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Richard (George) Adams Biography

Richard Adams comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Newbury, Berkshire, 1920. Education: Bradfield College, Berkshire, 1933-38; Worcester College, Oxford, 1938-39, 1946-48, B.A. in modern history 1948, M.A. 1953. Military Service: Served in the British Army, 1940-46. Career: Worked in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, London, 1948-68; Assistant Secretary, Department of the Environment, London, 1968-74. Writer-in-residence, University of Florida, Gainesville, 1975, and Hollins College, Virginia, 1976. President, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1980-82 (resigned). Independent Conservative parliamentary candidate for Spelthorne, 1983. Awards: Library Association Carnegie medal, 1972; Guardian award, 1973. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1975. Agent: David Higham Associates Ltd., 5-8 Lower John Street, London W1R 4HA.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Watership Down. London, Collings, 1972; New York, Macmillan, 1974.

Shardik. London, Allen Lane-Collings, 1974; New York, Simon andSchuster, 1975.

The Plague Dogs. London, Allen Lane-Collings, 1977; New York, Knopf, 1978.

The Girl in a Swing. London, Allen Lane, and New York, Knopf, 1980.

Maia. London, Viking, 1984; New York, Knopf, 1985.

Traveller. New York, Knopf, 1988; London, Hutchinson, 1989.

Tales from Watership Down, with decorations by John Lawrence. New York, Knopf, 1996.

Fiction (for children)

The Bureaucats. London, Viking Kestrel, 1985.

Poetry

The Tyger Voyage (for children). London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1976.

The Ship's Cat (for children). London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1977.

The Legend of Te Tuna. Los Angeles, Sylvester and Orphanos, 1982;London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1986.

Other

Voyage Through the Antarctic, with Ronald Lockley. London, Allen

Lane, 1982; New York, Knopf, 1983.

A Nature Diary. London, Viking, 1985; New York, Viking, 1986.

The Day Gone By: An Autobiography. London, Hutchinson, 1990;New York, Knopf, 1991.

Editor, Occasional Poets: An Anthology. London, Viking, 1986.

Other (for children)

Nature Through the Seasons, with Max Hooper. London, Kestrel, andNew York, Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Nature Day and Night, with Max Hooper. London, Kestrel, and NewYork, Viking Press, 1978.

The Watership Down Film Picture Book. London, Allen Lane, andNew York, Macmillan, 1978.

The Iron Wolf and Other Stories (folktales). London, Allen Lane, 1980; as The Unbroken Web, New York, Crown, 1980.

Editor, Grimm's Fairy Tales. London, Routledge, 1981.

Editor, Richard Adams's Favourite Animal Stories. London, Octopus, 1981.

Editor, The Best of Ernest Thompson Seton. London, Fontana, 1982.

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(1991) I can only say, like Trollope, that I am an entertainer, and the essence of fiction is that the reader should wish to turn the page.

* * *

Originally published as a book for children, Watership Down made Richard Adams's name as a novelist by becoming one of the leading bestsellers of the 1970s. Set in the rabbit world of the English countryside, it is primarily an adventure story, original in conception, but with excellent natural descriptions and evocations of such human virtues as courage, loyalty, and modesty. The story begins when a peaceful rabbit warren in Berkshire is destroyed by a new housing development and a party of young bucks escape, thanks to the ability of one of their number, Fiver, to foresee the future. What follows is an odyssey to find a new home, during which the rabbits encounter many strange and terrifying adventures. Danger comes from human beings, poisoned fields, machines, and also from another group of rabbits led by the despotic General Woundwort. "In combat he was terrifying, fighting entirely to kill, indifferent to any wounds he received himself and closing with his adversaries until his weight overbore and exhausted them. Those who had no heart to oppose him were not long in the feeling that here was a leader indeed." Eventually, the rabbits achieve their goal but have to fight a fiercely contested battle to protect their new territory.

Adams, a senior civil servant when he wrote Watership Down, admitted that many parts of the novel were created as stories to please his children during long car journeys and that much of the factual information came from R.M. Lockley's study The Private Life of the Rabbit, but his work is very much a fictional unity. Some critics have suggested that Watership Down is an allegory on man's indifference to the natural life of his planet and, taken that way, it presents a grimly satirical view; but the novel is best seen as part of the fantastic strain in English literature, in line with the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Kenneth Grahame.

In his second novel, Shardik, Adams shifted his center of literary influences to the adventure genre of H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan. The action and setting are timeless and the background imaginary—the Beklan empire which has been over-run, and its inhabitants, the Ortelgans, enslaved. When a large bear is driven from their forests, the Ortelgans take him to be an ancient bear-god called Shardik. With his help they are able to drive off their oppressors and are returned to power. Kelderek, "a simple foolish fellow," becomes king of the Ortelgans but idleness and luxury lures him into wickedness. Once again the country is threatened but is redeemed by Shardik's blood sacrifice. Although Adams centered most of his attention on the bear, the humans are real enough and his ability to create an imaginary world may be considered the novel's great strength. In parts overwritten—a trap for any adventure novel—Shardik is, nevertheless, a powerful statement about man's inhumanity to man.

Adams was more successful when he returned to the animal world in The Plague Dogs, which is, among other things, a hard-hitting attack on the world of animal research. Snitter, a thoroughbred terrier, and Rowf, a mongrel, escape from a government research station in the Lake District and the novel is an account of their adventures to keep out of man's way before they escape to the mystical Isle of Dog. As in Watership Down, Adams gives his animals human characteristics but they are not men in dogs' guise. When Snitter and Rowf decide to live off the land, for example, it is a fox who teaches them the necessary tricks and they have difficulty understanding his thick local dialect. When they are seen, men appear only as the enemy and the animals themselves have little understanding of their world.

Although he has also written adventure novels in the style of Shardik, Adams is at his happiest in the animal world. The Arcadian worlds of the rabbits' Berkshire and the dogs' Lake District are peopled by an organized society of idealized, largely peaceful animals, but this is not simple anthropomorphism. The animals might be able to speak and to rationalize like human beings but they have not lost their animal characteristics. The rabbits of Watership Down even have the remnants of an ancient rabbit language with its own words like n-Frith for noon and hrududu for tractor or any other man-made machine. It is his ability to create the rabbits and dogs as sensible and sensitive creatures and not as animals-in-man's-clothing or as lovable furry creatures which gives Adams his greatest strength as a novelist.

In 1996, a full twenty-two years after the publication of Watership Down, Adams returned to the setting of his greatest success with Tales from Watership Down. This collection of nineteen intertwined stories forms an extended narrative concerning the further adventures of Hazel, Bigwig, and all the other memorable characters of the first book. El-ahrairah returns as well, still larger than life; but Tales from Watership Down also sees the appearance of a new hero from a new warren—and thus the grand cycle of the rabbits' lives continues.

—Trevor Royle

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