If I inquired about your cultural heroes, smart money is you’d rattle off a list so long I’d regret asking in the first place. Don’t worry. I’d be guilty of the same charge. Then suppose I asked you to pare it down to five, or gave you a category, like scientist or filmmaker? Even then you’d have many. But who would win the most kudos for their craft?
Today, the category is author, and the person is Richard Adams. I put him at the top not because of his recent passing or because he gets top billing as my favorite author. In fact, the latter isn’t necessarily true. Still, for me and most animal fiction authors, Adams was the totem pole base for creatives who wrote for adults, children, or no one in particular. He was not the first to personify animals, not by centuries. But he was the first to do so by preserving the integrity of animal nature. He did not seek allegory in the way George Orwell told Animal Farm (although this was brilliant in its own respect). Watership Down was perhaps equally political, but with the aim of surrounding us in a fresh universe, reading more like an epic than a fable. Adams would batter through rejection and incredulous publishers to lay a new foundation in literature, with other bricks following suit, including Shardik and The Plague Dogs.
Some years back I wrote to Adams. He was elderly, retired, and off the grid for fan mail. After tracking down a few publishers I managed to find an in-the-care-of address. I’ll never know if it made it his way (despite promises from a very kind editor that my letter was in good hands). But as is the impulse of admirers, we want our heroes to know we love them. Love, of course, is a loose word. I knew Mr. Adams no further than his rabbits and a Wikipedia page. Yet in the sense that our creations are a piece of us—ones that we so tenderly share with the world—I do believe I loved Mr. Adams very much indeed.
“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.”