Adams, Richard (George) 1920-
ADAMS, Richard (George) 1920-
* indicates that a listing has been compiled from secondary sources believed to be reliable, but has not been personally verified for this edition by the author sketched.
PERSONAL: Born May 9, 1920, in Newbury, Berkshire, England; son of Evelyn George Beadon (a surgeon) and Lilian Rosa (Button) Adams; married Barbara Elizabeth Acland, September 26, 1949; children: Juliet Vera Lucy, Rosamond Beatrice Elizabeth. Education: Worcester College, Oxford, M.A., 1948. Religion: Church of England. Hobbies and other interests: Chess, ornithology, folk-song, country pursuits, fly-fishing, travel.
ADDRESSES: Home—Benwell's, 26 Church St., Whitchurch, Hampshire RG28 7AR, England. Agent— David Higham Associates Ltd., 5-8 Lower John St., London W1R 4HA, England.
CAREER: British Home Higher Civil Service, served in Ministry of Housing and Local Government (now Department of Environment), beginning 1948, assistant secretary of department, 1968-74; full-time writer, 1974—. Writer-in-residence at University of Florida, 1975, and Hollins College, 1976. Military service: British Army, 1940-46.
MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature, Royal Society of Arts (fellow), Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (president, 1980-82).
AWARDS, HONORS: Guardian Award for children's literature, and Carnegie Medal, both 1972, both for Watership Down; Royal Society of Literature fellow, 1975; California Young Readers' Association Medal, 1977.
Shardik, Rex Collings (London, England), 1974, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1975, reprinted, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2002.
The Plague Dogs, illustrated by A. Wainwright, Allen Lane (London, England), 1977, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978.
The Girl in a Swing, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
Maia, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
Traveller, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
The Outlandish Knight, Severn House (London, England) 2000.
(With Max Hooper) Nature through the Seasons, illustrated by David A. Goddard and Adrian Williams, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1975.
The Tyger Voyage (poetry for children), illustrated by Nicola Bayley, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.
The Adventures and Brave Deeds of the Ship's Cat on the Spanish Maine: Together with the Most Lamentable Losse of the Alcestis and Triumphant Firing of the Port of Chagres (poetry for children), illustrated by Alan Aldridge and Harry Willock, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
(With Max Hooper) Nature Day and Night, illustrated by David A. Goddard and Stephen Lee, Viking (New York, NY), 1978.
(Compiler) Sinister and Supernatural Stories, Ward Locke (London, England), 1978.
The Watership Down Film Picture Book, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1978.
(Author of introduction) Georgi Vladimov, FaithfulRuslan, translation by Michael Glenn, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1979.
The Unbroken Web: Stories and Fables (collection of folk tales), Crown (New York, NY), 1980, published as The Iron Wolf and Other Stories, Allen Lane (London, England), 1980.
(Editor) Grimm's Fairy Tales, Routledge (London, England), 1981.
(Editor) Richard Adams's Favourite Animal Stories, Octopus (London, England), 1981.
(Editor) The Best of Ernest Thompson Seton, Fontana (London, England), 1982.
The Legend of Te Tuna (poetry for children), Sylvester & Orphanos (Los Angeles, CA), 1982.
(With Ronard Lockley) Voyage through the Antarctic, Allen Lane (London, England), 1982, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
The Bureaucats (for children), Viking Kestrel (New York, NY), 1985.
A Nature Diary, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
(Editor and contributor) Occasional Poets: An Anthology, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.
The Day Gone By (autobiography), Century Hutchinson (New York, NY), 1990.
Tales from Watership Down, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Work anthologized in Kingdoms of Sorcery, edited by Lin Carter, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976.
ADAPTATIONS: Watership Down was produced as an animated motion picture by Avco-Embassy, 1978, was produced for radio by the British Broadcasting Corporation, was produced as a musical, and was adapted as a television series; The Plague Dogs was produced as a motion picture by Nepenthe Productions, 1982; The Girl in a Swing was produced as a motion picture, 1989.
SIDELIGHTS: While working as a civil servant in Britain's Department of Environment, Richard Adams became "irritated by sentimental rabbit tales and enraged by the permissive society of the 1960s," according to Joan Bridgman in Contemporary Review. As a result, the forty-something civil servant began writing Watership Down. The novel had its roots in a story Adams originally made up to amuse his two young daughters during a long car trip in 1966; at their insistence, Adams, who had never considered himself a writer, began to type out the tale. Four publishers and three authors' agents rejected the completed manuscript, which took two years to complete. Because he wanted to deliver a book into his daughters' hands, Adams was on the verge of having the novel printed at his own expense when he read of a small publisher who had just reissued an out-of-print animal fantasy; Adams contacted Rex Collings who accepted Watership Down for a limited first edition of 2,000 copies five years before the advent of Star Wars and decades before the appearance of Harry Potter. Later reprinted by Penguin as a children's book, the novel was a surprising success, winning the Guardian Award and Carnegie Medal. The American publisher, Macmillan, marketed the novel as an adult title, and the sales and reviews were again rewarding.
