(1920-2016) UK writer who became instantly famous with his first novel, Watership Down (1972), a long, grave, well-crafted Animal Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], written ostensibly for children but clearly accessible to adults as well; it was followed by the pendant titles The Watership Down Film Picture Book (1978), which retells the same story as adapted for the animated film Watership Down (1978) directed by Martin Rosen, and Tales from Watership Down (coll 1996). The very considerable surge in the publication of animal fantasies after 1972 – especially in the UK – was certainly stimulated by the success of this book. The story represents a sustained attempt to render in pastoral terms something of the real existence and the mythopoetic implications inherent in lightly anthropomorphized rabbit society as a model for survival in a threatening world, and as an extended allegory on the nature of just kingship. The basic plot can be described as a search for a lupine Polder or Keep: warned by premonitions on the part of Fiver (a rabbit Cassandra whose prophecies are usually ignored) that their original warren, whose king has become aged and indolent, is under threat, three rabbit companions (more join quickly) travel in search of a safe haven, finding it at last in Watership Down, Hampshire. But, before they can reconstitute themselves as a society, they must find females, and in so doing they encounter two warrens – one tame where rabbits are raised to be trapped for meat, one tyrannized – which respectively generate a powerful sense of Dystopia and of unjust rule. Finally – their morale lifted in the meanwhile by the telling of several inserted stories which represent the rabbit hero-god, El-Ahrairah, as a trickster figure – they achieve their goal. They make Watership Down into a safe polder – a haven of Ecological sanity – in a world constantly darkening under the "husbandry" of Homo sapiens.
The first of the Beklan Empire sequence – which comprises Shardik (1974) and Maia (1984) – followed. None of Adams's subsequent work has enjoyed anything like the huge success of his first novel, but his further accomplishments have been considerable. Shardik is set in a imaginary land – the Beklan Empire may be intended to represent a pre-Christian hegemony on Earth, but the geography is deliberately left so vague that the landscapes depicted could easily be understood as those of another world – riven by cruelties and a bad war. Shardik himself – an enormous bear with possible paranormal powers – may be a messenger of God, or even a Messiah-figure; but the cruel ambivalence of his behaviour makes him into a kind of black, worldly Parody of figures like C S Lewis's Aslan. In Maia, set somewhat later in the same territory, the eponymous heroine, a slave girl (see Slavery) profoundly attractive to almost everyone she meets, goes through a long sequence of adventures; the style of storytelling has been likened to that of Jane Gaskell's Atlan sequence opening with The Serpent (1963), but the tale itself does not come to any transforming or catastrophic climax.
The Plague Dogs (1977) – Adams's closest approach to sf – might be described as a kind of Technofantasy in that the dogs of the title are both reasoning beings, as in any animal fantasy, and severely affected by animal experimentation at a Lake District establishment devoted to Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental (the acronym ARSE is clearly intentional). Its protagonist Snitter has the partial and confused gift of Precognition as a result of repeated experimental brain surgery. The story itself is thesis-ridden (Adams had no sympathy for any sort of animal experimentation; the book features only one sympathetic Scientist) and arousing, as the dogs Snitter and Rowf escape the government research station, learn how to live in the wild, are harried by armed military pursuit in the newspaper-fostered belief that they may carry the bubonic plague bio-Weapon also being developed at ARSE, and finally are rescued from drowning in the sea and united with Snitter's former human master. This book was filmed with a different ending – bleaker, more ambiguous, and closer to Adam's original concept before he accepted editorial advice – as the animated The Plague Dogs (1982), again directed by Martin Rosen.
The Iron Wolf and Other Stories (coll 1980; vt The Unbroken Web: Stories and Fables 1980) assembles short stories mostly centred on animals. The Girl in a Swing (1980) is an ultimately tragic supernatural tale which leaves unsettled the status – ghost (see Supernatural Creatures) or demon (see Gods and Demons) – of the girl with whom the protagonist is fatally infatuated; it was filmed as The Girl in a Swing (1989) directed by Gordon Hessler. Traveller (1988) tells the story of the American Civil War through the eyes of General Robert E Lee's horse, Traveller: there are moments when the surreal obscenity of mass slaughter comes across with extraordinary vividness. For comparison, Connie Willis also invokes Traveller in Lincoln's Dreams (1987). The Outlandish Knight (2000) is a nonfantastic historical novel.
The impulse to Fantastika is not powerful in Adams's work, but it is clear that he understood the useful potency of the structure of the fantasy genre in his attempts to convey a variety of messages about the world. His concerns – Ecology, Religion, a peculiarly feudal concept of honour as a binding force in the just society, the enslavement of (especially) nonhuman species – sometimes dominate his tales; but, when a balance is achieved, the power of his sustained anger and disillusion profoundly transforms the modes in which he chose to write. [JC/DRL]
Richard George Adams
born Wash Common, Newbury, Berkshire: 9 May 1920
died Oxford, Oxfordshire: 24 December 2016
- Shardik (London: Allen Lane, 1974) [Beklan Empire: hb/Martin White]
- Maia (London: Viking Press, 1984) [Beklan Empire: hb/Alun Hood]
collections and stories
- The Ship's Cat (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977) [story: chap: graph: illus/hb/Alan Aldridge]
- The Iron Wolf and Other Stories (London: Allen Lane, 1980) [coll: hb/]
- The Legend of Te Tuna (Los Angeles, California: Sylvester and Orphanos, 1982) [story: chap: retelling a South Seas legend: hb/]
- The Bureaucats (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Viking Children's Books, 1985) [story: chap: children's fantasy: illus/hb/Robin Jacques]
works as editor
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