Richard Adams Adams, Richard (Vol. 4) - Essay

Adams, Richard (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Adams, Richard 1920–

Adams, an Englishman, is the author of the successful novel Watership Down. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Watership Down is a very grand book, but a simple outline of what happens in it makes it sound strictly for kids and/or idiotic. (Why is it, by the way, that idiot entertainment is thought okay for children?)…

There are a lot of things that make this book work, including the traditional and here expertly employed device of cliff-hanging chapter endings. But mainly it is Richard Adams's wonderfully rich imagination, together with an extraordinary and totally disarming respect for his material. Tone is all-important in a tale like this, and Adams's is straight, confidently controlled, never maudlin, never cute. Occasionally the author steps aside to tell us something about rabbits (he seems to know everything), but for all the necessary anthropomorphism, including just enough of a fine invented language—hrududu, for example, means motorcar or tractor—and separate character delineation, he keeps the rabbits convincingly rabbity, true to themselves and to their nature. One is drawn into their world, and once in, everything—from their constant fears and skittishness to the great rabbit folk-tales they tell each other—is perfectly believable. There is, of course, a considerable allegorical element (rabbit politics plus a stern defense of nature, with man seen as its destroyer—the one sentimental note in the book), but it is not pressed or made too heavy. In sum, a marvel, a wise and sunny book, a suspenseful epic that readers twelve and up are going to enjoy for a long time to come.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), March 4, 1974, p. 60.

All the praises and prizes that Watership Down has received have gone to it as the kind of nature-loving and highly literate juvenile that British children can read much younger than their American counterparts….

As for mystical profundities, there are references to a death symbol known as the Black Rabbit and stories-within-the-story concerning a rabbit folk hero called El-ahrairah. There is a brief glossary of rabbit terms. The quotations at the head of each chapter derive from Aeschylus, Xenophon, Pilgrim's Progress, Morte d'Arthur. But otherwise Watership Down offers little to build a literary cult upon. On the American-whimsy exchange, one Tolkien hobbit should still be worth a dozen talking rabbits.

Melvin Maddocks, "Rabbit Redux," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), March 18, 1974, pp. 92-3.

Because indiscriminate hostility toward modern animal fiction is generally sound critical practice, we must marvel that so fresh a twig can sprout from such a battered branch of literature. "Watership Down" is an adventure story of an epic scope that takes place within a few months and a few square miles of English soil. It is a story of exile and survival, of heroism and political responsibility, of the making of a leader and of a community. And it is more: through a remarkably sustained thrust of the imagination, Richard Adams has constructed a complete civilization, with its own governments, language and mythology….

Adams handles his suspenseful narrative more dexterously than most authors who claim to write adventure novels, but his true achievement lies in the consistent, comprehensible and altogether enchanting civilization that he has created. His fantasy is firmly rooted in the world we know….

Peter S. Prescott, "Rabbit, Read," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), March 18, 1974, p. 114.

The relations of rabbit to man and warren to warren are sometimes invested with horror and have chillingly suggestive political overtones, but [Watership Down] is not parable because its naturalism is too technically detailed. They transcend rabbitdom by talking and can make alliances with other animals….

They have many of the values and anxieties of public school England. A well-meaning, weak-minded mouse speaks broken English with an Italian flavor. The book leaves out the only really heroic physical accomplishment of the rabbit, sex. So perhaps it isn't strange that they don't feel at home in nature, need the drama of action to confirm their identities, and, curiously stranded between life and make-believe, often feel little and lost. While I appreciated the degree of imaginative validity of this small world, something within me balks when an author tries to teach me how to turn into a British rabbit.

Martin Washburn, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), March 21, 1974, p. 25.

Modern literature is notoriously lacking in [heroes and adventure], which is perhaps why serious readers sometimes indulge themselves in spy stories, detective novels, science fiction—the literary equivalent of lollipops. Since Watership Down, which makes no claim to deal with human life and hence doesn't belie it, is arguably less puerile than such debased survivals of epic tradition, one can perhaps understand what impels Macmillan to market the book in America not as a children's story but simply as "a novel."