Watership Down relates the adventures of a group of rabbits who must set out in search of a new home because their warren is being razed by a developer who plans to gas all its animal inhabitants. P. S. Prescott of Newsweek called the book "an adventure story of an epic. . . . It is a story of exile and survival, of heroism and political responsibility, of the making of a leader and of a community. . . . Adams has constructed a complete civilization, with its own governments, language and mythology." Writing in New York, Eliot Fremont-Smith commented: "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."
Janet Adam Smith wrote in the New York Review of Books that she believes Adams "is a master of menace and suspense," but she added: "I much prefer Mr. Adams when he is plain—'where the turf ended, the sky began' conveys in a flash the rabbits' view from the down—or in his high style, as when he meditates on moonlight. . . . Such passages are more than decoration; they . . . dignify the action, making it not just the trek of a bunch of rabbits, but a movement of creatures who are no less part of nature than we are, and whose humble disasters and migrations have a claim to the attention of men, for all the greater scale of theirs."
Smith felt that Macmillan's labeling of the book as simply a novel rather than a book for children "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? . . . 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. . . . 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." Agreeing with Smith is Adams himself, who has consistently maintained that Watership Down should not be taken as allegory. As quoted by the Pittsburgh Press, the author commented: "A lot of people have said this is a political fable or even a religious fable or social comment. I promise you it is not a fable or an allegory or a parable of any kind. It is a story about rabbits, that is all." However, Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, based on Carl Jung's view of the collective unconscious, and Adams's friendship with Campbell have been seen as influences on Adams's work, as well as his classical education and his wartime experiences during World War II.
Despite the reviewers' praise and the public's acceptance, Watership Down has had its share of critics. In his appraisal for the National Review, D. Keith Mano questioned the critical praise heaped on the book's original premise. "This bunny squad could be a John Wayne platoon of GIs," Mano maintained. "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. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . . This is an okay book; well enough written. But it is grossly overrated."
Although Mano and others may feel Watership Down has been overrated, they cannot question the book's commercial success. Penguin sold more than one and one-quarter million copies of their edition, and more than 700,000 copies of Macmillan's hardcover edition were purchased. Alison Lurie, writing in the New York Review of Books, felt that Watership Down was successful "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."
In 1996 Adams returned to the setting of his original book with Tales of Watership Down. A collection of nineteen intertwined stories, this volume continues the adventures of the original characters, including Elahrairah, and introduces some new ones. A Publishers Weekly contributor praised the collection as "mystical, occasionally allegorical, full of whimsey, [and] rich in vivid descriptions," while in People Paula Chin maintained that Adams's long-eared protagonists make "their ways in the world with dignity" in this "utterly captivating sequel" to his best-selling fiction debut.
Adams's second novel, Shardik, did not receive as much acclaim as Watership Down, partly because in it Adams is "attempting something more difficult," according to Lurie. Shardik is set in a mythical country and time; the natives worship a giant bear, Shardik. Lurie commented that, like Watership Down, Shardik can be viewed as "an allegory and history of the relationship of human beings to the physical world." But she believed Shardik to be much more than an ecological allegory; the novel is really a study of how human beings choose and follow their gods. The great bear, Lurie maintained, "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. . . . 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."
Like Lurie, Bruce Allen viewed Shardik's major theme as the effect of religious belief on human beings. He wrote in the Saturday Review: Shardik is "a powerfully compelling prose epic that recreates the fortunate fall of unaccommodated man. . . . 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? . . . 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."
Praising Shardik's "majestic language, heroic theme, and sustained power," Peter Wolf wrote in a New Republic review: "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. . . . No estimate of Shardik can overlook how well Adams's firmly cadenced sentences knit with its 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."
As with Watership Down, critical praise for Shardik was not unanimous. Webster Schott noted in the Washington Post Book World: "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. . . . The novel is a fake antique, a sexless, humorless, dull facsimile of an epic without historical or psychological relevance." John Skow of Time also disliked the novel, writing that Adams "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." Listener reviewer Kenneth Graham also complained that Shardik "is too long, and too uneven. There is no real grasp of the inward reaches of character, only of the grand simplicities of archetype." Despite this, Graham added that "there can be few books on which more loving, energetic inventiveness has been expended than on Shardik. . . . There is enough creative endeavour, careful planning, integrity and sheer multifarious detail in Shardik to make a dozen ordinary novels."
