Joy Adamson Essay - Critical Essays

Adamson, Joy


Joy Adamson 1910–1980

(Born Friedrike Victoria Gessner) Austrian nonfiction writer, ethologist, lecturer, photographer, painter, and illustrator.

By sharing with the world the remarkable adventure of her life, Adamson created works that rival fiction for the excitement and drama they convey. Adamson devoted herself to the understanding and preservation of African animal life and tribal culture. It is, however, as chronicler of the amazing relationship she and her husband had with Elsa, a lioness, and Pippa, a cheetah, and their cubs that Adamson is best known.

After marrying George Adamson, the senior game warden of Kenya, Adamson often cared for motherless baby animals. Despite dire predictions and lack of scientific precedent, the Adamsons reared Elsa and then successfully returned her to her natural environment. The story of this venture is documented in Born Free and its sequels Living Free and Forever Free. Adamson's straight forward humorous prose, free of anthropomorphism or sentimentality, caused her books to be hailed as classics. It was generally agreed that the affection Adamson had for her subjects and the perception she used in describing them overruled any literary flaws. All three books were later adapted into film semidocumentaries, as was The Spotted Sphinx; these films, which were supervised by the Adamsons, included scenes between animals and man never before captured cinematically. Born Free was also adapted for television during 1974.

After another successful experiment with Pippa, the subject of The Spotted Sphinx and its sequel, Pippa's Challenge, Adamson began lecturing about Elsa throughout the world, and established the successful Elsa Wild Animal Appeal in the many countries she visited. She continued to draw upon her experiences in books for younger children, and in 1978 published her autobiography, The Searching Spirit. Unfortunately, many critics felt that this anecdotal narrative shed little new light on Adamson and her accomplishments.

As a writer, Adamson preferred to let the facts of her experiences speak for themselves. Her unembellished prose sometimes approached the clinical, but it always reflected the deep concern she brought to her subjects. Although she never considered herself a professional scientist, the documentations of her associations with both the human and animal world have earned her distinction among anthropologists and zoologists. In addition, her work has indisputable value as a persuasive, effective plea for conservation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72 and 93-96, and Something about the Author, Vol. 11.)

Mrs. Adamson, the wife of a Kenya game warden, describes in this memorable book [Born Free] a difficult, dangerous and illuminating experiment, an experiment in living together. She received from her husband a three-day-old litter of three lion cubs and started to rear them. In due course two of them were sent off into captivity. The Adamsons could not bear to part with Elsa, the weakest third. They decided to let her grow to maturity as one of their family. They would not turn her into a pet; they would not tame her; they could not domesticate her. She was born free….

Mrs. Adamson describes what happened with convincing simplicity and directness. She was withdrawing from Elsa the necessity to learn to kill in order to live, and substituting an artificial regime for the expansion of her tremendous energies…. [Elsa's] growth was a state of increasingly precarious equilibrium between the savage instincts of her kind and something that grew between her and her human household. Mrs. Adamson uses the only words that are available to describe this restraining force—it was, on both sides of the experiment, trust, devotion and love. But ultimately these would not be enough. There was, it seems, no record of a man-reared lioness successfully taking her place with her own pride and her own mate. The crisis of the Adamsons' experiment was to find the right way to let Elsa go…. Mrs. Adamson explains nothing, and much of what she writes needs and merits a lot of explaining; it is her triumph that [her] words ring true.

"Life with a Lioness," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1960; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3034, April 22, 1960, p. 254.

Charles Paul May

The reader [of Born Free] gets a feeling for nature in Kenya, and, in slight degree, for human life there as well.

It is too bad, tho, that the author does not go into more detail about the training of the lioness. There are instances where Mrs. Adamson speaks of using a stick to teach Elsa the meaning of "No," but usually she tells what her pet did without giving the background leading up to Elsa's achievements. Nor does she dramatize several events that must have been exciting, thereby leaving the reader with a let-down feeling.

The style of writing is fluid and pleasant, and the adventures of Elsa and her owners are amusing, absorbing, or exciting enough to make this a satisfying book for a variety of readers.

Charles Paul May, "She Made African Lioness Her Pet," in Chicago Tribune (© 1960 Chicago Tribune; reprinted by permission of the author), April 24, 1960, p. 4.

Gerald Durrell

There have been many books written by people who have hand-reared wild animals, and then kept them around the house in a state of semi-domestication. But, interesting though these accounts often are, one gets the feeling that there is something lacking. The animal is neither truly domestic nor is it truly wild. Therefore, any observations on its behavior become automatically suspect. The ideal is, of course, to live on intimate terms with a truly wild animal, so that one can observe its behavior without disturbing it in any way. Joy Adamson has achieved the nearest possible approach to this, and has produced a fascinating and remarkable book ["Born Free"]….

