Richard Adams Essay - Adams, Richard (Vol. 5)

Adams, Richard (Vol. 5)

Adams, Richard 1920–

Adams, formerly a British civil servant, is the author of the international best seller, Watership Down. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Children's literature has a way of becoming adult literature, not when it grows up, but when parents learn how to possess and hence to manipulate the language of their offspring—usually as a substitute for some loss of confidence in their own communicative sets. Lewis Carroll probably realized, better than most, that children's literature seldom pleases children; after all, his tiny Alice has a tendency to fall asleep when being read to out of the big book by her elder sister…. From Aesop to Tolkien, literary history is filled with examples of prolonged adult fascination with children's tales, and there is the faint suggestion that this interest is in part voyeuristic: when the loss of childhood is threatened—by "professional" little leagues, or the vote (and "adult" responsibility) at age eighteen, or the disappearance of special juvenile courts, or wars that make them adults very quickly—we construct an artificial kingdom of perpetual childhood replete with bunnies of one sort or another. Like the fairy palaces of yore, these abodes are always replicas; although they appear as utopias, the realm of childhood is always of the past, never of the future. Maybe it is the closest most of us ever come to confronting what we imagine ourselves to have lost. But, because we lie about its object of address, children's literature is among the most subversive of genres.

Richard Adams' Watership Down is one of those adult novels that began, we are told, as a bedtime narrative for his children, only to be awarded the 1973 Guardian and Carnegie Awards for distinguished fiction. The plot is relatively simple: a young rabbit on midnight patrol duty is possessed by a vision of blood in the evening sky, and takes this reasonably natural manifestation of atmospheric refraction as an omen that the warren is being overrun by some mysterious invader. The theme is surely as old as Hamlet's dilemma on the ramparts; namely, how do we reconcile the natural world with the supernatural demands of faith? And perhaps secondarily, Watership Down, though not a manual for a Renaissance king-to-be, is a tale about growing up and the necessary exposure to fear and death. Faced with the dreaded omen, the lapine security council (Owsla) must make a decision that, of course, has antecedents in human history: to abandon their catacomb and to become temporarily nomadic or to attempt to defend what would appear to be an indefensible fortress…. The solution is a sort of compromise exodus: the rabbits leave their ancestral home; cross a river at low tide; encounter and fight their enemies led by the venerable General Woundwort within the urges of the territorial imperative, and eventually intermarry with their enemies following the death of their senior leaders. Only then can the homeland be reclaimed.

This reciprocating motif in Watership Down, the cycle of departure and return, is part of the natural synchrony between the creatures of the earth and their seasons. The novel begins in spring and moves us through the terrors of winter and back again to Hazel's death in a heaven "where the first primroses were beginning to bloom." Throughout his novel, Adams makes rich connections between the animal and the human worlds. Of the winter season he writes that man's enjoyment of it is really but a disguised enjoyment of proof against it, whereas for the rabbit, there is always a food problem: "For rabbits, winter remains what it was for men in the middle ages—hard, but bearable by the resourceful and not altogether without compensations."

Far beyond the simple weaving of an entertaining yarn, however, Richard Adams has done something else in Watership Down. He has written with the aid of extensive research into the life of rabbits (most of it from R. M. Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit) a combination of history, mythology, and guidebook. It is both a genealogy (and hence a study of beginnings, complete with the rabbit version of Creation: an excessive overflowing of droppings from Frith, the sun god, that made everything fertile) and a survival kit (instructions on defending oneself against such untimely endings as that represented by the fox's scent). As such, Watership Down is a prophetic book, like the Bible, or Blake's Jerusalem, or The Whole Earth Catalogue—that is, it relates the history of a race of variously "chosen" and "dispossessed" rabbits to the history of their earth itself. In this realm, one's natural history is the same as his human history. Relationships in Watership Down tend toward the totemic; that is to say that those events and commandments which under normal circumstances would be regarded as symbolic, have a presence even while absent. Prophetic books present people as being part of their history in a way so very alien to a technocratic civilization with its divisions of labor, generations, time, and space. It offers a genuine "world" complete with its own language and offering the convenience of maps for the lost.