Adams's third novel, The Plague Dogs, harks back to Watership Down in its anthropomorphic use of animals. The novel tells of the adventures of two dogs that have escaped from an animal experimentation laboratory in the English Lake District. In an interview with Jan Rodger of Toronto's Globe and Mail, Adams noted of the book: "The Plague Dogs is not just an attack on animal experimentation. . . . It is about the way in which, in modern life, almost all of us have a motive for what we do which is other than a simple, direct, honest motive, straightforward hunger or love. . . . If you are put off by tracts, you are probably not going to like The Plague Dogs. But I do feel very indignant about animal experimentation and perhaps my indignation got the better of me."
New York Times contributor John Leonard disliked Adams's third novel. "On the one hand, The Plague Dogs fairly reeks of literary self-consciousness. In the grand manner of the English novel, it is discursive and coy. It pauses every twelve pages for an afflatus or a tantrum or a pun. It is not above stooping to doggerel and parody," Leonard wrote. "On the other hand, The Plague Dogs must carry around a big load of philosophical heavy water. It is a polemic on the nature of freedom and illusion, the confusion between objective and subjective states of reality, the meaning of Auschwitz and the iniquities of modern science. . . . Adams's oddly sexless world is full of contempt—for science, for politics, for journalism. What is so far missing from that world are the marvelous people who came along with the discursive style in the great English novels he cannibalizes. I finished Watership Down in tears at the death of Hazel, the warrior-rabbit. I finished The Plague Dogs dry-eyed, having been manipulated."
William Safire took the opposite point of view in the New York Times Book Review, noting that "in The Plague Dogs Richard Adams drags the reluctant reader into his world, entices him into accepting its conventions and atmosphere, and peppers him with hard-to-forget images and messages. . . . Once hooked by the dogs'-eye view of life, the dogs' fear of 'whitecoats,' and the drama of the chase, the reader is ready for Adams's sermons on animal slavery, on the power of hope to increase endurance, and on the cruelty that freedom demands of fugitives. . . . Adams is madcap-serious, usually controlled in his outrage, and knows how to evoke a sense of place. It matters not whose fox he allegorizes. The Plague Dogs is a savage snarl of a satire, a world created with a purpose clear in the writer's mind. It puts the reader on the scent of himself."
Time reviewer Paul Gray noted that "Adams overwrites almost every scene, but he manages to turn that fault into a virtue. Length can lull disbelief and make the unlikely seem familiar." Joseph McLellan agreed that The Plague Dogs is not a perfect novel, but commented in the Washington Post: "By his repeatedly felt presence behind the scenes, manipulating the action and commenting on it, Adams underlines a fact that is already apparent: like them or not, his novels differ from all others being written. . . . As the book weathers into a classic (if it does, and it well may) the idiosyncrasies that are a distraction on its first appearance will become part of its charm. And the prospect for the foreseeable future is that its central image—that of two creatures victimized by society, unable to live by its rules but also unable to work out and live by their own outlaw code—is one in which many people will see reflected some part of themselves."
With The Girl in a Swing, Adams turns from animal heroes to contemporary human characters. The novel relates the meeting and marriage of a young, conventional Englishman, Alan Desland, and a beautiful and mysterious German woman named Käthe. Here Adams belies the complaint by Leonard and other reviewers that his fictional world is sexless. P. D. James commented in a Washington Post Book World review: "Two of the most difficult tasks which a novelist can set himself are to write an erotic novel and to deal convincingly with the supernatural, and a writer who attempts both in the same book, particularly when the attempt marks a new direction of his talent, at least deserves an accolade for courage. But Richard Adams . . . deserves more. With The Girl in a Swing we acclaim success."
Robert Kiely also had a positive reaction to The Girl in a Swing, writing in the New York Times Book Review that "Adams turns his commonplace man into the hero-victim of a tale of fatal passion. . . . Alan never ceases being the solid, decent chap he was brought up to be. He remains completely believable throughout. The love scenes . . . are presented with lyrical beauty, a touch of humor and increasing obsessiveness. . . . Finally, the ghost story is absolutely terrifying, as gripping and psychologically penetrating as anything in James or Poe. Richard Adams has written, with marvelous tact and narrative power, a strange, beautiful, haunting book."