Mercifully resisting the impulse to give us just another account of the difficulties of keeping a full-grown lion around the house, Joy Adamson has concentrated instead on giving us a carefully observed and well written account of the animal's life, from the moment she was obtained as a cub a few days old, to the moment, four years later, when she was returned to the wild. It is a moving and incredible story…. (p. 28)

By far the most absorbing part of the book deals with the Adamson's efforts to return Elsa to the wilds; the difficulties of getting rid of a lion are, it appears, almost as great as keeping one…. This must surely be one of the most remarkable cases on record of human association with a wild animal.

Joy Adamson writes well, without excess sentimentality, and with a nice dry humor. (pp. 28-9)

One can only hope that this association continues to prosper, and that in the not too distant future Mrs. Adamson will give us a further account of Elsa as a mother. I am sure that it will be considerably more enjoyable than the average sequel we are treated to these days. (p. 29)

Gerald Durrell, "Living with a Lioness," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 22, 1960, pp. 28-9.

Walter Necker

I cannot recall any animal book which I would recommend to as wide an audience as [Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds, an] unusual and exciting story of a lioness raised among people and then retrained to return to her own kind in the wilds of Kenya…. It has drama and sadness, but above all novelty and happiness. Aside from its pleasurable reading it has much to offer to the animal behaviorist also—much that is thought-provoking and significant. (pp. 2445-46)

Walter Necker, "Natural Science: 'Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, June 15, 1960; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1960 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 85, No. 12, June 15, 1960, pp. 2445-46.

William Percy

[Born Free is] a unique and illuminating study in animal psychology. (p. 9)

[Elsa's history in Born Free] provides a record of absorbing interest depicting the gradual development of a controlled character which few would have credited as possible in the case of an animal potentially as dangerous as any in the world. That such a creature when in a highly excited state, with her blood up after a long struggle with a bull buffalo, and while still on top of it, should have permitted a man to walk up to her and cut the dying beast's throat to satisfy his religious scruples, and then lend her assistance in pulling the carcass out of a river, is an astonishing tribute no less to her...

(The entire section is 245 words.)

Gerald Durrell

In "Living Free" Mrs. Adamson tells us the whole story of Elsa's mating, the birth of the cubs, their development and of Elsa's unfortunate death, and the story is a fascinating one, not only for anyone interested in animals but for the more serious student of zoology as well. Her style is pleasantly terse and factual, without any of the anthropomorphic frills that usually attend books of this sort. You get the impression that she is a brave and extraordinary person….

Mrs. Adamson is a careful observer; throughout the book you find the most fascinating bits of lion lore. (p. 3)

This is a wonderful and enchanting book that everyone should make a point of reading, for not only does...

(The entire section is 179 words.)

Phoebe-Lou Adams

[Born Free] was such a delight that it is disheartening to have to report that its sequel, Living Free …, is no better than most sequels. The story of Elsa's cubs and her life in the wilds is told by Mrs. Adamson with the same simplicity and affection that characterized the first book …, but circumstance has introduced an element of fraud.

While the orphaned Elsa was being raised by the Adamsons, and later trained to live as a wild lion, the presence of her human companions was right and necessary. Once she had been turned loose, however, and particularly when she had cubs which she wished to keep out of sight, the presence of the Adamsons with their cameras and notebooks inevitably...

(The entire section is 201 words.)

Ted Hughes

There are stories of wild tigers living in the camps of Jungle Indians, fading off when strangers approach, and stories of baboons joining in the games of Kaffir boys—games of a ferocity you would not risk with an Alsatian. All incredible stories. Yet Joy Adamson's story belongs with these. Living Free describes her continued friendship with the lioness, Elsa, while Elsa lived wild, had a wild mate and reared three cubs. During this period Joy Adamson kept a diary of Elsa's comings and goings and took photographs of her regularly, then worked that material up into a book. The diary tone is still evident, and in just glancing at one page you would wonder how this rather abrupt, condensed notation of disparate...

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Julian Huxley

I found [Living Free] an absorbing story. First, because it gives the reader the genuine feeling of the African bush. (p. xxii)

But that, fascinating though it is, is only a background for the story, only the stage on which the protagonists live out their parts. The main interest of the book lies in its account of the psychological development of Elsa and her family. (p. xxiii).

[Most] remarkable of all is … the fact that a human being had succeeded in eliciting in a lioness a psychological organization which basically resembled a human personality. And that in consequence the lioness was enabled to lead a second life, based on friendly human relations, in addition to a...

(The entire section is 179 words.)

John Hughes

In a sense ["Forever Free"] is the saddest of the trio. It tells of Elsa's death and it is an intensely moving, and at times harrowing, story….

