Authors: Richard Adams

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Watership Down, 1972

Shardik, 1974

The Plague Dogs, 1977

The Girl in a Swing, 1980

Maia, 1984

Traveller, 1988

The Outlandish Knight, 2000

Short Fiction:

The Unbroken Web: Stories and Fables, 1980 (originally as The Iron Wolf, and Other Stories)

Tales from Watership Down, 1996


Nature Through the Seasons, 1975 (with Max Hooper)

Nature Day and Night, 1978 (with Hooper)

Voyage Through the Antarctic, 1982 (with Ronald M. Lockley)

A Nature Diary, 1985

The Day Gone By, 1990 (autobiography)

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Tyger Voyage, 1976

The Adventures of 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, 1977

The Legend of Te Tuna, 1982

The Bureaucats, 1985

Edited Texts:

Sinister and Supernatural Stories, 1978

Occasional Poets: An Anthology, 1980


Richard Adams emerged suddenly and memorably as a writer of imaginative fiction and children’s books in the early 1970’s. He was born to Evelyn George Beadon Adams, a surgeon, and his wife, Lilian Rosa (Button) Adams. The youngest of three children, Richard Adams spent his time reading and roaming the family’s spacious gardens or the nearby rolling hills of Berkshire, and he filled his solitary hours with fanciful games about ruling an imaginary country. After attending boarding and preparatory schools in Berkshire, Adams entered Oxford University.{$I[AN]9810001297}{$I[A]Adams, Richard}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Adams, Richard}{$I[tim]1920;Adams, Richard}

His education was interrupted by service with the British Airborne Forces during World War II. In 1946, he returned to Oxford and took his master’s degree in modern history at Worcester College two years later. In 1949, he married Barbara Elizabeth Acland; they had two daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, in 1957 and 1958. Immediately after leaving Oxford, Adams went into public service. He was employed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for twenty years in a variety of posts. When the ministry was incorporated into the Ministry of the Environment, Adams was appointed assistant secretary. For twenty-five years, he lived and worked in London. He read voraciously in the classic works of English and Continental literature but had no literary ambitions.

Adams’s daughters Juliet and Rosamond precipitated his literary career. Seeking to amuse them on long drives, Adams invented a story about a warren of Berkshire rabbits forced to flee by a housing development. After dodging automobiles and trains, fighting other rabbits, a small band succeeds in establishing a new home. Juliet and Rosamond suggested additional characters and adventures until the story’s length and complexity demanded that it be written down. Wanting to give his daughters the story in published form, Adams sent the manuscript, to which he had now added chapter titles and epilogues, to several publishers and agents, but all refused to consider it. When he heard that a small publisher, Rex Collings, was reprinting novels about animals, Adams submitted his tale to them, and they accepted Watership Down for a small printing of two thousand copies. After brisk sales attracted a major publisher, Watership Down became a best-seller in both England and the United States. Adams’s novel followed the path of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937): First told to amuse children, these stories made their way into print and became classics.

Watership Down’s success enabled Adams to retire from government service and devote himself to writing. Within five years, he published two more books with central animal figures: Shardik, about a huge bear, and The Plague Dogs, about two canines. Shardik is a tale of cruelty and destruction in the imaginary kingdom of Bekla. Its protagonist is fearsome, perhaps demoniac, possibly divine. The Plague Dogs, an attack on vivisection, tells how Rowf and Snitter flee an experimental laboratory. Their link to Watership Down is Adams’s concern for environmental issues and humankind’s “uneasy detente,” as Adams calls it, with animals. A decade passed before Adams returned to the genre with Traveller, whose narrator is the horse of Robert E. Lee. The commander’s steed recounts the Civil War’s heroism and horrors as seen through equine eyes.

Adams resists classifying his animal fictions as children’s literature. He is the first major writer since Rudyard Kipling to create convincing animal protagonists by attributing human emotions and ideals to them but without giving them greater physical abilities than real animals.