Most myths deal with the themes of loss and renewal or death and rededication and were surely more prevalent when man was closer to the earth which exhibited the same cycle as it rotated about the sun. "Down," after all, is a term equally applicable to a terrain, the geographic equivalent of a fall, and the substance which fills the pillows upon which children dream. Having just about done away with the spontaneous simultaneity of primitive man, our myths now belong to perhaps the only primitives that remain—our children at bedtime. And even that is threatened, because adults make bestselling novels out of them before the kids even learn the rules of the new game, Watership Down. (pp. 528-29)

Jan B. Gordon, in Commonweal (copyright © 1974 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 27, 1974.

Richard Adams, faced by the daunting task of matching the loud success of Watership Down, prefaces his next book [Shardik] with quotations from the Odyssey, the Old Testament and Jung—which gives an idea of the scope he has set himself. No world for rabbits, this: it is the world of epic, myth and archetype, bestraddled by the figure of a giant bear that is twice the size of a man, and as full of magic power and significance as a white whale. As in the case of Melville's extraordinary amalgam of prosaic whaling treatise and poetic meditation, Shardik is an attempt to create an entire world that is memorably real and, at the same time, incandescent with immemorial meaning. And for a time—at the beginning and again near the ending—it almost works as intended. There can be few books on which more loving, energetic inventiveness has been expended than on Shardik. When the great bear lunges out of the forest fire by the Telthearna River on the northern boundary of the Beklan empire, and changes the course of local history, it ushers in a fictional world where everything is made familiar to us, yet startlingly new….

But when the forest magic goes, Shardik sinks…. The proliferation of exotic detail becomes laborious, the moral drama obvious and over-extended, the bejewelled names and allusions faintly comic….

The book is too long, and too uneven. There is no real grasp of the inward reaches of character, only of the grand simplicities of archetype—and when much of the interest is purportedly centred on Kelderek's individual crisis of betrayal, conscience and moral recovery, this lack is debilitating.

His dark night of the soul is given some strong symbols, but little psychology. And his love-affair with one of the lapsed virgin priestesses is only embarrassing. The epic dimensions of the tale need too many stage-props, create too many moments of bathos, too many eruptions into Marlovian hyperboles, roll-calls, invocations and Victorian-sounding resurrections of the classic epic simile (almost one a page at times, and one of them 17 lines long).

There is enough creative endeavour, careful planning, integrity and sheer multifarious detail in Shardik to make a dozen ordinary novels. But, dogged by the ghosts of Rider Haggard and Tolkien and Cecil B. deMille, its intermittent magic, like the great bear itself, dwindles in the cage.

Kenneth Graham, "Bear Garden," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp., 1975; reprinted by permission of Kenneth Graham), January 2, 1975, p. 30.

["Shardik"] is an exploration of the way an incarnate god works on the human psyche…. A picaresque adventure story for sure, but it is much more. Beneath the rich vein of allegory and symbolism, Adams is concerned with how a society worships its gods, chooses its values and raises its children. Adams is a splendid descriptive writer whose only flaw—a minor one—is a fondness for the extended Homeric simile. And he may have created the most evil character ever to appear in fiction, Genshed the slavedealer, who castrates, mutilates and murders young children for pleasure. This is a marvelous novel of epic dimension, more ambitious, deeper, darker and more richly textured than "Watership." Despite its happy ending, no one under 10 years of age ought to go near it. (p. 77)

Arthur Cooper, "Bear Market," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1975, pp. 77-8.

