Up Close with Watership Down

My week with Richard Adams.

Quick! You get to meet a living legend! Who will it be? Sidney Crosby? Pope Francis? Today I’d pick Marilynne Robinson, but in my 20s it would have been Richard Adams, whose bestselling, 1974 novel Watership Down was recently adapted into a miniseries on Netflix. I loved it, but I loved his next novel Shardik even more, the work Adams himself considered his best, a darker tale hailed by one reviewer as “a powerfully compelling prose epic that re-creates the fortunate fall of unaccommodated man, within the history of a splendidly portrayed imaginary kingdom.” Incredibly, in 2004, my brother Tony and I spent a week with Richard Adams in Whitchurch, England. He was 84 at the time.

An unforgettable experience! And Richard gave me permission to write about it! So why haven’t I until now? The shallow response is that I was busy. As the years slipped by, I reproached myself for my procrastination. Shouldn’t I, at the very least, prepare a tribute for submission to some national paper upon his death? I avoided that rather self-aggrandizing temptation when Richard died in 2016 at the age of 96. 

Here’s the real reason I waffled, Christian Courier being one place where I can venture such an obscure theological explanation. The Calvinist in me, the one who professes that not a hair can fall from my head “without the will of the Father,” that I was “saved and called to a holy life through a grace given me in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” or, even more boldly, that I was “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for me to do,” was waiting. Waiting to see why I’d been given this phenomenal opportunity. No way was it some random ripple in the universe. This was old-school providence, baby! But what to make of it? I didn’t know. 

Let’s back up. As a buoyant rookie high school English teacher, I suggested Watership Down for the curriculum. My Education Committee agreed! One student captivated by the novel was my brother Tony. When he, in turn, became a teacher, he read the book aloud to his Grade 4 class. The students loved it. Tony sent their appreciative artwork and letters to the author and, wow, they received a gracious thank you note in reply! The exchange became a tradition. Yet imagine Tony’s surprise, when, one day, he also received an invitation from Richard Adams to visit him. And to bring a guest! I was the lucky “plus one.” 

Reprise your “living legend” daydream to taste our incredulity. We arrived on a sunny July day, jet-lagged and bashful, but were immediately set at ease. Richard welcomed us heartily, every inch the country squire in tweed sport coat, and his wife Elizabeth served us tea, scones and jam. Their Georgian home was cluttered with art and artifacts, but comfortably furnished, not ostentatious. Richard requested that we not take any photos of Elizabeth’s priceless collection of ceramics. An expert in British pottery, she was a celebrity in her own right. Perhaps the security bars on the windows were also due to Richard’s extensive library which, according to one source, housed “one of the finest private collections in Britain.”

I was impressed by Elizabeth’s efficient care of Richard who suffered from impaired mobility and other ailments. A worsening case of macular degeneration was his newest aggravation.

Elizabeth did all the driving. She cooked and served all the meals. I helped, of course, but when she discovered her ivory fish knives in the dishwasher, she came close to firing me. I wondered if, at 78, she resented having two strangers as guests for a whole week, but I had a sense she was accustomed to accommodating her husband, an intuition substantiated later.

Richard’s childhood is described in his autobiography The Day Gone By. Born in 1920, “Dicky” grew up with servants, the son of a doctor and a nurse. His seminal relationship with his father was nurtured through a mutual love of nature. In fact, his memoir reads like a British field guide of birds, wildflowers and insects. Richard records the profound imaginative impact of such a meticulous observation of the external world: “In early childhood, I believe, awareness works on two levels at once: there is a paradox. Wonderful things are often apprehended composedly (after all, they’re tangibly there), while ordinary things can seem miraculous in a way they never do again.” 

This devoted sensitivity to the natural world became the hallmark of his life and writing. He was proud of his tenure as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and of his ongoing efforts on behalf of wildlife conservation. He repeatedly expressed antipathy for Canada’s baby seal hunts. He was dismayed by our ignorance of this issue, quite likely lumping us in with those uninformed Australians of whom “. . . not one seems to know the name of any bird or flower when asked.” 

Like other boys of privilege, Richard was sent to boarding school, eventually studying history at Oxford. His academic career was interrupted by WWII and he joined the Royal Army Service Corps. Although he didn’t engage in direct combat, he witnessed the liberation of three cities – Brussels, Copenhagen and Singapore – a badge of honour for him. His memoir clarifies that his service with the 1st Airborne Division was the inspiration for Watership Down: “Certainly the idea of a wandering, endangered and interdependent band, individually different yet mutually reliant, came from my experience of the company, but out of all of us, I think, there were only two direct parallels. Hazel is John Gifford and Bigwig is Paddy Kavanagh.” 

I was keen to plumb Richard’s thoughts on Christianity. He approved of Christian schools, equating them with the private schools of his youth. Richard and Elizabeth clearly viewed themselves as traditional Church of England members. We accompanied Elizabeth to a Sunday service at All Hallows in Whitchurch. Due to his age, Richard no longer attended regularly, but spoke fondly about his church’s historical significance. At one point in the conversation we compared favourite Bible passages. He named the parable of the Prodigal Son and immediately launched into a flawless recitation of the text. I cherish that memory – the distinguished author narrating Luke 15, his voice still strong and dramatic, seated at a vinyl-covered table in his tiny kitchen.

