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My Afternoon with Richard Adams
by Jamie Cohen
from the House Rabbit Journal, Spring, 1999
It was a cool, but sunny
fall day when we pulled into the driveway of Richard and Elizabeth Adams in the
charming village of Whitchurch, about 60 miles
Richard and Elizabeth greeted us at the door and we entered their charming house that dates back to 1790. The house is tastefully and comfortably decorated and I spotted several rabbit items among his pictures and knickknacks: mementos from the Watership Down publisher, gifts from fans, and a beautiful framed photograph of a wild rabbit sent to Richard from R.M. Lockley. We then were invited into their living room, offered a glass of wine before lunch and we talked. There was so much I wanted to know about the story.
"I know that Watership Down began as a story you told your children," I began. "Can you tell us how it came to be?" Although Richard has a degree in Modern History, English literature is one of his passions. He wished to expose his daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, to the works of William Shakespeare early and would drive them to Stratford-on-Avon to attend plays. The drive was long, probably five hours, and Richard recalled he told his little girls he would tell a story on the way. Once in the car the girls said, "Daddy, start immediately." I can understand their impatience. Richard has a lovely voice, beautifully British, and when he tells a story his words are as well put together as when you read his books. His dramatic intonation is riveting.
And so began the story of the rabbits that we've come to know and love. Richard said, "The first thing that came into my mind, I don't know if you recall this at all, was the story of Agamemnon, one of the earliest Greek tragedies. Agamemnon comes back from the Trojan War and brings with him a prophetic girl called Cassandra, part of his booty really, a concubine who Clytaemestra, his wife, doesn't like at all. Well, Cassandra had upset Apollo in someway or another and he had cursed her. And the curse was that she should always prophesize the truth and never be believed. When Agamemnon is summoned in the palace by Clytaemestra, he has this long scene with the chorus and it is one of the most effective bits. Cassandra sees the palace walls dripping with blood, blood pouring down the walls and she cries out in horror at this and the leader of the chorus says , 'You are a bit overwrought. It's not blood.' 'Yes it 'tis, I can see it! I can smell it too' she answers. He said, 'No, it's simply the smoke from the altar sacrifices from Agamemnon's homecoming which you smell.' And then she has this marvelous line, 'The stench is like a breath from the tomb.’ The line is terribly expressive, isn't it?"
I saw the connection between the stories and said, "You gave that line to Fiver."
"Ah, yes," he smiled. "Fiver saw the field running with blood and Hazel wouldn't believe it. I wasn't going to kill Fiver, though. I thought I've got a good character there.
"And the story just
went on from there. It wasn't finished on the trip to
"I was wondering whatever I was going to say because when you're writing a novel, it's a bit like climbing a mountain. You have a general idea, you go look at the mountain and the team determines the route. But when you get onto the mountain you come up with things you have to deal with on the spot. As I was writing I would put in a lot of things that hadn't been in the original story that I thought would make it better. I can tell you one thing that was put in on the spur of the moment, the episode when they come to the warren where the rabbits are frightfully sleek and well fed and they pick up flayrah, expensive food, in the morning. Fiver won't have it, you remember? He was paralyzed with fear. As you know, they discover that the warren has been trapped by the farmer. Fiver didn't foresee the detail but he's foreseen the horror."
Kirstin asked, "Are some of the episodes, like this one with the well fed rabbits, meant to be like a fable with a moral? Those rabbits did have to pay the price to have the good food."
"They were decadent really, weren't they?" he replied. "I can assure you it wasn't planned in advance. It just came to me as I was writing.
"Kehar was another thing that was put in as I was writing. I realized it would be very helpful to have I character like Kehar." I smiled at the memory of that clever bird and commented that to give him a different language and to have him speaking the rabbit language with an accent was so clever! He laughed and replied, "I'm glad you liked it. Also, General Woundwort was a character who came in more or less on the spot. I knew they were going to Efrafa and they were going to have bad times but I hadn't invented General Woundwort. He came into my head as I was writing that bit."
While we were talking, I
noticed on a shelf three small ceramic rabbits. When he saw me looking at them
he said they were done by a leading
I inquired at what point he read The Private Life of the Rabbit for the background information. He replied, "I read it while I was writing the book, and it helped me a lot to get the rabbits okay from a biological point of view, a lifestyle point of view. The bit about the does reabsorbing their embryos in the womb was real."
"One of the aspects about the book that I loved the most," I said, "was the way you gave the rabbits a language since we have no English words for certain things. I find I use the words! When I take my rabbits outside to a pen in the grass, I tell them they are going to silflay." He smiled with amusement. I told him how I enjoyed how the rabbits would call any motorized vehicle a 'hrududu.’ Now, fellow members, you have not lived until you have heard Richard Adams say the word 'hrududu.’ Like the word 'zipper' that derived because it is the sound that a zipper makes, 'hrududu' is the sound that a tractor makes but I had not realized it until I heard Richard roll his rrrr's and say 'hrududu.’ We were amazed and he chuckled. "The word is actually the sound of the tractor going along', he explained and demonstrated, "Hroooo do do do do do do. The tractor was the internal combustion engine that the rabbits saw most frequently. They didn't often see cars but anything where they could smell petrol was a 'hrududu.’ The other word that people often find difficult is the name of the rabbit hero 'El-ahrairah.’ Ideally you should roll the r's. A lot of people can't do it. The prince with 1,000 enemies. Elil, enemies, rair, a thousand, rah a prince or leader. Hence, the word." I was fascinated to hear him explain how he put together the small words he invented to make a larger word!