Richard Adams has written a second novel, and may the Great Bear God help him. It seems certain that he is in for a spell of heavyweight reviewing, the kind of borborygmic reappraisal the critical community indulges in when it feels slightly ill and foolish after a gorge of overpraise. What was overpraised, of course, was Watership Down, a bunny epic greeted last year as if it were a cross between Moby-Dick and The Wind in the Willows. The excessive praise was a critical phenomenon that occurs every year or so when reviewers tire of the stinginess that honesty requires, and heap all of their withheld love on some more or less fragile volume.

Seen without regard to its predecessor, Shardik resembles good science fiction, unsatisfactorily diluted with Victorian romanticism….

There is no iron to this Iron Age fable. The grimness is fake, the fascination with virginity is a naughty bore, and the monstrous figure of Shardik is cheapened by watery supernaturalism. It is one thing for Kelderek and his primitive fellow tribesmen—a few skeptics to the contrary—to believe the bear is a god, quite another for author and reader to pretend to believe it. This pretense is what Adams insists on, and it smacks of Pan worship, that Victorian silliness in which refined city dwellers pretended that they glimpsed the wicked, goat-footed god as they strolled through an orderly countryside.

Adams begins his tale with an epigraph from Jung: "Superstition and accident manifest the will of God." Perhaps, but not here. The author spins out his romance entertainingly, but without dealing seriously with the questions he raises: of belief and its perversion, of authority and its corruption. Good as he is at nature walks, Adams does not venture far into the forests of the mind.

John Skow, "Ursus Saves?," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), April 28, 1975, p. 93.

As a sustained act of the imagination, Shardik is overawing. Richard Adams has devised for his 526-page story not only characters linked in a complex plot, but an ancient empire as well, complete with new-minted languages and myths, children's games and birdsongs, customs and topographies (maps are provided). The cities of his chimerical realm ring true, as though he had wielded a spade at the digs that excavated them.

Adams's people are not as believable. Like those gallant rabbits in his first book, Watership Down, the characters in Shardik owe more to literature than to life—stepping out, as it were, in blue blazers from an English boys' adventure tale. The spirit of the prep school pervades both novels, and while this did very little harm to Watership Down—it may even have helped that persistent bestseller become one of the few modern novels to be read by both adults and older children—it somewhat undermines the more ambitious Shardik, which carries in itself a heavy burden of religious allegory….

Though the end of the journey is disappointing, though Adams's characters have been encountered in other books, still their passage through his invented landscape is worth following. The word "bemused," meaning both "lost in thought" and "stupefied," appears often in Shardik. Bemusement seems to be the author's intention. He knows how to tell an adventure that builds hypnotically to a gasp….

There is too much here about castration, torture, sexual abuse, and mutilation. Considering that many of the children who read Watership Down will attempt Shardik, it is a mistake. Even an adult will be surfeited with its horrors. (p. 53)

Ralph Tyler, "The Nature of the Beast," in Harper's (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the May, 1975 issue by special permission), May, 1975, pp. 53-4.

Its majestic language, heroic theme and sustained power will make Shardik an instant classic; it will still be in print for a long time. Its achievement is awesome: some of its effects move us so deeply that we're surprised to find them made up of words on a printed page. Taking place outside of recorded time, the story begins when Shardik, a gigantic bear, saves the hunter Kelderek from an attacking leopard…. Kelderek has been singled out to serve the will of Shardik, the reincarnated power of God….

As in the fiction of Graham Greene, Adams gives an ordinary man the awesome job of serving a God whose mercy sometimes looks like punishment. Kelderek immerses his will in Shardik's, carrying out the Bear-God's message without knowing its nature….

No estimate of Shardik can overlook how well Adams' firmly cadenced sentences knit with his epical theme, how his style brings to life his uncanny knowledge of bears—their anatomy, feeding and sleeping habits, and reactions to stress. Shardik is both the power of God and a dangerous, wounded animal, half-crazed by hunger, fire and hunters' arrows. Adams makes the great shambling bear a figure of terror and savage grandeur even in his physical ruin….

