Richard Adams emerged suddenly and memorably as a writer of imaginative fiction and children’s books in the early 1970’s. He was born to Evelyn George Beadon Adams, a surgeon, and his wife, Lilian Rosa (Button) Adams. The youngest of three children, Richard Adams spent his time reading and roaming the family’s spacious gardens or the nearby rolling hills of Berkshire, and he filled his solitary hours with fanciful games about ruling an imaginary country. After attending boarding and preparatory schools in Berkshire, Adams entered Oxford University.
His education was interrupted by service with the British Airborne Forces during World War II. In 1946, he returned to Oxford and took his master’s degree in modern history at Worcester College two years later. In 1949, he married Barbara Elizabeth Acland; they had two daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, in 1957 and 1958. Immediately after leaving Oxford, Adams went into public service. He was employed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for twenty years in a variety of posts. When the ministry was incorporated into the Ministry of the Environment, Adams was appointed assistant secretary. For twenty-five years, he lived and worked in London. He read voraciously in the classic works of English and Continental literature but had no literary ambitions.
Adams’s daughters Juliet and Rosamond precipitated his literary career. Seeking to amuse them on long drives, Adams invented a story about a warren of Berkshire rabbits forced to flee by a housing development. After dodging automobiles and trains, fighting other rabbits, a small band succeeds in establishing a new home. Juliet and Rosamond suggested additional characters and adventures until the story’s length and complexity demanded that it be written down. Wanting to give his daughters the story in published form, Adams sent the manuscript, to which he had now added chapter titles and epilogues, to several publishers and agents, but all refused to consider it. When he heard that a small publisher, Rex Collings, was reprinting novels about animals, Adams submitted his tale to them, and they accepted Watership Down for a small printing of two thousand copies. After brisk sales attracted a major publisher, Watership Down became a best-seller in both England and the United States. Adams’s novel followed the path of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937): First told to amuse children, these stories made their way into print and became classics.
Watership Down’s success enabled Adams to retire from government service and devote himself to writing. Within five years, he published two more books with central animal figures: Shardik, about a huge bear, and The Plague Dogs, about two canines. Shardik is a tale of cruelty and destruction in the imaginary kingdom of Bekla. Its protagonist is fearsome, perhaps demoniac, possibly divine. The Plague Dogs, an attack on vivisection, tells how Rowf and Snitter flee an experimental laboratory. Their link to Watership Down is Adams’s concern for environmental issues and humankind’s “uneasy detente,” as Adams calls it, with animals. A decade passed before Adams returned to the genre with Traveller, whose narrator is the horse of Robert E. Lee. The commander’s steed recounts the Civil War’s heroism and horrors as seen through equine eyes.
Adams resists classifying his animal fictions as children’s literature. He is the first major writer since Rudyard Kipling to create convincing animal protagonists by attributing human emotions and ideals to them but without giving them greater physical abilities than real animals.
Adams’s other publications after 1976 fall into three groups:...
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children’s books, nonfiction, and novels. His children’s books, most notablyThe Tyger Voyage and The Bureaucats, are tales of fantasy and imagination with animals as central characters. They combine the Aesopian trick of using animal characters to discuss human virtues and vices with a scientific realism that resists sentimentality. Adams’s nonfiction works also display his love of nature and his environmental concerns. Firmly believing that respect for nature depends on accurate knowledge, Adams lures readers of Nature Through the Seasons and A Nature Diary to seek pleasure in the observation of the commonest plants, landscapes, and creatures. Adams follows in the tradition of British nature writers such as Gilbert White, who portray the pleasures of rural retirement and reflection. Adams wrote two novels—The Girl in a Swing and Maia—with an adult audience in mind. These works are erotic stories with strikingly different narrative approaches. The Girl in a Swing, gothic in mood and narrative, tells of the passionate courtship and marriage of an antiques dealer named Alan Desland and a mysterious German girl, Käthe. Their love is haunted and destroyed by a murdered child from Käthe’s past. Maia returns to the imaginary land first described in Shardik to trace the life of a teenage girl. Her descent into the hedonistic life of a courtesan exposes the moral decay undermining an elegant, wealthy civilization. Adams explored the field of historical fiction, first approached in Traveller, in The Outlandish Knight, a novel of sixteenth century England. Wandering minstrel Raymond becomes the first of three generations of musicians to influence the course of English history by serving royal figures: Henry Tudor, Catherine of Aragon, and Mary, Queen of Scots.
Watership Down remains the most widely discussed and debated of Adams’s works. Marketed as a children’s book in England and as an adult novel in the United States, the book continues to puzzle readers, reviewers, and critics. Is it simply an exercise in imagination, a delightful attempt to bridge the gap between human intelligence and animal intelligence? Has it some deeper meaning beneath the deceptively familiar tale of the rabbits’ search for a new home? Is it a homily on the struggle between good and evil that goes on literally beneath people’s feet? Is it an allegory of the political struggles between ideologies that have ravaged the earth in the twentieth century? Adams’s protestations that he intended nothing more than a gripping narrative have not effectively stilled the curiosity of readers inevitably stirred beyond their expectations.