"Is 'Hazel' a common name for men here?" I wondered. I loved the character of Hazel so much and wanted to name a bunny after him. I could never bring myself to name a male rabbit 'Hazel.’ He said it was not. "Where did you come up with Hazel?" I asked.
"I honestly can't tell you," he replied. "You have to realize that a novel is not like planting a garden. A garden is deliberate like deciding what gets planted where. With writing, you find yourself possessed by things you don't always know why that is. I guess that's what they call inspiration. I can't account for a lot of things in the book. I hope that's not disappointing!"
"Of course not!" we chimed.
Richard professes to have
done a lot for animal welfare. Besides helping to make it very difficult to buy
a fur coat in
Dessert was an array of
succulent berries in their own juices. Through the window of the dining room,
you could see their beautiful gardens. Since so many of the
rabbit's names are flowers, I asked Richard if he had used a book to find
names. He said that he didn't need a book. He loves flowers and knew the
names! He did chose the names appropriately. He said
the woundwort is not a pleasant smelling flower. "What did you do before
you became a writer?" I asked with curiosity. "I was a civil servant
and did a variety of things. All sorts of things really.
For instance, I was with the National Health Service." The bowl of
delicious fruit was across the table in front of
"My dear friend, Reg Sones, a fellow civil servant, was so much help when I was writing the book. He's dead now, poor chap. I acknowledge him at the beginning of the book. He was a great help. We used to meet on the lunch hour, eat sandwiches and talk about the book."
We asked if he meant for Watership Down to be a children's book. "No," he said quite emphatically. "It's not children's book. I'm very firm about it. It was told to the children to introduce them to a novel. It wasn't meant to be marketed as a children's book. They tried to do that. I'm sometimes asked by people for what age group the book was written. I say from 8 to 88. I do get as many fan letters from grown up people as well as children."
Richard seemed unaware of his importance to those of us who have house rabbits. I tried to express how we feel. "To people who have rabbits in their house, that they love as people do cats and dogs, you are something an icon!"
"I dear say!" he responded quite surprised. "I've been many things but never an icon!"
organization in the
Kathleen Wilsbach, the Baltimore/D.C./Northern
"You gave the rabbits such personality! I had a rabbit named Casey that after reading the book I called Casey-rah in Hazel's honor. The rabbits in the book are so wonderful, they are like little people." He smiled and said that some of them were based on real people.
Kirstin asked what he thought of the
movie. "It alters the book much to much," he
"I liked the scene in the film when they were on the river and trying to get Pipkin across," I mentioned. He agreed that was done well.
"One thing I thought they got all wrong," he explained, "was Hyzenthlay's attempt to be allowed to take rabbits out of Efrafa. Her request was refused. In the film, it's not clear what's happening. I told him I though she was a great character and had such a wonderful role in Tales. "When the first book came out," he replied, "a lot of people said I was a male chauvinist because there weren't any prominent female characters so when I was doing the tales I thought I'll put that right anyway." I shared that one of my favorite parts of the book was when they realized while starting their own warren that they had no does and wouldn't survive went on the quest to find the females with the help of the gull. Rich said, "No, they couldn't have done it without the gull! Kehar wasn't to know about the tyranny he just found them the rabbits."
"One of the funniest lines of the book when they met the hutch rabbits who said a little girl took them outside. That was their whole experience of outdoors!" I laughed. "You always come up with great comparisons: hutch rabbits and the wild rabbits view of the world and in Plague Dogs the lab dog and former pet dog's perceptions of man."
Kirstin asked about a current problem in
After lunch, Richard took us to his magnificent library, a huge room with ceilings probably fifteen feet high. There were books from floor to ceiling on all walls with ladders to reach them. I gazed at the many different volumes of Watership Down on one shelf and asked hopefully if he was going to write another sequel. "I can't tell at the moment," he replied. "I'm just putting the finishing touches on a novel now that's about people!" I handed him the copy of House Rabbit Handbook! He started looking through it, was captivated, and said "I'm really going to enjoy this!"
I wondered, "Is it a
coincidence that you left
It was getting late in
the afternoon at this point and we wanted to see the real Watership
Down. It was about six miles from their house. Richard, who walks with a cane,
did not feel up to the excursion and it was getting quite chilly.
After a while, we
returned to the
I commented on the Plague Dogs character "the Tod" and how fascinating his dialect was. He got a copy of the book and read us a monologue in the dialect. It was fascinating! He had written the Tod's part and had in translated by a friend. He then read us a few of his favorite poems with such lovely expression. A highlight of the day was when he read to us the children's book he had written called The Bureaucats, the story of two mischievous cats. To hear Richard read is a delight. We knew then what it was like to have been one of daughters and be read a story by Richard Adams. He reads with complete enthusiasm and does all the parts as if acting.
All too soon, our lovely
afternoon had to end. I knew there was so much more to talk about. We all
hugged goodbye and continued on the road west to
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