Critical Context

Born Free is a truly extraordinary account of an apparently unique interaction between human beings and a lioness born in the wild. The work gives innumerable examples of the strength of the mutual bond between Elsa and the Adamsons. It centers on the maternal instincts of Joy that find expression in her concern for the animals under her care. The understatement and at times humor with which she narrates the strains and difficulties of their life emphasizes the authenticity of the work and the dedication of herself and her husband to the Africa that they so clearly love. The work’s simple style and direct, chronological narration emphasize rather than detract from the depth of the bond between the Adamsons and the lioness. Joy Adamson displays throughout the book a deep-rooted respect for animal life in all its African variations. The unemotional detachment with which she describes their activities and observations of wildlife also endow the work with a scientific objectivity. Its close and intimate portrayal of Elsa and many other animals grants the reader a sense of personal observation and participation in life in the African wild.

The author makes no effort to idealize the role played by those like herself and her husband. The scene is one of constant struggle for existence, with danger lurking not only in the climate and the wildlife but also in the ever-present native poachers seeking to pursue their own livelihood in ways traditional to the area before the arrival of the game wardens and conservationists.

This best-selling work, and the film made from it, were highly influential in the 1960’s. Its publication no doubt gave impetus to the movements for animal rights and the protection of wildlife and the environment that have developed. The work, therefore, has the cachet of a classic, and it has been widely translated and frequently republished. Born Free was followed by a sequel, Living Free (1961), also made into a film, which describes the relationship that the Adamsons reestablished with Elsa, who lived independent of humans with her three cubs in the African bush. The experiment was so clearly successful that the work’s final notation of the premature death of Elsa, from a blood parasite, does not suggest that she should have been retained in captivity, as was the case with her siblings.