy tale.

buwaya puti said...

Ditto Michael K.
Watership Down is a classic. Not for everyone though.
Shardik was excellent.
That was hyper-realist world building, for fans of world building. You can feel every bug and twig.

Roughcoat said...

Fairy tales were supposed to be, and generally succeeded in being, cathartic. That old fraud, Bruno Bettleheim, actually got it right, very much so, in his "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales." Bettleheim may have been something of a charlatan, but he did recognize that children have complex mental, emotional, and spiritual lives, the more so because their minds and personalities are by definition not fully formed. Theirs is an enchanted world and their unconscious minds are roiling with all the glories, mysteries, and terrors that inhabit the realms of enchantment. Bettleheim argues quite convincingly, and even poetically, that fairy tales provide them with important psychological tools for coping with that strange world and for growing out of it.

See https://www.amazon.com/Uses-Enchantment-Meaning-Importance-Fairy/dp/0307739635/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1482880445&sr=1-1&keywords=uses+of+enchantment

Gahrie said...

I first read Watership Down as a very young man, probably around ten. I have reread that book many times. I have even read the sequel. Never did see the movie though.

There was a similar set of books about mice and rats called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Or the much more light-hearted The Mouse and the Motorcycle

I have also read Traveller. I haven't re-read it though.

buwaya puti said...

Ditto Michael K.
Watership Down is a classic. Not for everyone though.
Shardik was excellent.
That was hyper-realist world building, for fans of world building. You can feel every bug and twig.

Joe said...

My siblings loved "Watership Down". I hated it.

David said...

The notion of "delighting the young" was indeed poorly chosen. It might better apply to Lewis Carroll. He was, by some accounts, very interested in delighting the young.

Jason said...

BLACK RABBIT OF INLE, YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARD!

Jason said...

Adams was a Royal Army officer in WWII, where he served as the modern equivalent of a support platoon leader.

Watership Down is an excellent book for young aspiring officers, as Hazel is a tremendous role model for them. Any young lieutenant taking over command of his first platoon of infantry soldiers is unlikely to be the smartest, man in the unit, nor the strongest, nor the fastest. He certainly does not have the most knowledge of fieldcraft or doctrine and tactical technique. He certainly doesn't have the most experience. But he's got to put together the whole package to accomplish the mission, bringing the best out of each man and maximizing their accomplishments. He's got to lead in other ways, with a combination of physical and moral courage, resourcefulness, passion, self-sacrifice and creativity, while making use of everyone's gifts, and mitigating each individual's weaknesses.

Hazel did that - as Adams did, I'm sure, during his wartime service.

One of the best treatises on leadership out there.

David said...

Disney, taking a new track, is planning "The Rabbits of Aleppo" for early 2018. 2019 will bring a innovative remake of Crusader Rabbit, a massive epic spanning the entire recent history of the Middle East.

Yancey Ward said...

I read Watership Down when I was in 9th or 10th grade. Loved it a great deal, but it is definitely is not a "children's book" in terms of today's sensibilities, which is probably unfortunate. How many people today would let their young children watch Bambi, for example?

Alex said...

I prefer "Genocyber".

Michael K said...

Jason, very good observation.

Hazel did that - as Adams did, I'm sure, during his wartime service.

One of the best treatises on leadership out there.


How many people today would let their young children watch Bambi, for example?

I saw Bambi when it came out and hid in the lobby, peeking through the doors to the theater. It was a traumatic experience but probably good for me.

Today's children are not prepared for life. My older son sailed to Hawaii with me as a 16 year old. When he was applying to college, his advisor told him it was ridiculous for him to use his sailing experience as an example of adventure. Better a protest march.

He is in this video clip. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I offered to send him to Australia to work on the America's Cup boats in 1987. Sadly, he was getting difficult and did not want to go. I would have given anything to do it as a 22 year old but he has since become a left wing lawyer.

We don't talk.

The Bear said...