In Adams's sixth novel, Traveller, the hero is once again an animal. Traveller recounts the events of the U.S. Civil War as seen through the eyes of General Robert E. Lee's horse. Michiko Kakutani commented in the New York Times, "As in Mr. Adams's earlier books, the follies of human beings—especially their penchant for killing one another—are lamented by the ever-so-much-wiser animals." The horse Traveller, Kakutani elsewhere noted, "is supposedly relating his memories of the war to his stablemate, a cat by the name of Tom; and like many old soldiers' stories, his account is filled with examples of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. . . . Mainly, though, Traveller's story is a tribute to his master."
The novel The Outlandish Knight, which Adams published in 2000, features an English folk song as a protagonist. The narrative follows the song and one English minstrel family through three generations, beginning in 1485. While noting that the feature of including the text of old songs will be of interest to many readers, Library Journal contributor Jane Baird maintained that The Outlandish Knight "does not have the depth and substance of Adams's earlier works." Nonetheless, Baird noted that this work of historical fiction provides readers with interesting portraits of the English monarchs Henry Tudor, Catherine of Aragon, and Mary, Queen of Scots, whose lives intersect with his more humble protagonists.
According to Joan Bridgman in the Contemporary Review, in The Outlandish Knight "the England of six centuries ago is vividly realized, with its savagery, sights and smells." On the basis of this book, as well as the author's past work, Bridgman wondered why, despite Adams's popularity around the world, "the literary establishment of Britain has been dismissive. 'Probably no other contemporary novelist suffers from so much condescension or critical dismissal from so many literary intellectuals,' commented Philip Vine in 1985. . . . But maybe the time has come for a reappraisal. . . . In any case, Adams's large and faithful readership ignore the literati and the critics."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Adams, Richard, The Day Gone By, Century Hutchinson (New York, NY), 1990.
Authors in the News, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Children's Literature Review, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 18, 1981.
Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.
Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Atlantic, April, 1978.
Booklist, September 1, 1996, p. 5; December 15, 1997, Sally Estes, review of Watership Down, p. 695.
Book Report, May-June, 1997, Winifred Sihon, review of Tales from Watership Down, p. 39.
Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1985.
Children's Literature Association Quarterly, spring, 1987.
Commonweal, September 27, 1974.
Contemporary Review, August, 2000, Joan Bridgman, "Richard Adams at Eighty," p. 108.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), October 15, 2002, p. 24.
Detroit News, February 24, 1985.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 16, 1977; February 23, 1985.
Harper's, May, 1975.
Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (special issue), 1993.
Kliatt, January, 1992, p. 53; November, 1992, p. 64; September, 1997, p. 56; May, 1998, pp. 18; November, 1998, p. 53.
Library Journal, June 15, 1988, p. 67; March 1, 1991, p. 97; January, 1993, p. 188; July, 1993, p. 149; October 15, 1996, John Noel, review of Tales from Watership Down, p. 92; April 15, 2000, Jane Baird, review of The Outlandish Knight, p. 121; March 15, 2002, p. 113.
Listener, January 2, 1975; September 22, 1977.
Locus, October, 1993, p. 49.
Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1975.
National Review, April 26, 1974.
New Republic, March 23, 1974; May 3, 1975.
Newsweek, March 18, 1974; April 28, 1975; March 13, 1978.
New York, March 4, 1974.
New York Review of Books, April 18, 1974; June 12, 1975.
New York Times, March 7, 1978; May 28, 1988.
New York Times Book Review, March 24, 1974; June 30, 1974; May 4, 1975; March 12, 1978; April 27, 1980; June 5, 1988; June 2, 1991, p. 90; December 1, 1996, J. D. Diersdorfer, review of Tales from Watership Down, p. 23; November 16, 1997, p. 26.
People, November 25, 1996, Paula Chin, review of Tales from Watership Down, p. 36, p. 36.
Pittsburgh Press, March 20, 1974.
Publishers Weekly, April 22, 1988, p. 63; February 22, 1991, p. 203; September 23, 1996, review of Tales from Watership Down, p. 54.
Saturday Review, May 31, 1975; March 4, 1978.
School Library Journal, January, 1997, p. 139; December, 1997, Dottie Kraft, review of Tales from Watership Down, p. 28.
Spectator, September 7, 1996, p. 36.
Times (London, England), November 8, 1974.
Times Literary Supplement, December 8, 1972; November 15, 1974; September 30, 1977; October 24, 1980.
Village Voice, March 21, 1974.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1974.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1999, p. 423.
Washington Post, November 8, 1978; December 2, 1980.
Washington Post Book World, May 25, 1975; February 26, 1978; May 11, 1980; June 5, 1988.