In each of his novels, Richard Adams adopts a different individual narrative voice: easygoing and colloquial in Watership Down and Maia, stately and epic in Shardik, ironic and densely allusive in The Plague Dogs, and the very different first-person voices in The Girl in a Swing and Traveller. On the surface, Adams’s natural gift as a storyteller is his strongest talent, but his novels deserve to be read more for his habitual concerns: a love for “the surface of the earth,” as George Orwell called it, as manifested in the English countryside and the creatures who inhabit it; a hatred for the cruelties that human beings inflict on the other inhabitants of this world as well as on themselves; and an acute awareness of the transitory nature of existence and the evanescence of friendship and love.
Watership Down burst on the literary scene in 1972, as unlikely a success as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955) had been almost two decades earlier. Its plot and characters seemed those of a children’s book: A group of rabbits leave their threatened burrow and make a dangerous journey to find a new home as well as enough new rabbits to ensure its continuation. In its length and often violent action, however, it certainly went beyond the boundaries of a children’s work, and it succeeded with many adults. It even led to some shameless imitations, such as William Horwood’s mole epic, Duncton Wood (1980), but none had the imagination and freshness of the original.
As Tolkien did with the Hobbits, Adams made his exotic characters familiar by giving them an easily identifiable demotic speech. Hazel, Bigwig, and the others speak much as did the originals on which they are modeled: Adams’s companions in the 205th Company of the RASC during World War II. (Hazel, according to Adams, is his commanding officer, John Gifford, and Bigwig is Paddy Kavanagh, who was killed in battle.) The rabbits, like their soldier counterparts, are believable everyday heroes. Their persistence in the face of daunting odds, their relatively unflappable demeanor as they are introduced into new and dangerous surroundings, their ingenuity in overcoming their difficulties—all recall the best qualities of those soldiers in the war.
The familiar speech is also reproduced in the novel’s narrative voice, which is often that of a good oral storyteller; as Adams has noted, “A true folk-tale teller is usually rather colloquial.” This informality helps to disguise the classical underpinnings of the work, the main one of which is Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). There are also echoes of Xenophon’s Kyrou anabasis (c. fourth century b.c.e.; Anabasis, 1623) and Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), with Hazel as a more trustworthy Odysseus and Bigwig a less belligerent Achilles. These archetypal characters and plot devices are also supported by the scientific accuracy of the details of the rabbits’ lives, which Adams culled from The Private Life of the Rabbit by R. M. Lockley (1964). Familiar yet exotic characters, an epic story, and verisimilitude of milieu contribute to the lasting and deserved appeal of Watership Down. (Tales from Watership Down, in its latter half a sequel to the novel, also serves as an answer to those who accused the original of, among other charges, sexism.)
Adams’s next novel, Shardik, disappointed many of his readers, for although on the surface, like Watership Down, a fantasy, it was far removed from the first novel in setting, characters, and plot. Adams constructs the mythical land of Bekla, whose precarious peace is shattered by the emergence of a great bear, which is taken by many to be the avatar of the god Shardik. After a short rule by the bear’s chief follower, Kelderek, the bear escapes, and Kelderek must learn the real meaning of the irruption of Shardik into the lives of so many people. For much of the book, the characters...
(The entire section is 1786 words.)