But how to explain the dimensions of the campaign in behalf of this clever little saga? The initial 75,000-copy printing, $13,000 ad budget and endorsements of pundits like Bruno Bettleheim and Buckminster Fuller suggest more than confidence in a sturdy tale. Do the publishers think they have another Jonathan Livingston Seagull on their hands: an animal story susceptible to reading as a self-help book? Certain elements in the text bear out this suspicion.

To begin with there are the epigraphs, culled from important adult literature, which remind us that similar events have been recounted about humans. Moreover the rabbits are given a stock of legends—about a heroic likeness named El-ahrairah, a sun god named Frith, and the Black Rabbit of Inlé—that invites speculation on the role of tradition in any pattern of behavior. Such devices constitute a gentle appeal to analogical reasoning, and although Adams, who is an environmentalist by profession, emphasizes specifically animal behavior and makes his rabbits too individual for allegory, he does occasionally seem to be sending us a message….

Among the pleasures offered by Adams' book is the implication that some of man's victims are clever enough to keep us from getting away with it, and that we might even learn from them something about escaping the beastliness ourselves. But it scarcely needs pointing out that rabbits, unlike men, live in a world where harsh threats are also simple ones and hence amenable to simple physical solutions. So it is discomfiting to read Fuller's praise for the book ("one of those great ones that every once in a while lets us know that the universe has something really mysteriously great 'going' for humanity"). Or to learn that the same firm that broke records for the privilege of reprinting Jonathan Livingston Seagull and I'm OK-You're OK has already offered a recordbreaking sum—pre-publication—to get Watership Down into paperback. It would be a pity if Adams' tour de force were taken as a wish-fulfilling fable for ecologists.

Charles Thomas Samuels, "Call of the Wild," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 23, 1974, pp. 28-9.

"Watership Down" is in some ways a delightful book, at times an affecting one. But faced with the extraordinary praise given the book in England, one has to draw back some distance. Lacking the high wit and imaginative force of "Alice in Wonderland" or the triumphant (if occasionally purple) lyricism of "The Wind in the Willows," the book seems to me a good deal less than the "classic"—with the implication in the word of settled universal appeal—that British commentators have so reflexively proclaimed it….

Structurally, [the tale] is composed of a number of set-pieces, the longest and most dramatic of which is a dangerous and ultimately successful excursion by the rabbits to another warren, one run along totalitarian lines, in search of females through whom the race or species can be perpetuated.

The group is led throughout by a rabbit called Hazel, a figure of natural authority, whose chief assistants include Fiver, the clairvoyant, Bigwig, a tough, courageous fellow, and Blackberry, known for his cleverness. At times this division of qualities comes to resemble that of a Hollywood war movie, the kind with the brave guy, the prankster, the brooder, etc. But for the most part the characterizations work surprisingly well, and this is because Adams is able to get past the usual sentimentalities about bunnies and afford his creatures a rough plausibility as representatives of embattled life.

As in all such fiction, the plausibility issues from the detail and consistency with which the animal life is rendered, and above all from the resemblances we can discern to aspects of our own lives. (We can identify, for example, with the phenomenon of worker bees serving a queen, but not with the physiological process of making honey.) To this end Adams offers a remarkable wealth of information on rabbit existence—much of it gained, as he tells us, from R. M. Lockley's study, "The Private Life of the Rabbit"—and wisely concentrates on matters of sustenance, living arrangement, behavior toward other animals, and the like.

But as anthropomorphic fantasy replaces observation (the book is set in an actual area of Berkshire, England, and Adams is particularly fine on landscapes and flora, weathers and seasons) he sees fit to give his rabbits a folk-lore and folk-heroes, a mythology complete with creation-myth and, finally, a language….

If I remember correctly, the great writers of animal fiction let their characters unselfconsciously speak the authors' own languages, and this is proper because the imaginative act is complete once the literary decision has been made to allow animals to speak in words; to let them use their own words, their own verbal language, is to tempt the pathetic fallacy beyond its acceptable limits. This may seem a small point, especially since the Lapine is a very minor element of the rhetoric, but I think it symptomatic of what is wrong with "Watership Down," or rather what keeps it from being wholly right.

There is a subtle indecisiveness or doubt on Adams's part as to just how convincing his fiction is….

The point is that if you are going to anthropomorphize you had better do it all the way, relying on the pure inventedness of your tale, the same outrageous conceit which is at the back of the March Hare, Mowgli and Pooh, however differing their literary realities.

