Wednesday, December 28, 2016

what else to read by Richard Adams

The author of Watership Down has died at the venerable age of 96. I don't have to spend much time praising that book. It's one of my favorite novels, and in my estimation the finest quest fantasy since The Lord of the Rings. I'd also call it one of the three greatest fantasies of any kind I've read from the last third of its century, and though it's a strongly male book, the other two - Fire and Hemlock and Always Coming Home - are much more female, and not just in their authorship, so it balances.

I'm guessing that the criticisms of Watership Down on grounds of its sex roles - some of them justified, some not - must have gotten to the author, because some two decades later he published a semi-sequel, Tales from Watership Down, which is so self-consciously and dutifully gender-egalitarian that it made my teeth ache. I think there's a lesson in that.

It also brings up an important point about Adams, which is that not everything he wrote is worth reading. But much of his subsequent work is excessively obscure - I've found a lot of people have never heard of Tales, though it's a staple at used book stores - so people may not know what to go for.

I, however, have read a great deal of his work, and here's three other books, in increasing order of quality, that I would also recommend.

The Plague Dogs. It has more of the human perspective than Watership Down does, and it's much more openly polemic. It's also about two dogs. And a fox. This gives it a different atmosphere. But it's as closely observant and detailed about its landscape - the Lake District - as Watership Down is about the Hampshire downs, and the story is gripping.

There was an animated movie of this, made by the same people who made the Watership Down one, and quite similar in style.

The Girl in a Swing. No animals in this one, a purely human story with a whiff of the creepily supernatural about it. It's the first-person tale of a shy antique dealer from Newbury (Adams' home town, and near where Watership Down opens, though this is of course not mentioned) who at a relatively advanced age suddenly finds true love and then has it snatched away from him. The story is drenched in a foggy mist of uncertainty and lack of clarity, and that's actually the book's strongest point. What's really happening, if it were spelled out clearly, would actually be rather stupid. But drenched in an atmospheric haze it gives a marvelous and memorable effect.

The US publication has a somewhat different text from the UK one, spelling out a few of the more cryptic allusions, and changing the name of the principal female character in a way that makes a more obvious clue to the meaning of the story. I prefer the original edition. There was also a movie starring Rupert Frazer and Meg Tilly that was more blatant still.

The Day Gone By. The unknown treasure among Adams' other books, this is not a novel but a memoir, covering his childhood, school and university days, and WW2 service, up to the age of 25. The quality of the prose, the engaging quality of the storytelling, and the evocation of each of the disparate settings is wonderful. This is where Adams alludes to using his war-time paratroop regiment as the model for his rabbit band, though he doesn't go into detail; you will also learn that the country doctor who helps rescue Hazel near the end of WD is Adams' father. My favorite set piece in the book is Adams' tale of how he and some university friends tried but failed to take a punt down an underground culvert in Oxford. The account of being plunged into war service and the responsibilities of a junior officer at a tender and untried age bears interesting resemblance to that by Christopher Milne, who was the same age as Adams, in his equally little-known second memoir, The Path Through the Trees.

Some people like Shardik and Maia, but I found that Adams' talent for evoking real places didn't extend to imaginary ones. I've read several of his other books, which I'll pass over quietly. But as Adams himself pointed out, if you can write Watership Down, that's enough. And he did do more good writing than that.

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