Adams filters his acute understanding of human motives through his mighty bear; Shardik embodies the hopes and fears of the people touched by his divinity. The double remove created by the primitive setting and the convention of animist myth lays bare the hidden depths of our basic drives. (p. 29)

Peter Wolfe, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 3, 1975.

The world of "Shardik" is wholly imagined, as the enticing map on the inside cover of the book lets us know. It is a cosmos tailored to the order of a story, and the challenge, which Adams meets with his descriptive brilliance, is to make every exotic facet of this world real and convincing: a world such as we ourselves might live in. Like Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, like relatively unsung science fiction novelists such as Ursula LeGuin ("The Left Hand of Darkness") and Frank Herbert ("Dune"), Adams believes that epic events require a world created to their measure. Not the "real world," where only psychological dramas are allowed because the larger frameworks of value have been shattered, but a morally coherent fiction; a world constructed from mythic elements, where mythic events can unfold their energies. It is an old tradition, only recently fallen on bad days, into pulp literature. Its great achievements are "The Epic of Gilgamesh," "The Odyssey," "Beowulf." And in "Shardik," Adams attempts to restore its high seriousness.

The ambition is remarkable; the writer's tools are unique. Yet he does not succeed, and his failure is so resounding that, frankly, it puzzles me. For what fails Adams in "Shardik" is precisely what served him so well in "Watership Down": his genius for storytelling and his affectionate skill in rendering character. (pp. 1-2)

[The] general, kings, courtesans, priestesses and rebels, the entire cast of characters that populate this epic, are rarely more than pulp magazine figures of the crudest sort. They contain little subtlety or surprise. Their motives are schematic, and virtually all their conversation is more wooden than seems possible from a writer whose rabbits spoke in so lively and believable a manner. One concludes that Adams's animals are simply more human than his humans—to the misfortune of his moral and his book….

I would not be surprised if it turned out that "Shardik" was not written after "Watership Down," as the publisher leads us to believe, but before. How else can one explain the amateurish quality which pervades so much of this book by a writer who has previously displayed such masterful gifts? (p. 2)

Paul Zweig, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1975.

There is one good thing to say for Shardik. Adams writes about nature—trees, plants, animals, stones, bugs—as though he grew in ground next to wild onions. He talks the natural world into life. But there are few of the usual reasons for reading fiction in Shardik. We learn nothing about ourselves here; Adams's people belong with Snow White. He does not create an alternative reality. The novel is a fake antique, a sexless, humorless, dull facsimile of an epic without historical or psychological relevance. Contrary to Adams's wish, Shardik transmits no information we need, want, or can use about how we have chosen or employed our deities. Shardik is a long-winded Victorian fantasy, a piece of literary furniture properly destined to be unread by tens of thousands of book-club check writers.

Webster Schott, "Grin and Bear It," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 25, 1975, p. 3.

The rabbit heroes of Richard Adams's celebrated 1974 novel Watership Down have swiftly entered the contemporary mythology best articulated by Tolkien and his admiring imitators. As an allegory of survival, that novel escaped simplistic coyness because the closed system of its creatures' ordeal was depicted with a stubborn thoroughness that gave it the unified force of anthropomorphic fable. The inventive consistency of Watership Down quieted the snarls of whimsy-haters. Still, the book's imaginative reach was limited; one could resist its blandishments, while recognizing their unpretentious charm.

There is no such defense against Shardik—a powerfully compelling prose epic that re-creates the fortunate fall of unaccommodated man, within the history of a splendidly portrayed imaginary kingdom. Adams's cosmos is the remote, long-forgotten "Beklan Empire": for it, he has contrived a wondrously detailed web of topography, flora and fauna, rival languages with their sub-dialects—including a repository of eerie pre-Christian religions, devoutly preserved and faithfully practiced. The people are seekers after an understanding of their place in the creation, through inconsistent communion with the mysterious forces that lead them, past imperfection and error, to wisdom. Onto his heroes' quest Adams has grafted a hymn in praise of the unity of all life. And, before Shardik lumbers to its resolute conclusion, it also challenges us with a utopian blueprint for the saving of future generations.

