Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, dies at 96

British novelist Richard Adams died on Saturday (Dec 24). He was 96.
British novelist Richard Adams died on Saturday (Dec 24). He was 96.PHOTO: AFP

(NYTIMES) - Richard Adams, the British novelist who became one of the world's best-selling authors with his first book, Watership Down, a tale of rabbits whose adventures in a pastoral realm of epic perils explored Homeric themes of exile, courage and survival, died on Saturday (Dec 24). He was 96.

His daughter confirmed his death, the BBC and other British news organisations reported.

For much of his life, Adams was a civil servant in London. But he was also an unpublished dabbler in fiction, an amateur naturalist and a father who made up rabbit stories to entertain his two daughters on long drives in the country.

When he was 50, he began turning his stories into a book. It took two years. Set in the Berkshire Downs, where he had grown up, Watership Down was a classic yarn of discovery and struggle.

Facing destruction of their underground warren by a housing development, a small party of yearling bucks led by a venturesome rabbit named Hazel flees in search of a new home. They encounter human beings with machines and poisons, snarling dogs and a large colony of rabbits who have surrendered their freedoms for security under a tyrannical rabbit, General Woundwort.

The pioneers realise that founding a new warren is meaningless without mates and offspring. They raid Woundwort's stronghold, spirit away some does and confront his forces in a battle in defence of their new warren on Watership Down.

Despite its originality, the book was rejected by literary agents and publishers. But in 1972, Rex Collings Ltd. printed 2,500 copies. A year later, Penguin issued the novel in its Puffin Books children's series. It eventually became Penguin's all-time best seller, with an estimated 50 million copies in print in 18 languages worldwide.

Adams published a score of books, but none approached the success of Watership Down.

Richard George Adams was born on May 9, 1920, in Newbury, England, one of three children of Evelyn George Beadon Adams, a doctor, and the former Lilian Rosa Button. In 1938, he enrolled at Oxford University. His studies were interrupted by World War II service with British airborne forces in the Middle East and India.

He returned to Oxford and earned a degree in history in 1948. He then joined the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

In 1949, he married Barbara Elizabeth Acland. They had two daughters, Juliet and Rosamond. There was no immediate word on his survivors.