Now I know there are going to be readers for whom such questions of literary strategy and imaginative rightness couldn't matter less. For some, particularly the younger ones, the narrative will be enough and, as I've said, that works perfectly well, as adventure and melodrama. For the other kind of readers …, the ones I think will give "Watership Down" its cachet, the narrative will have more complex uses, being in the service of the book's "meanings," the lessons it teaches, its allegorical élan; such readers are just as unlikely to be troubled by inconsistencies or excesses.

For what is chiefly wanted from a book like this is utilitarian fantasy, qualities of reassurance and inspiration, a consoling legend. The morale it seems likely to instill, whatever its intentions, is that peculiar sort which consists in a strength gained through having been first made to feel ashamed, in this case ashamed of our oblique, acquisitive, "insincere" lives in the face of candid and undevious nature. It isn't that Adams (who I ought to have said before was until recently an air-pollution expert with the British Department of the Environment) has sentimentalized his rabbits—the book is no "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"—but that the shadowy presence of man is almost always characterized by hint and threat of evil, a theme on occasion made wholly explicit.

Richard Gilman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 24, 1974, pp. 3-4.

[Watership Down] is a real place, and the book has a map based on the Ordnance Survey to show its precise location, south of Newbury, west of Kingsclere, north of the railway line to Salisbury down which roared the force like a thousand thunderstorms. It is this down-to-earth reality that has enabled Mr. Adams to succeed in his desperate venture. For to endow the story of rabbits migrating from one warren to another with a sense of epic grandeur (hence the high-flown style of my first paragraphs) does strike me as something of a tall order. I think he has pulled it off….

Mr. Adams knows what he's talking about, and thus [makes] one readier to credit him when he is describing desperate chases and hairbreadth escapes. He is a master of menace and suspense. I have no special feeling for rabbits, indeed mildly dislike them, but I read the last hundred pages at a gulp, heart thumping at the crisis when Bigwig goes alone to the grim warren of Efrafa, or when those powerful bullies mount a surprise attack on Watership Down….

Now and then Mr. Adams points to a likeness in the way men and rabbits behave in a certain situation (after working to overcome an obstacle, success will be followed by a pause) but in no way is this a fable of human behavior like Animal Farm. For all their way of talking, Holly, Hazel, Bigwig, and the rest are not stand-ins for any humans; within the conventions of the story, they remain true to the nature and ways of rabbits. George Orwell wrote his tale to make us think about men and politics; Richard Adams wants us to think about rabbits and nature. Watership Down, which started as a tale to keep Mr. Adams's daughters entertained during car drives to Stratford, was published in Britain last year as a straightforward children's book. Like any good children's book, it pleased a lot of adults too (Treasure Island had no keener reader than Mr. Gladstone). But the American publishers present it simply as "A Novel," and by so doing may well encourage readers to go looking for the wrong things. For who would write a novel for adults about rabbits—unless the tale were a fable or a myth? I foresee an outbreak of symbol hunting in the burrows; mythic explications will drop like hraka on the grass. I think the publishers sniff a campus cult on the wind, and this underlies their proclaimed expectation that the book will be "one of the major literary and commercial successes of 1974."

Certainly, it appears at a time when we are becoming increasingly skeptical of our species' ability to live its life decently; there is an inclination to look, if only in fancy, for alternative models in other species, other worlds. I don't think Watership Down has much to tell us of how to set about transforming ourselves and our institutions, or how to find a short cut to the promised land. In as much as Mr. Adams has a message for his readers, I'd say it is to make them more sensitive to the complex balance of nature, more aware of the needs and ways of other species (and the effect of human actions on them), more mindful that we are creatures too, and must live in harmony with the others who share our world….

Several times—in reading, for instance, of the old warren's destruction so that men might have homes—I thought of Thomas Hardy's "The Field of Waterloo":

  Yea, the coneys are scared by the thud of hoofs,
  And their white scuts flash at their vanishing heels,
  And swallows abandon the hamlet-roofs.
  The mole's tunnelled chambers are crushed by wheels,
  The lark's eggs scattered, their owners fled;
  And the hedgehog's household the sapper unseals….