As far as the recent loss of great British authors ... for me the best of them and the worst loss ... was the guy who is probably the greatest fantasy author of all time - Terry Pratchett. If you've never read his Discworld Series, you have no idea what you've missed. Think "Douglas Addams - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" meets "Lord of the Rings". Except TP wrote over 40 separate books. A whole universe of dreams and sarcasm.

TWW said...

Mrs. Meade. Maybe you should read the book. A great book. Then tell us what you think?

eddie willers said...

the greatest fantasy author of all time - Terry Pratchett

His novel (written with Neil Gaiman) about the Apocalypse, Good Omens is the funniest book I ever read. Far superior to A Confederacy of Dunces.

Kathy said...

I don't show my kids the movie (because it looks disturbing), but they read Watership Down in junior high. Both of mine that are old enough to have read it loved it, but we use a curriculum full of classic literature, including Bambi (the book, not the movie.)

Roughcoat said...

Only dimly aware of Terry Pratchett. I'm interested. What's a good title to start with?

Chris Breisch said...

The movie is much darker than the book, but parts of the book are very dark. The book is also very anti-communist and anti-commune of any kind. The rabbits who discover Watership Down do so in a group, but it's because of their individuality that they are able to do so. The book is practically a testament to individualism.

Favorite line from the book:
"Silflay hraka u embleer rah!"

roughly translates to:
"Eat sh*t, you stinking leader!"

My 10th grade English teacher translated it exactly that way. I wonder if she'd be able to get away with that today. In fact, I wonder if they'd be able to read Watership Down in 10th grade English anymore.

Joan said...

Roughcoat, start at the beginning: The Colour of Magic.

Fred Drinkwater said...

There's a reason the "cartoon film" of Watership Down is listed on TVTropes as a prime example of "What do you mean, it's not for kids?"

Fred Drinkwater said...

"My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here."

"What is, Masculine Honor, Alex."

Roughcoat said...

Thanks, Joan.

Mary Beth said...

Joan said...

Roughcoat, start at the beginning: The Colour of Magic.

12/27/16, 7:44 PM


I was introduced to Pratchett's books by a British friend and she gave me her favorites to read first, but I usually recommend reading them in order too, unless I know the person well enough to know they would prefer the witches or the city watch ones or whatever.

Happy Hogswatch!

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Second (third?) the praise for Shardik, but also Maia, a sort of long prequel. Between them they make up a pretty detailed world, complete with its own vocabulary. (Of course, given that Maia is mostly set among sex-slaves, the vocab is mostly of the zard/venda/kura/basting/lygol/shearna sort -- i.e., all about sex and payment for it.)

I wished that he might have written a further sequel, possibly wrt Santil ke-Erketlis, who is entirely in the background in both books. But a 96-year-old man is under no obligation to anyone. Requiescat in pace.

tim maguire said...

Like some others here, I read A Watership Down about the same time I read Tolkien. I haven't read it since high school so I can't say what my reaction would be if I read it now, but it occupies a special place in my psychic history. It was an animal story that didn't glamorize or white wash nature the way many children's stories do. And it was a gripping adventure story.

I have no problem with "delighted" except that I don't see how it makes Adams' place in the death trilogy appropriate.

Lauderdale Vet said...

Count me as a fan, too. Oddly enough, I found out my wife was unfamiliar with the story a couple of months ago and introduced it to her. She found it dark and disturbing.

I discovered it in middle school, I think, on HBO as a latch key kid.

For some reason it simply made an impression on me. Right around the same time Flowers for Algernon did, if I'm not mistaken.

Jeff Gee said...

In 1978 I was managing the Guild 50th (located just down the block from Radio City Music Hall)and we were showing "Watership Down." One of the local papers or TV stations had compared the cartoon favorably to "Star Wars," so the owner slapped THAT on the Marquee: "As exciting as STAR WARS!!" For the next two weeks (it wasn't a smash hit), you could reliably depend upon someone bellowing "It's A FUCKING CARTOON!?!" 10 minutes into the 8 o'clock show. (It usually took ten minutes because there's a brief prologue & I suppose they thought everything would switch to live action humans when the story proper commenced). One night a disgruntled customer stood on the sidewalk in front of the box office for quite a while, warning potential patrons that it was NOTHING like "Star Wars." "It's RABBITS," he said, "Hop hop hop!"

