Richard Adams - World Literature

World Literature

Richard Adams


BORN: 1920, Newbury, Berkshire, England


GENRE: Fiction


Watership Down (1974)

Shardik (1974)

The Girl in a Swing (1980)

Tales from Watership Down (1996)



Richard Adams. Adams, Richard, photograph. AP Images.



Although he is the author of seven full-length novels, Richard Adams has a reputation based almost solely on his first novel, Watership Down. A former civil servant in the Department of the Environment, Adams wrote Watership Down to introduce his daughters to literature by presenting them with the rules and principles of the adult novel. At the same time, the novel allows Adams to criticize humanity through a civilization of rabbits, asserting that nature is being destroyed by human technology. This environmental focus caught public attention in the 1970s when people were experiencing a new ecological awareness that the natural world was under threat. By using his rabbits to examine social organization, Adams presents the essential elements of a successful society: cooperation, courage, honor, religious faith, and respect.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Idyllic Beginnings and World War II. Richard George Adams was born in Newbury, Berkshire, on May 9, 1920, the fourth child of a country doctor, Evelyn George Beadon Adams, and Lilian Rosa Adams. Nine or more years younger than his siblings, Adams played alone with imaginary friends for company, taking refuge in the shrubbery, a favorite retreat. The connection between the natural world and refuge was made when he was young, as was the habit of creating imaginary worlds. Adams looks back on his childhood as a golden age, a lost rural paradise.

This idyll ended abruptly when Adams, almost nine, was sent away to boarding school, where students were class-conscious and pretentious. The system of privileges and the severe discipline at the school instilled in Adams a respect for authority and established hierarchies. As a result, the realities of the English class system can be found in much of his work.

Adams’s modern-history studies at Worcester College, oxford, were interrupted by World War II, and he joined an airborne company of the Royal Army Service Corps. He returned to oxford to finish his degree course in 1946. He graduated in 1948 and then entered the Home Civil Service as an assistant principal that same year. In 1949 he married Barbara Elizabeth Acland, with whom he had two daughters.

From Oral Tradition to Published Writing. To pass the time during a July 1966 car trip, Adams began telling his daughters the story of two rabbits. When the girls asked him to finish the story and write it down, Adams relied on his knowledge of natural history, both from personal observation and from R. M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit, a nonfiction work considered a definitive source on rabbits. Combining a biological realism with a flair for mythmaking, Adams created Watership Down.

Watership Down was rejected seven times by various publishing houses and literary agents because of its length and difficulty for younger readers. It was finally accepted by a small-firm publisher, Rex Collings. Almost immediately, Adams was compared with Kenneth Grahame, George Orwell, and J. R. R. Tolkien. The novel won both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award for 1972. When Collings was unable to meet the sudden demand for the book, he sold the paperback rights to Puffin. Its 1973 edition prompted a second wave of critical acclaim, and it sold well, topping the children’s paperback best seller list and the New York Times best seller list for months.

Career Shift. With the enormous financial success of his first novel and the imminent publication of Shardik, his second, Adams gave up his civil service career. Since Shardik followed one of the greatest publishing phenomena of the century, publisher Allen Lane mounted a major national publishing campaign to promote it. In spite of this publicity, the novel did not have an entirely favorable critical reception. However, critical disapproval did not affect sales. Shardik was reprinted, topped the best seller list, and was, by 2002, still selling well in new edition.

Animal Rights. In England, the animal rights movement had its origins in an 1822 law intended to prevent cruelty to farm animals such as cattle and sheep. After the law was passed, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was developed as a way to enforce the law by having inspectors investigate claims of cruelty. The RSPCA grew in strength throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and additional laws were passed to provide broader protection for animals, including regulations regarding animal testing and experimentation. This movement reached new levels in England in the 1970s with the publication of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, as well as the formation of the activist (but officially nonviolent) animal-rights group known as the Animal Liberation Front.

In 1977 Adams published his third full-length novel, The Plague Dogs, a diatribe against experimentation on animals that is also a satiric attack on tabloid journalism, the press as a whole, and government bureaucracy. In 1978, Adams’s activism to prevent animal cruelty led him to tour Great Britain, Canada, and the United States in a campaign protesting the fur trade in Newfoundland; he was also instrumental in lobbying the British government to require importers of sealskin products to name the country of origin. In 1980 Adams was made president of the RSPCA; however, he and three vice presidents resigned from the society two years later in order to pursue the cause of animal rights in demonstrations and protests.

