Hazel realized that until they were rested they would all be safer where they were than stumbling along in the open with no strength left to run from an enemy. But if they lay brooding, unable to feed or go underground, all their troubles would come crowding into their hearts, their fears would mount and they might very likely scatter, or even try to return to the warren. He had an idea.
“Yes, all right, we’ll rest here,” he said. “Let’s go in among this fern. Come on, Dandelion, tell us a story. I know you’re handy that way. Pipkin here can’t wait to hear it.”
Dandelion looked at Pipkin and realized what it was that Hazel was asking him to do. Choking back his own fear of the desolate, grassless woodland, the before-dawn-returning owls that they could hear some way off, and the extraordinary, rank animal smell that seemed to come from somewhere rather nearer, he began. (25)
I’ve always loved that passage, from the opening chapters of Richard Adams’s beloved novel Watership Down. Hazel, Dandelion, Fiver, Bigwig, and the rest have fled their home warren after Fiver, a rabbit gifted with second sight, had a premonition of impending doom. Now far from home, nearing exhaustion, and stricken with fear, they huddle helpless under the fernbrake. Hazel, thus far an unremarkable young rabbit, here begins to show the traits that will earn him his place as their chief rabbit in the adventures that follow. Sensing their fear and danger, Hazel instinctively asks Dandelion to tell them a story. It will calm their nerves and give them a chance to rest before they go on.
Watership Down is a book of stories within a story. Adams modeled his rabbit society on the observations in R. M. Lockley’s book The Private Life of the Rabbit, a rigorously scientific study of the habits of wild rabbits in the English countryside, but Adams also made his rabbits talk and gave them a rich mythological tradition. The sweeping tale of Hazel and his friends on a quest for a new home is interspersed with these folk stories, usually told by Dandelion, their bard. But these are more than mere interludes—the rabbits derive their sense of identity and purpose from these stories.
We need stories that calm us, embolden us, and remind us of who we are. We need stories of compassion and beauty.Here, under the ferns, Dandelion decides to tell the story of the blessing of El-ahrairah, the first story in all rabbit-lore. He tells how El-ahrairah, the rabbit-prince, first came to be the prey of so many other animals, and how Frith, the sun-god, blessed El-ahrairah with sharp ears, speed, and cunning. “‘Then,’ said Dandelion, ‘Frith felt himself in friendship with El-ahrairah. . . . And Frith called after him, ‘El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.’” This is exactly what Hazel and his friends, terrified and lost in the woods, need to hear. It’s their story, their identity, and it has the intended effect.
Richard Adams died this past Christmas Eve, at the age of 96. Hearing the news, I went to the shelf, pulled down my copies of Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, and Shardik, and read over a few of my favorite passages. I first read Adams’s novels in high school, and I still find them as engrossing and enjoyable as any stories I’ve ever read.
What first strikes you when you read Adams is his skill as a storyteller. His plotting and pacing are masterful, his characters are immediately believable and compelling, and his description is memorable and evocative. It’s all done effortlessly and unconsciously. So much contemporary literary fiction is self-referential and belabored, as much about itself as about anything else. Adams always keeps his eye on the story; you forget you’re reading at all. Like Dandelion, he was handy that way.
Adams came to writing later in life, in his late forties. After serving in the British Army during World War II, he was a mid-level civil servant in England, in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Watership Down, his first novel, began as a story he told to his daughters, Juliet and Rosamund, on a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Judi Dench in Twelfth Night. The story was a success and began to be serialized on subsequent car trips, until finally Adams’s daughters urged him to write it down. Adams had never written a word of fiction in his life, but his daughters pestered him, and he persevered. (He said later, “If I had known earlier how frightfully well I could write, I’d have started earlier.”) Eighteen months later, he finished it. It was rejected seven times and was considered a foolish risk when it was finally published, in 1972, by a one-man publisher in London, Rex Collings.
It’s as charming a story of a novel’s genesis as you’re likely to hear, and it launched Adams’s literary career. Watership Down won international acclaim almost overnight—against all the expectations and projections of the publishing community—and sold over a million copies in just a few years. By the time Shardik, his second novel, was released in 1974, Adams had quit his job in the civil service to write full-time.
Not all his novels are about animals, but his best ones are. “I can’t write about real people,” he once said. The plot of Shardik, a fantasy novel, turns on the incarnation of a divine bear. The Plague Dogs, published in 1977 (probably my own favorite of Adams’s novels), is about two dogs who escape from a government animal research center in England’s Lake District. Traveller is an account of the American Civil War told from the perspective of Robert E. Lee’s horse.
Adams’s animals are often subjects of cruelty at the hands of humans. The rabbits in Watership Down are fleeing the destruction of their home warren at the hands of developers. The Plague Dogs satirizes the cruelty of testing done on animals. This isn’t self-righteous moralizing or sensationalism on Adams’s part, but it is a weighty indictment of the selfishness and thoughtlessness of humans, so absorbed in our own grasping schemes that we pass over the very creatures we’re supposed to care for. In an epigraph before a particularly memorable chapter in Watership Down, Adams quotes Dostoyevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov: “Love the animals. God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Don’t trouble it, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent.”
It may seem strange, especially in such troubled times as ours, to read novels about talking animals. But to reject Adams’s novels on that basis would be to miss the point entirely. For one thing, the animals in Adams’s stories are more human than many of the characters in contemporary fiction. But more than that, looking at the world through the eyes of animals allows us to see it from a new perspective. We see it as vulnerable creatures see it, subject to the rapacious whims of those with much more power. We see its beauty differently, its rhythms and cadences, and its interconnectedness.
We also see its hard realities. “It’s a hard world for animals,” Rowf says in The Plague Dogs, and it becomes a refrain throughout the novel. Adams could be ruthlessly unsentimental, and there are scenes of graphic violence in all his books. For all its rollicking, page-turning satire, The Plague Dogs rises at times to genuine pathos and heartbreak—more often, tellingly, in the scenes between the dogs than the scenes set in the human world. It’s a heavy book. “I do not believe in talking down to children,” Adams said. “I can remember weeping when I was little at upsetting things that were read to me. But fortunately my mother and father were wise enough to keep going.”
Richard Adams wasn’t interested in his fiction as fiction. He had none of what David Foster Wallace called the “textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory.” He was, with the blessed simplicity of Dandelion himself, simply a storyteller, focused so purely on the story he was telling that when we read him we forget that we’re reading at all and lose ourselves in the ethos and pathos of the world he’s created. It may have cost him a higher reputation among the literary intelligentsia of his day, but it preserved in him, anachronistically, marvelously, the capacity for unconscious wonder and disarming sincerity. It’s a rare currency in our time, and we need it more than ever.
Like Hazel, Dandelion, and Fiver, we’re huddled in the woods, fleeing from disaster, beset by danger, and paralyzed by fear. We need stories that calm us, embolden us, and remind us of who we are. We need stories of compassion and beauty, sincerity and wonder.
Richard Adams is gone now, but as a storyteller he lives on. He’s handy that way.