It's kind of a tenuous Richard Adams - Carrie Fisher connection, but it's all I got.

The Cracker Emcee said...

You really should read it, Althouse, as it's an unusual and excellent book. I don't know how any cartoon could begin to touch the substance of the book.
When my wife was first pregnant I read it aloud to her to help her relax at night. I thought it had a positive message of hope and regeneration. Other than the warren getting gassed, I don't see any particular darkness in it.
When she was pregnant the second time, I read The Ginger Man aloud to her to help her relax at night. God knows what my reasoning for that one was.

MayBee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MayBee said...

This year has felt like a very complex arithmetical formula of celebrity death threesomes. Surely Prince, Bowie, and Michael were a musical influence threesome while Henderson, Rickman, and Diaher were a "childhood series" threesome

Susan said...

I read Watership Down when I was 10. I absolutely loved it. Yes it has sad and scary parts but every real story does.

I have also always been a huge fan of old fairy tales so I am not put off when things take a turn towards the dark.

I don't read horror though.

LYNNDH said...

Michael K, at this time of the year it is a shame that you and your son do not talk. Life is so short, eternity is for ever.

Big Mike said...

Watership Down is utterly timeless while so much that was published around the same time seems horribly dated when reread today.

As to "dark," in one classical version of "Sleeping Beauty" the prince is unable to awaken her with a kiss so he rapes her and she awakens nine months later giving birth to twins. Now that's a dark story.

coupe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Sablan said...

I won't move because my chief rabbit told me not to.

Good book. Fine book.

Matthew Sablan said...

I think Don Bluth said about Fieval, or maybe All Dogs Go To Heaven, that you can scare children. You can show them terrible, horrible things -- so long as at the end of the story, the good guys win and evil, however much it has gained, is vanquished. I believe that too. It does no good for a story to be about good vs. evil if evil is incompetent and in no way a true threat to the heroes.

Evil is dangerous, and it is dangerous because it COULD win. Vader MIGHT just succeed in defeating Luke and keeping Han frozen. You NEED the good guys to be weaker, to maybe lose, or you don't have a story that will do anything. It's not a good fairy story, or story in general.

boycat said...

Michael K @6:54pm
We don't talk

Did you in some ways overindulge him? Just asking, no snark intended.

AReasonableMan said...

eddie willers said...
Good Omens is the funniest book I ever read. Far superior to A Confederacy of Dunces.


This is a remarkable claim.

Danno said...

America has over-celebrated the "celebrity" meme in all aspects of life and thus we will be reading about the deaths of lots of people that clearly would not of been known before our current 24/7/365 info cycle. So there!

DanTheMan said...

Years ago, I had a 90 minute each way commute to work every day. Mrs. DanTheMan gave me Watership Down on cassette tape to listen to on the drive.
As she handed it to me, I was trying to come up with excuses for not listening to a kid's story about talking bunny rabbits and their adventures.

I put the first tape in, and was hooked. It works both as a kid's story, and as allegory for adults.

Years later, we bought a white Suburban, which we promptly named "Bigwig". :)


Matthew Sablan said...

"This is a remarkable claim. "

-- Confederacy of Dunces is OK. Solid, but not great. If the author hadn't killed himself, the book, if it ever were published, would have been relatively quickly forgotten. It is interesting; he does some things in there I found good. But, there's a reason it was passed up for as long as it was.

MadisonMan said...

When he was applying to college, his advisor told him it was ridiculous for him to use his sailing experience as an example of adventure. Better a protest march.

My son refused to apply anywhere that required a written essay.

Never read Watership Down. There are many many books I have not read -- in general, as soon as I read a book, I forget it. My brain is funny that way.

Michael K said...

Blogger boycat said...
Michael K @6:54pm
We don't talk

Did you in some ways overindulge him? Just asking, no snark intended.


Probably. Long story.