Continued Success. In 1983 Adams moved to Hampshire, England. There he completed his fifth novel, Maia, a return to the fantasy setting of the Beklan Empire, but set twenty years before the events in Shardik. It is an immense work with eighty-four characters, many of whom have long, unfamiliar names. In 1996 Adams returned to the setting and protagonists ofhis first and greatest success and published Tales from Watership Down.



Adams's famous contemporaries include:

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992): Asimov was a Russian-born American author and professor of biochemistry who was best known for his popular science fiction.

Lionel ''Rusty'' Bernstein (1920-2002): This South African anti-apartheid activist, once a political prisoner, was honored for his tireless efforts to bring democracy to South Africa.

Adele Faccio (1920-2007): This Italian politician was the founder of the Information Centre on Sterilisation and Abortion.

Henry J. Heimlich (1920- ): Heimlich was an American physician debatably known as the inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver and who was controversially regarded for his advocacy of using malaria to treat the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

William M. Gaines (1922-1992): Son of the creator and publisher of the very first comic books, Gaines himself published a number of comic book series and eventually became the publisher of Mad Magazine.

Alice Walker (1944- ): Author of the Pulitzer Prizewinning The Color Purple (1982), Walker is known for her environmental and animal-rights activism.


Works in Literary Context

The process by which Adams works is not one of invention so much as it is of discovery. In Adams’s view, the story already exists in the unconscious mind, and he is merely uncovering what has already been learned as myth.

The Heroic Epic. Considered a brilliant work of originality and scope, Watership Down is recognized as a modern classic that blurs the distinction between juvenile and adult literature. Because of the animal protagonists and the mythic settings at the center of Watership Down and other works, Adams is often perceived primarily as a writer of anthropomorphic fantasy. Yet Watership Down offers readers of all ages entry into the world of rabbits, a civilization complete with its own history, language, mythology, and government that parallels the world of man.

In several of Adams’s books, the prevailing theme is the universality of the myth-driven folktale, and Adams owes much to mythologist Joseph Campbell’s theories. The impact of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces on Adams is observable throughout Watership Down. Certainly, the standard path of the mythological hero—separation, initiation, and return with some kind of gain for the community—drives the narrative structure of Watership Down. Hazel, the novel’s main character, takes a small band of refugees on a hazardous quest through the English countryside to find a new home after a visionary senses the destruction of their warren by a developer. When Adams breaks the heroic narrative, it is to introduce tales about El-ahrairah, folk hero of the rabbits, and these stories explain the origins, characteristics, and beliefs that influence the behavior of Hazel and his band of refugees. Throughout the novel, the rabbits exhibit characteristics of traditional epic heroes.

Myth from the Unconscious Mind. Apart from its powerful story, the most important feature of Shardik is its depiction of deep mythic levels that originate in the unconscious mind. In the early 1950s, Adams began a three-year study of Jungian analysis and learned, among other ideas, the importance of dreams and their connections with the unconscious. To achieve psychological wholeness, Jung theorized, one must believe in the existence of the collective unconscious, within which lie the archetypes from dream, myth, and folktale. Adams’s study of Jungian analysis led him to create mythic figures that awaken the minds of his readers. Adams has said that complete episodes of Shardik came to him in dreams.

Adams used a metaphor of an unbroken web to represent his image for the universality of folktales, where the archetypes of dreams and folktales are connected. In Jung’s theories, this web figure is the collective unconscious made visible, a gossamer sphere encircling the world. After the storyteller reaches up and draws down the web while he tells his story, it springs back to encircle the world again.



Here are a few works by other writers who have also personified animals in folktales or myths:

Animal Farm (1945), a novel by George Orwell. In this satirical allegory, farm animals assume the roles of Bolshevik revolutionaries who plot to take over the humanrun farmstead.

Charlotte's Web (1952), a novel by E. B. White. Charlotte the barn spider and Wilbur the pig have a friendship that endures life's many changes through the years.