This book means to be an epic. The opening scene displays Adams's determination to excite his readers' awe. We are shown the hierarchical confluence of life that fills an enormous forest; next, we hear the throb, along the forest floor, of undercurrent natural forces beating together in complex collusion. But the sound in fact heralds a spreading fire that drives all life before it. (p. 26)

Shardik tacitly acknowledges its obvious models; nonetheless, it seems put together with a shrewdness that is palpably unliterary—one wants to call it "instinctive."

The imagery is elemental; it always seems unforced—and natural. Adams's metaphors are repeatedly drawn from the rituals of nature's processes. Water and fire are the recurring terms. The book opens with a voracious forest fire, concludes at a domestic hearthside scene. In one of its most magnificent set pieces—describing "the passing of Shardik"—the animal's immense corpse drifts downriver on a burning raft, the body of a dead child laid beside it. (Yes, the source is Malory: but I defy any reader to feel that it is anything but inevitable, in the context of the world where it occurs.)

Among this book's greatest strengths is its rejection of the modern novel's emphasis on subjective uncertainty. It urges that truth is knowable, and that our intelligences must accept what they recognize for revealed truth—even if it be partial and unsatisfying. Surely, this points to its Christian framework. But isn't there something more, something stretching back still farther?

The language of Shardik is primitive and hortatory—as if Adams still held the old pre-civilized belief that words are things and can hurt. In the early pages, the sudden appearance of the bear is again and again described with excited rhetorical flourishes (Shardik is "… a figure of terror, monstrous beyond the nature even of that dark, savage place"). There are many such passages, in which Adams frankly directs our responses, tells us what things mean, how we must feel about them.

It is the way one talks to children—and it gives the impression of words buttressed with gesturing and shaking, as if by a speaker who reminds himself that language is only one of the devices by which we communicate. When the teller tugs thus at our attention, grasps our shoulders, turning us to face him and listen, listen….

In reading Shardik, we seem to hear again the old stories that were told to us by old people remembering them from past years, knowing we must be made to hear them, that our survival depends upon them. This is a new story, but it has the satisfying wholeness of the great ones it dares to rival; it should be told, and retold, for many generations. (p. 27)

Bruce Allen, "Epic in Wonderland," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 31, 1975, pp. 26-7.

I recently spent the best part of a week reading a 600-page novel about some imaginary barbarians who worship an imaginary bear. This is not the sort of thing I would ordinarily do, but I remembered how two years ago I was equally reluctant to start a 400-page book about a tribe of rabbits, and how wrong I was then. By now, over a million people have read Watership Down; for many it is a modern classic.

"That rabbit book"… became an international best seller not just because it was well written and original. It was attractive also because it celebrated qualities many serious novelists are currently afraid or embarrassed to write about. The heroes and heroines of most contemporary novels (including mine) are sad, bumbling failures; hysterical combatants in the sex war; or self-deceptive men and women of ill-will. What a relief to read of characters who have honor and courage and dignity, who will risk their lives for others, whose love for their families and friends and community is enduring and effective—even if they look like Flopsy, Mopsy, and Benjamin Bunny….

Shardik is not about a tribe of bears, but about men, some of whom are just as sympathetic and admirable as the heroes of Watership Down. Some critics are skeptical of this, since they know from their own experience, or introspection, that men are basically cowardly, dishonorable, foolish, disloyal, and selfish.

Perhaps Richard Adams was aware of this objection, for instead of setting his tale in any known time and place, he has invented an imaginary primitive world, the ancient Beklan Empire, complete with history, geography, climate, culture, and religion….

Bears, of course, have always been very popular in English literature, though—or perhaps because—they are unknown in English life outside of zoos. From the comic butts of the fables and the enchanted princes of folklore through Kipling's wise, paternal Baloo to Pooh and Paddington, they have always been portrayed as friendly; mischievous or clumsy sometimes, but easily domesticated and affectionate.