But, truthfully, how to parse one extraordinary moment from another? Richard’s erudition left us starry-eyed. A casual backyard stroll sparked a synopsis on English cottage gardens. Mention of our planned excursion to the Tower of London generated an informative overview of the British monarchy. We toured Winchester Cathedral and paid our respects at the tomb of Jane Austen, “that great lady” as Richard called her. We popped in at the local pub for a pint and some gossip about Thomas Hardy. Richard taught Tony to play piquet, his favourite card game. An avid golf fan, he was pleased when I joined him in watching the British Open on TV. One afternoon he graciously agreed to read a story I’d had published in Christian Educators Journal. He found the conclusion a little flat, but encouraged me to keep writing. I still don’t know whether to pout or chuckle. 

Our biggest adventure occurred on Watership Down itself. A visit was on the itinerary, but the details hadn’t been finalized. Returning from Winchester Cathedral, Richard impulsively decided that we should do it right then and there. Elizabeth was persuaded. First we stopped at Nuthanger Farm, a grand moldering old estate. Tony and I were delighted to re-live the thrilling climax of the novel when Hazel, Dandelion and Blackberry lure the dog into disrupting General Woundwort’s attack on the warren.

Across the road was the lane to Watership Down. The gate was open. But now Elizabeth balked. It was private property, after all. A lone figure, walking along the escarpment, stopped to note our presence but didn’t wave. Elizabeth demurred, “He might close the gate on us, Richard. He doesn’t know who we are.” Richard pooh-poohed the risk. The owner was a friend of theirs. It would be fine.

So Elizabeth gave in. We drove up to the summit and spent a glorious hour checking out the lonely vista. A twisted tree stump carved with the names of Hazel and Silver marked the crest as the idyllic home of the pilgrim band. We got our best photo of Richard and Elizabeth there, looking happy and affectionate, leaning on a fence. 

But our trespass had indeed caused offense. The gate was closed and locked. We were trapped. It was mid-afternoon. Elizabeth sighed and took charge. She and Tony would climb over the gate, walk to the owner’s home, a good distance away, and seek help. I would stay with Richard. 

Quite the denouement to our expedition! Richard promptly fell asleep. I sat beside him in the car pondering the incongruity of our situation. Larger-than-life author, creator of a lapin universe that charmed millions, trapped on the very site of his inventive triumph! Close up? A tired old man who had disregarded his wife’s better judgment. In his memoir Richard noted that he took after his Uncle Ernest, an “impulsive, extravagant flamboyant character” who had died young. I’d witnessed those qualities in our genial host – inviting us into his life, whimsically lauding the “noble cauliflower” at dinner, sharing inexhaustible entertaining anecdotes.

Richard defined himself above all as a “storyteller.” He told reviewer Denise Winn of The Globe and Mail that any effort to compare him to a visionary like Tolkien was “absolute rubbish.” But he also said, in the same interview, “I look for beauty. Unless ordinary things are a kind of magnifying glass through which one comes to greater, eternal things, there’s no point in doing them at all.” That’s pointedly similar to an assertion made by my other literary idol, Marilynne Robinson: “A mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience.” Richard had his reasons, no doubt, for downplaying any parallel to the inimitable Tolkien, but the bulk of his work achieves estimable literary depth, the “stories,” situated as they are in an evocative, divinely-ordered cosmos, undeniably encompassing “greater, eternal things.”

So why did God grant me this unimaginable chance to hobnob with my literary hero? Sweet affirmation of my youthful zeal as a teacher? A nudge for a fledgling writer? I still don’t know. With my Calvinistic bent, I’ll keep insisting it was providential. But I’m older now. I’ve learned some humility about God’s sublime impenetrability. God being who God is, maybe the meet-up wasn’t for me at all. Maybe it was for Tony, an opportunity to connect with a father figure after the loss of our dad a few years earlier. Or maybe it was for Richard Adams himself, downhearted because he couldn’t find a publisher for his most recent manuscript. 

Could it have been simply for this article? Yet another memo to myself, because I seem to keep needing them, and maybe you do, too, that as God’s adopted child through Christ Jesus, I don’t have to puzzle out why good or bad things happen, or even, heaven help me, wondrous or appalling things, but can still live at peace within his sovereign grace and love. Would such a modest reminder for me, or for you, warrant a miraculous encounter with a legend like Richard Adams? In God’s imponderable economy. . . maybe. Although I can’t claim the sure revelation of Old Testament Joseph, “it was not you who sent me, but God,” I can echo Paul’s assurance that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I can testify to a holy calling, mercifully renewed every morning despite my daily trespasses. I can continue my trek on the path that leads, not to answers, but to God’s ineffable Self.

For, as Job discovered, God himself will be answer enough. Frederick Buechner sums up Job’s epiphany in Peculiar Treasures: “He had seen the great glory so shot through with sheer fierce light and life and gladness, had heard the great voice raised in song so full of terror and wildness and beauty, that from that moment on, nothing else mattered. All possible questions melted like mist, and all possible explanations withered like grass, and all the bad times of his life together with all the good times were so caught up into the fathomless life of this God, who had bent down to speak with him though by comparison he was no more than a fleck of dust on the head a pin in the lapel of a dancing flea, that all he could say was, ‘I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 42: 5,6).” 

Job is not abandoned in the soot. God considered him and Richard and Elizabeth Adams and my brother and me and this whole superb, besmirched creation “worth dying for” as Flannery O’ Connor said. If nothing else, my week with Richard Adams stands as an Ebenezer stone for me, experiential proof that God has been my help thus far and is doing things in my life, things I may not understand until I meet him in glory, a Living Legend beyond human imagination. 

  • Cathy Smith, former features editor and columnist for Christian Courier, is a retired Christian schoolteacher who lives in Wyoming, Ont.

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