Richard Adams was born May 9, 1920, in Newbury, Berkshire, England. After earning a degree from Worcester College, Oxford, he married Barbara Elizabeth Acland on September 20, 1949; the couple subsequently had two children. At the age of 50, Adams, who worked as a British civil servant and had never published anything, produced a bulky typewriter manuscript. His story about rabbits had delighted his daughters and he was anxious to have it published. Unfortunately, his animal fantasy was turned down by four publishers and four literary agents. Finally a small publishing house, Rex Collings, accepted the manuscript. The 2,000 copies printed by Collings sold surprisingly well. When Penguin reprinted the book in paperback and promoted it as a novel for children, it sold over one million copies. In the United States Macmillan then printed a hard cover edition which became a best seller, selling over 700,000 copies. Adams’s unwanted manuscript turned out to be the best-selling Watership Down.
Watership Down is that paradox of commercial publishing, an instant classic. Adams’s subsequent novels were eagerly awaited by editors and readers alike. In addition, he compiled, introduced, or wrote several non-fiction works. By the age of 60 Adams had his name on the title pages of ten works and an established reputation as a writer of distinctive fantasy.
In its triumphant passage to classic status, Watership Down won the Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal, but did not meet with unanimous critical acclaim. Many reviewers were confused because the book was marketed in Britain as a juvenile book and in the United States as an adult novel. Is Watership Down then an adventurous animal fantasy for children in the tradition of The Wind in the Willows (1908), or is it a political commentary for adults like the animal allegories of George Orwell (Animal Farm, 1945) and Karel Capek (War with the Newts, 1937)?
The timing of the book also made some reviewers uneasy. Three years before Watership Down made rabbits chic, a Robert Merle novel popularized dolphins as anthropomorphic Characters; two years before Richard Bach made Jonathan Livingston Seagull a household name. Critics wondered whether Adams’s rabbits were part of a literary fad.
Reviewers who smelled an allegory lurking beneath the surface disliked Watership Down for not making its allegory more explicit. Those who suspected an attempt to capitalize on the novelty of rabbit protagonists were quick to point out Watership Down’s literary flaws and obvious lineage. But such reviewers proved to be a minority; most hailed the book for its imaginative creation of a rabbit world, complete with mythology, history, and government, and for its evocation of nature.
Adams’s subsequent novels have not achieved the same commercial or critical success. His second novel, Shardik (1974), also created a whole new world, although a human rather than an animal one. With its long and at times gruesome narrative, the novel proved somewhat of a philosophical puzzle. Adams’s third novel, The Plague Dogs (1977), returned to animal protagonists and, like Watership Down, created a convincing imaginative world, this time from a canine perspective. Many critics thought that The Plague Dogs saddled its narrative with excessive preaching against the mistreatment of animals; the combination of story and sermon proved less appealing. Adams’s fourth novel was a surprise; The Girl in a Swing is an intriguing love story but lacks the exotic Characters and locales that Adams’s readers had come to expect.
Adams has established himself as a serious author. Watership Down appears on numerous school reading lists. Literary critics are attracted to Adams’s use of mythology; his creation of alternate worlds have made researchers anxious to trace his sources. Adams’s use of realism in animal fiction challenges the central tradition of sentimental anthropomorphism in children’s literature.