Adams’s other publications after 1976 fall into three groups: children’s books, nonfiction, and novels. His children’s books, most notably The Tyger Voyage and The Bureaucats, are tales of fantasy and imagination with animals as central characters. They combine the Aesopian trick of using animal characters to discuss human virtues and vices with a scientific realism that resists sentimentality. Adams’s nonfiction works also display his love of nature and his environmental concerns. Firmly believing that respect for nature depends on accurate knowledge, Adams lures readers of Nature Through the Seasons and A Nature Diary to seek pleasure in the observation of the commonest plants, landscapes, and creatures. Adams follows in the tradition of British nature writers such as Gilbert White, who portray the pleasures of rural retirement and reflection. Adams wrote two novels–The Girl in a Swing and Maia–with an adult audience in mind. These works are erotic stories with strikingly different narrative approaches. The Girl in a Swing, gothic in mood and narrative, tells of the passionate courtship and marriage of an antiques dealer named Alan Desland and a mysterious German girl, Käthe. Their love is haunted and destroyed by a murdered child from Käthe’s past. Maia returns to the imaginary land first described in Shardik to trace the life of a teenage girl. Her descent into the hedonistic life of a courtesan exposes the moral decay undermining an elegant, wealthy civilization. Adams explored the field of historical fiction, first approached in Traveller, in The Outlandish Knight, a novel of sixteenth century England. Wandering minstrel Raymond becomes the first of three generations of musicians to influence the course of English history by serving royal figures: Henry Tudor, Catherine of Aragon, and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Watership Down remains the most widely discussed and debated of Adams’s works. Marketed as a children’s book in England and as an adult novel in the United States, the book continues to puzzle readers, reviewers, and critics. Is it simply an exercise in imagination, a delightful attempt to bridge the gap between human intelligence and animal intelligence? Has it some deeper meaning beneath the deceptively familiar tale of the rabbits’ search for a new home? Is it a homily on the struggle between good and evil that goes on literally beneath people’s feet? Is it an allegory of the political struggles between ideologies that have ravaged the earth in the twentieth century? Adams’s protestations that he intended nothing more than a gripping narrative have not effectively stilled the curiosity of readers inevitably stirred beyond their expectations.

BibliographyAdams, Richard. The Day Gone By. London: Hutchinson, 1990. Provides information on Adams’s childhood, his service in World War II, and how he developed both a love of nature and a skill for storytelling that would lead to his becoming a writer.Adams, Richard. “Richard Adams: Some Ingredients of Watership Down.” In The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1975. Adams is one of more than twenty authors who contributed essays to this collection about why and how they write. His chapter focuses on Watership Down.Bridgman, Joan. “Richard Adams at Eighty.” Contemporary Review 277, no. 1615 (August, 2000): 108. Overview of Adams’s personal and professional life, placed within the broader context of children’s literature published in the United Kingdom and featuring an evaluation of Watership Down.Harris-Fain, Darren. British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Since 1960. Vol. 261 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2002. A brief biography of Adams and analysis of his books, along with a list of his works and a bibliography, are included in this standard reference book.Kitchell, Kenneth F., Jr. “The Shrinking of the Epic Hero: From Homer to Richard Adams’s Watership Down.” Classical and Modern Literature 7 (Fall, 1986): 13-30. Detailed analysis of Watership Down makes a convincing argument that the novel is a twentieth century epic that treats its rabbit protagonist as a classical hero.Meyer, Charles. “The Power of Myth and Rabbit Survival in Richard Adams’ Watership Down.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 3, no. 4 (1994): 139-150. Examines the novel’s treatment of reason and intuition and shows the connections between Watership Down and R. M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit.Perrin, Noel. “An Animal Epic: Richard Adams, Watership Down.” In A Child’s Delight. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1997. Collection of essays about thirty children’s books that Perrin describes as “neglected,” “ignored,” or “underappreciated” includes a brief discussion of Watership Down.Watkins, Tony. “Reconstructing the Homeland: Loss and Hope in the English Landscape.” In Aspects and Issues in the History of Children’s Literature, edited by Maria Nikolajeva. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Assesses the treatment of the landscape in several works of English children’s literature. Focuses on Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, comparing it with Watership Down and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
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