Hazel and Bigwig are to succeed Gandalf and Frodo as heroes of a cult, then a good book will have been demeaned and misunderstood.

Janet Adam Smith, "Exodus," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), April 18, 1974, pp. 8-9.

I'm writing my seventh novel: it's called Herbert Cunningham Gnu. I know a bandwagon when it runs me over: 1971, dolphins; 1972, seagulls; 1973–74, rabbits. From the land of Beatrix Potter and nationalized strikes, has come Watership Down, Richard Adams' lapine odyssey. Believe me, nothing depresses the spirit more surely than a sententious rabbit. Yet Watership Down has had "unanimous praise from England."

"An exceptional book, a true original." "It doesn't fit any known formula, thank goodness." Nonsense: it fits five or six. This bunny squad could be a John Wayne platoon of GIs. The foresighted, tactful rabbit leader. The fast rabbit. The clever rabbit. The blustery, hard-fighting noncom rabbit. Athos, Porthos, and D'Artagnan on a diet of grass. Watership Down is pleasant enough, but it has about the same intellectual firepower as Dumbo. "Refreshes a reader's feeling for the world of man." Apparently more than one reviewer has been rabbited out of his critical faculties. After all, if your dog started speaking French you'd be loath to criticize his pronunciation. Yet if Hazel and Bigwig and Dandelion were men, they'd make very commonplace characters. What seems a moral, an insight, is just a novelty.

"A true classic." Right. Watership Down goes blue in the face being classic. Adams has tagged a scholarly quotation onto each of 50 chapters. These indicate an Oxford education; also a lust for the irrelevant. "The centurion commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first into the sea … (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 27)." That means the rabbits are about to cross a stream. Scripture and three dozen masterpieces of Western literature have their go at goosing this children's tale into sham relevance….

I can sniff an allegory when I'm downwind of one, and this book leaves no such spoor—as the reviewer lamely goes on to concede, "… although there is no actual political parallel." The rabbits encounter two warren societies: one totalitarian and one effete. You get that kind of "political suggestiveness" in old Star Trek reruns. The spaceship from a good, democratic civilization lands among Nazis, hedonists … whatever. There aren't the one-to-one correspondences, the particular images that you encounter, say, in Gulliver's Travels or in the aforementioned Animal Farm. Watership Down is an adventure story, no more than that: rather a swashbuckling, crude one to boot. There are virtuous rabbits and bad rabbits: if that's allegory, Bonanza is an allegory….

I suspect that the "unanimous praise from England" tells us more about England than it does about Watership Down. This is an okay book; well enough written. But it is grossly overrated. The extravagant notices come from a people sick to death of men things, of the political process. "Human" fiction, which promises to teach about real life, will suffer from the national despondency. British readers seem to have lost their nerve. Trapped between the badger Wilson and the weasel Heath, they have crept, on quick all fours, back into a second childishness. I'm curious—and somewhat afraid—to see the American reviews of Watership Down.

D. Keith Mano, "Banal Bunnies," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), April 26, 1974, pp. 484-85.

Adams has no qualms about anthropomorphizing his male rabbits—depicting them as capable of the most extraordinary displays of loyalty, courage and affection. Yet their humane camaraderie does not extend to females….

Overall, Adams's work is a glorious paean to man's (or rabbit's) resilience, to the instinct for survival against all odds. Though the novel spans little more than eight weeks in time and a mere six miles of English countryside in space, Adams has created within these modest confines, a rich new world full of beauty and truth. Yet, one must note with passing regret that so remarkable a maiden flight of the literary imagination is marred by an attitude toward females that finds more confirmation in Hugh Heffner's Playboy than R. M. Lockley's "The Private Life of the Rabbit."

Selma G. Lanes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 30, 1974, p. 39.

[Watership Down, the] rabbit tale of adventure and awakening, told with disarming élan and happily devoid of rabid anthropomorphism, owes a great deal more to Tolkien than to Jack London, as animal stories go. It chronicles a small group of rabbits as they leave their old warren and migrate over the Berkshire countryside, through thick and thin, to find a new home. One can argue the merits of fantasy, animal stories, picaresque novels of escape, Edgar Rice Burroughs, fables, or going through the looking-glass until the bunnies come home, but this is pleasant reading well told.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Summer, 1974), p. lxxxii.