Elsa herself dominates only part of the latest book. Much of it is in fact devoted to the Adamsons' rescue of Elsa's three cubs….

Never did the cubs become as tame as Elsa and never, apparently, did Mrs. Adamson achieve exactly the same rapport. But it's a heart-warming account and a fitting conclusion to one of the most moving animal stories ever to come out of Africa.

John Hughes, "The Elsa Era," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Charles L. Miller

The Peoples of Kenya is much more than a fashion catalogue, and if you overlook the text you will be passing up quite an adventure. Although tribal ways in Kenya today are little more than a tourist floor show, a handful of people still manage to live as they did centuries before the invention of travelers' checks. Mrs. Adamson's word-pictures of their isolated communities—particularly in the cruelly magnificent, measureless crematorium of Kenya's northern region—are no less vivid than her paintings. To read her accounts of how these prehistoric tribes turn their backs on jet-age society and transform grim survival into a rewarding way of life is to enjoy the weird and beautiful experience of a journey...

(The entire section is 151 words.)

Alfred C. Ames

The Spotted Sphinx is the record of a long association, one still very much alive at the end of the book….

A book by Joy Adamson grabs a reader and holds him. It is of course tremendously moving to see a member of our own species establish a relationship of trust and affection with an animal historically viewed as fearfully savage, an absolute threat to life and limb….

Perhaps not everyone can happily surrender himself to Mrs. Adamson's day-by-day account of the search for one to five elusive cheetahs, of a prolonged succession of meals of freshly slaughtered goat meat, of bouts of worry interspersed with moments of happy play with strong animals who mean no harm but...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Anita Nygaard

Adamson's rare perception and her superb gifts of story-telling are vividly evident [in Pippa's Challenge]. She has a passion for understanding "the fascination of what's difficult" (Yeats); the cheetah, reticent, graceful, and astonishingly beautiful, is a difficult and fascinating creature…. The challenge of Pippa and her cubs is to teach us something essential of ourselves—if we will learn. There is a useful comparison table of members of the cat family. Highly recommended. (pp. 3171-72)

Anita Nygaard, "Natural History & Zoology: 'Pippa's Challenge'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, October 1, 1972; published by R. R. Bowker...

(The entire section is 109 words.)

Elspeth Huxley

[The Searching Spirit: An Autobiography] is a unique story, told with the directness and simplicity of all [Joy Adamson's] writings: the story of a generous, creative and artistic person, with a great fund of affection for her fellow creatures, who has devoted her life to observing them as individuals in order to discover how they think, feel and behave, to recording the results with brush and pen, and to pleading their cause in the world at large. But this book is not a treatise, or in any sense a polemic. It is an adventure tale, the personal story of a woman of courage, gaiety and zest for life. 'A day in the bush is never dull,' she remarks. Nor is a page in her autobiography. (p. 15)


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Harold Hayes

An altogether admirable person, [Joy Adamson] has lived a rambunctious, large-scale, productive life, her own best example of one of the very few introspections to be found in ["The Searching Spirit"]: "… only one thing is certain—people get out of life exactly what they put into it."

Having put more into it than most, Mrs. Adamson has left a lot of her life out of her book…. [The] best that can be said of Mrs. Adamson's narrative is that she reduces things to their essence. Too little is made of too much. Almost at random throughout the Kenya section, within two or three pages, she may be found dashing up one mountainside and down the next, collecting exotic species and surviving a variety of...

(The entire section is 307 words.)

Peggy Crane

Like other women who have fallen in love with Africa—Dame Margery Perham being a superb example—Joy Adamson is a woman of many talents. Unlike Dame Margery, however, she is not a born writer and … [The Searching Spirit] is pedestrian rather than inspired, and we learn very little about Mrs Adamson as a person….

Bereft of the lions,… this book is a little dull. This is not because Mrs Adamson's experiences were dull; they were not….

With so many other talents at her disposal it is perhaps unfair, however, to criticise this author for a lack of writing talent. Her experiment with Elsa attracted the attention of famous scientists and zoologists, and alerted the world...

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John Wanamaker

To one who is familiar with Joy Adamson's tireless fieldwork, her disappointments as well as her achievements in international wildlife conservation, ["The Searching Spirit"] is far from complete. While the facts are there … there is all too little about Joy herself. Yet this autobiography should find an immediate place in the hearts of those who retain a love for Elsa and Pippa….

There is far too little about Joy and George since "Born Free"'s worldwide acclamation. We find little mention of the many honors bestowed upon her, the command visits to and from royalty and heads of state, the long trips to Russia, Japan and Australia at the requests of governments to further conservation education....

(The entire section is 227 words.)