(1920-2016) UK writer who became instantly famous with his first novel, Watership Down (1972), a long, grave, well crafted Animal Fantasy, written ostensibly for children but clearly accessible to adults as well; it was followed by a pendant title, The Watership Down Film Picture Book * (1978), which retells the same story (> Watership Down ). 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 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 Polder: 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. But, before they can reconstitute themselves as a society, they must find females, and in so doing they encounter two warrens (one tame, one tyrannized) which generate a powerful sense of a Bad Place 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 RA'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 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 a Secondary World – riven by cruelties and a bad war. Shardik himself – an enormous bear with 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 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, but the tale itself does not come to any transforming or catastrophic climax.
The Plague Dogs (1977) might be described as a kind of Technofantasy in that the dogs of the title are both sentient, as in any animal fantasy, and severely affected by animal experimentation: the protagonist has the gift of Prophecy, but only because part of his brain has been excised. The story itself is thesis-ridden (RA has no sympathy for any sort of animal experimentation) and arousing, as the dogs escape the farm, learn how to live in the wild, and find their human master in the end. The Iron Wolf and Other Stories (coll 1980; vt The Unbroken Web: Stories and Fables 1980 US) assembles short work supplementary to the main novels. The Girl in a Swing (1980) is a Supernatural Fiction which leaves unsettled the status – Ghost or Demon – of the girl. Traveller (1988 US) 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. The Plague Dogs was filmed in 1982 and The Girl in a Swing in 1989.
The impulse to fantasy is not powerful in RA's work, but it is clear that he has understood the useful potency of the structure of the 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 nonhuman species – sometimes dominate his tales but, when a balance is achieved, the power of his sustained anger and disillusion profoundly transforms the modes he has chosen. [JC]
other works: Sinister and Unnatural Stories (anth 1978); a version of Grimm's Fairy Tales (anth 1981); Richard Adams's Favourite Animal Stories (anth 1981); The Legend of Te Tuna (1982 chap US), which retells a South Seas legend; The Bureaucats (1985 chap), a fantasy for children; The Day Gone By: An Autobiography (1991).
Richard George Adams