Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down, the novel first published in 1972, has words on death at the end of a long life.
Richard Adams (9 May 1920 – 24 December 2016) was inspired to tell the story of rabbits escaping their imperilled warren for the safety of the fabled Watership Down by a desire to entertain his children on car journeys.
“The stories I told in the car had nearly always been shaped and cut and edited by myself for oral narration,” he recalled in 2014. “When I was lying down to go to sleep in the evening I would think out the bit of story I was going to tell the girls the next day.”
“I had been put on the spot and I started off, ‘Once there were two rabbits called Hazel and Fiver.’ And I just took it on from there,” Adams recalled in an earlier interview.
There are moments in Watership Down that are terrifying. Should children be steered away from the troubling and unpleasant? Adams wasn’t, as he recalled:
“A book is a book is a book, and you write what has got to be written to tell the story properly… I was allowed to read anything I liked when I was little and I liked all sorts of things that I shouldn’t have been reading. I stumbled upon frightening literature. Poe. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Algernon Blackwood’s Ancient Sorceries.”
The end to Adams’ captivating story is sublime. Death, portrayed as dark, painful and final is much of the book, is bathed in light. “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” wrote John Updike, “so why… be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
Not to fear death is liberating. As Isaac Asimov noted, “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”
Count your blessings and go on. “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure,” wrote Oliver Sacks
Adams’ words at the end of his wonderful book epitomise the hope and glory of life in the now and then. Rather than try to fathom death until our minds hurt and we become crippled by anxiety and demented through fear, the author shows us Hazel, the story’s protagonist. He is at his end.
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said,
“Yes, I know you.”
“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right — and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.