The Wind in the Willows (1908), a novel by Kenneth Grahame. This pastoral adventure, with its anthropomorphized animal characters, is also a mystical, mythical morality tale.


Works in Critical Context

Some critics claim that the literary establishment of Britain has not accepted Adams: ‘‘Probably no other contemporary novelist suffers from so much condescension or critical dismissal from so many literary intellectuals,’’ said Phillip Vine in Words. The extent of this neglect seems exaggerated, since Adams has been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has lunched with Queen Elizabeth II. In any case, Adams’s faithful reading public ignores these critics, and his books are often listed among the bestselling fantasy and children’s literature of all time.

Watership Down. New York Review of Books critic Jane Adam Smith wrote that Watership Down ‘‘appears at a time when we are becoming increasingly skeptical of our species’ ability to live its life decently. ...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.’’ Voicing the general sentiment of critics, Selena Hastings wrote that Watership Down is ‘‘A beautifully written and intensely moving story, the work of an extraordinary imagination.’’

Alison Lurie, writing in the New York Review of Books, felt that Watership Down was successful ‘‘because it celebrated qualities many serious novelists are currently afraid or embarrassed to write about. The heroes and heroines of most contemporary novels ... 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.’’ Others attribute the novel’s sensation to increased environmental concerns, the growth of the animal-rights movement, and a multigenerational appeal to both the conservative middle class and the student subculture. Some critics have mused that perhaps the deeper reason for Watership Down’s appeal lies in its universal expression of mankind’s need for refuge.

Despite critical praise and public acceptance, Watership Down has had its share of critics. In a review for the National Review, D. Keith Mano challenged accolades for the novel’s original premise. ‘‘This bunny squad could be a John Wayne platoon of GIs,’’ Mano maintained. ‘‘Watership Down is pleasant enough, but it has about the same intellectual firepower as Dumbo.” He continued, ‘‘If Hazel and Bigwig and Dandelion were men, they’d make very commonplace characters.’’ Mano concluded that Watership Down ‘‘is an okay book; well enough written. But it is grossly overrated.’’

Shardik. Shardik did not receive as much acclaim as Watership Down. The novel 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.’’ However, she judged Shardik to be 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. ...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... and society is brought a little nearer to civilized humanism.'' Lurie noted that in Shardik, ‘‘belief causes men to act cruelly and destructively as well as nobly; the bear is a kind oftest which brings out hidden strengths and weaknesses, even in those who do not believe in him.’’

As with Watership Down, critical praise for Shardik was not unanimous. Webster Schott noted in the Washington Post Book World: ‘‘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 the Times wrote that Adams ‘‘spins out his romance entertainingly, but without dealing seriously with . . . 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.’’


Responses to Literature

1. A major theme for Adams concerns environmentalism— both as a philosophy and a movement with a focus on conserving and improving the environment. Investigate the history of environmentalism. In your survey, identify what major environmental issues were emphasized in each decade, and consider how they have or have not changed today.

2. Study the functions of the Department of the Environment in at least four different countries—choose from Australia, Canada, China, Ireland, The Philippines, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Analyze how each of your chosen countries contributes to the environmental movement as we know it today.

3. Just as the rabbits of Sandleford Warren do in Watership Down, work in a group to choose a problem that affects you in your personal life, your social life, your community life, or your home life. Your group is the task force and its objective is to create a plan of action for a solution to eliminate or alleviate the problem.




Adams, Richard. The Day Gone By: An Autobiography.

London: Hutchinson, 1990.

Lockley, Ronald. The Private Life of the Rabbit. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Children. London: Bloomsbury, 1990.


Hastings, Selena. ‘‘On Going Completely Off the Clock,’’ Sunday Telegraph (London). April 22, 1990.

Skow, John. Times (London). November 8, 1974.

Smith, Jane Adam. New York Review of Books (April 18, 1974).

Vine, Phillip. ‘‘Richard Adams: A Personal View.’’ Words (July 1, 1985).

Web Sites

Boyce, Chris. The Real Watership Down Page. Retrieved February 26, 2008, from

Wired for Books. Richard Adams Interview with Don Swaim, 1985. Retrieved February 26, 2008, from