Richard Adams's Shardik, the Power of God, is a different sort of animal, more American than English. Like the eponymous hero of Faulkner's "The Bear," he is a figure of terror and mystery, violent and unpredictable. He is Nature, literally red in tooth and claw, both dangerous and beautiful, fearful and desirable. Shardik, like Watership Down, is among other things an ecological novel, an allegory and history of the relationship of human beings to the physical world….

Irritable reviewers, perhaps thinking of his first appearance in the book [having been badly burned], have compared Shardik to Smokey the Bear; and in a way he is what Smokey would be, taken seriously. Even Smokey has his Faulkner side; he is not small and cuddly, but much larger than the cartoon people he usually confronts. He is generally represented as scowling, even threatening—and what, after all, does he intend to do with that shovel he carries, blade up?

But Shardik is not just a possible ecological allegory; it can also be read as a study in the psychology of religion. It cannot be accidental that the central symbol chosen by Richard Adams, the survivor of a Jungian analysis, harks back to what anthropologists have called the oldest surviving evidence of mythological belief, discovered in the mountain caves inhabited by Neanderthal man before 50,000 BC. There, ten thousand years earlier than the wall paintings of prehistoric hunters, the skulls of cave bears were grouped around a fire in the deepest rooms of the caves.

Shardik, like the cave bears, is not really a magical being; he is not anthropomorphized. All that he does is within the range of normal animal behavior; only to those who believe in him does it seem symbolical, an Act of God. Because of this belief, however, lives are changed utterly; hundreds of men, women, and children die; a barbaric empire is destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again, and finally brought a little nearer to civilized humanism. (p. 34)

[Part] of the book should make some amends to feminists for the condescending treatment of the female rabbits—Flopsys and Mopsys all—in Watership Down. Through most of Shardik, women are not only important but more admirable generally and closer to nature and the truth than men are. Unfortunately, this does not carry through, and the Good Society established in the happy ending is illogically and disappointingly patriarchal.

In the course of his book, Adams manages to picture most known Western varieties of religious attitude, from the simple totemistic faith of the Ortelgans through the Dionysiac intoxication of the young priestesses of Quiso to the obsessive ritualism or half-superstitious, half-conventional holiday observances of the rich Beklan townspeople…. Agnosticism and atheism, both primitive and sophisticated, are not forgotten….

Richard Adams's own position seems to be a variant of that of the Grand Inquisitor. "Superstition and accident manifest the will of God," he quotes (from Jung) in his epigraph. Even if the supernatural does not exist, it is good for men to believe in it—not because it makes them behave better, but because it gives shape and purpose to their existence. In Shardik, belief causes men to act cruelly and destructively as well as nobly; the bear is a kind of test which brings out hidden strengths and weaknesses, even in those who do not believe in him….

Gifted writers of fantasy, even when they disclaim belief in magic, often seem to have a supernatural precognition of historical events, so that their books are more relevant years after they appear than when they were written. H. G. Wells's pretty, silly, commercially exploited Eloi were invented long before the Flower Children; and Huxley's characters blurred the natural depression caused by his Brave New World with Soma well before the discovery of tranquilizers. Authors often disclaim this gift, and even deny that their books might be read symbolically, as Tolkien insisted that Frodo's Ring of absolute destructive power had nothing to do with modern science or the atomic bomb.

Similarly, Richard Adams would probably claim that no thought of the war in Southeast Asia crossed his mind while he was writing Shardik. If so, it is merely a lucky coincidence that this brilliant and frightening novel should appear in America just at a time when we, like Kelderek, have finally and fully become aware of how much destruction of the natural world and innocent people, how much mutilation and kidnapping of children, has been done in the name of our gods in the past twenty years. (p. 35)

Alison Lurie, "The Power of Smokey," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), June 12, 1975, pp. 34-5.