LuAnn Zieman said...

I began teaching English in 1968. In the early 70's I discovered "Watership Down," and read it. I enjoyed it and told one of my seventh graders, who read at a higher level, about it. He read it and remarked that it was the best. I guess it all depends on ones interests. I also enjoyed C.S Lewis and Tolkien, so maybe there is a commonality among these writers that I'm drawn to. I used "The Hobbit" with my seventh graders for years. Some went on to read the entire trilogy that followed on their own.

AReasonableMan said...

Matthew Sablan said...
Confederacy of Dunces is OK. Solid, but not great.


We are setting some high standards here.

From wikipedia:
(the book) earned Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, and is now considered a canonical work of modern literature of the Southern United States.

Matthew Sablan said...

And? Lots of classics aren't very good. There's a reason that publishers passed on it for as long as they did. Appeals to authority don't change the fact that, while a good book, it is garnering way more praise than it would have if the author hadn't died tragically.

Matthew Sablan said...

Let me try and explain. There is nothing timeless about Confederacy of Dunces. The schtick is tired and trite, but it is well done. It is workmanlike, and he does a good job making unlikeable characters amusing to watch. But, the novel doesn't do anything particularly new. It doesn't provide any deep insight into humanity. It swings from well done situational comedy/satire to not well done humor constantly. It is drafty, with lots of repetition and meandering.

It is a good book, but the praise it gets is way out of proportion to the actual quality it has. I liked it; I'd recommend people read it. But, that doesn't mean I agree with how much people rave about it.

JAORE said...

Good Omens is the funniest book I ever read. Far superior to A Confederacy of Dunces.

This is a remarkable claim.

Funny is a very personal thing.

My favorite is "P.S. Your Cat is Dead" by Kirkwood.

Many find it an odd recommendation. But I still LOL just thinking about certain passages.

Matthew Sablan said...

Sidenote: I really liked Universal Baseball Association, but I think it is unfair to say a book about a made up baseball league is the best baseball book ever written like some critics did.

Still, I like it a lot and recommend it heavily.

Kelley said...

I consider Alan Thicke (d.Dec 13) to be the first of the "death in threes" phenomenon, with George Michael second (d.Dec 25), and Carrie Fisher third (d.Dec 27). Carrie could also be considered second we heard about her massive heart attack from which is is reported she never regained consciousness before we heard about the death of George Michael. I would not lump Richard Adams in with the three well-known celebrities, although I enjoyed reading 'Watership Down' when I was in college (but have never been compelled to re-read it, and never saw the movie). Adams' 1980 novel 'Girl in a Swing' is memorable as seriously creepy story (as originally published).

mockturtle said...

Good Omens is the funniest book I ever read. Far superior to A Confederacy of Dunces.


It must be very funny, indeed! I'll have to get it.

mockturtle said...

It doesn't provide any deep insight into humanity.

So? Do you imagine that was Toole's purpose? It was a vastly amusing read.

mockturtle said...

Possibly the best novel I have ever read is Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Translation by Pevear.

mikee said...

About ten years back I was browsing a used bookstore and saw a book called "The Colour of Magic" by Terry Pratchett. It was half price off retail, about $2 for the slightly yellowing paperback. I bought it. I read it. I loved it. I wanted to read more about Discworld.

I looked for more by Pratchett every time I went into a used bookstore. I found, read and enjoyed his works over the next several years, in ones and twos, until I was seeking for books he'd written but I'd never found, like Good Omens and The Last Hero and Steam, each of which showed up at half price eventually. I kept buying them used, cheaply, and enjoying them, until I was down to one book unread: Night Watch.

I found a hardbound copy in the used bookstore, finally, and paid more happily for it than any of my other Pratchett books. I was lucky to find it at all, and unbelievably lucky to find that one last of them all. It was wonderful. I'm glad my fate waited until last with that one.

My college aged daughter, home on break last year, came up to me and said she'd heard good things about an author she thought she'd seen me reading - Pratchett. Did I have any books by him she could borrow?

"Yes," I replied with a smile. "All of them."