The Rise of Richard Adams

Graham Hough

  • The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams
    Allen Lane, 397 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7139 1407 6

The remarkable literary career of Richard Adams began only eight years ago, but it has already reached substantial dimensions. Watership Down in 1972 was followed by two other works of mystery and imagination, relying more or less heavily on the animal world, and now by The Girl in a Swing, which is ostensibly about human beings. These are not the skimpy, slimmed-down fictions so general today, but highly-worked, close-packed narratives, each of four hundred pages or more. Add to these two or three nature books and a recent collection of folk-tales, and we have what for many writers would constitute a life’s work. Not only is Mr Adams immensely prolific, he can carry an audience with him: Watership Down had an immense readership and the reviews of the next two books were uniformly ecstatic.

Watership Down won the Guardian award for children’s fiction; and a vague phonological confusion between rabbits and hobbits caused Adams to be widely compared to Tolkien. There are similarities. Both began by using the disguise of children’s storyteller to penetrate the adult world. Watership Down appeals to some of the same sympathies as Lord of the Rings. It, too, is against sin, and among the virtues prefers the old-world masculine ones – courage, authority and loyalty. It, too, tells the story of a little people fighting against enormous odds, with marked analogies to the political configurations of our own world. But instead of the rich and varied mythological background of Tolkien it derives from the beast-fable – a respectable provenance but a drier and more restricted one.

It is Shardik that really challenges comparison with Tolkien, by creating another world with a history and geography of its own, and a moral and metaphysical background different from ours yet continuous with it. There are no elves or orcs in Adams’s world, we are confined to humans and animals: but there is the same impulse to distance the conflict from commonplace daily circumstance by setting it in an older and simpler time – in this case, among the most primitive of a collection of half-savage tribes in something like the early iron age. Trade and technology are just beginning, but theriomorphic deities are still worshipped, and the compulsions received from them are awe-inspiring and obscure. Shardik is a huge bear who becomes the god of the Ortelgans; and it is the power of his cult, for evil and for good, that is the central theme.

The story is long, dense and complicated, with many characters, several differing societies and a great variety of physical settings. All are vividly realised. Adams has an immensely fertile, absolutely concrete imagination, and he gives it ample space to develop. Some of the landscapes – towns, islands, mountains and riversides, owing nothing as far as I can see to travel books or previous fictions – stick astonishingly in the memory. Few concessions are made to the reader. I found the plot slow in unwinding, unalluring in atmosphere and overloaded with detail: but in the end its grip becomes extremely sure. Indeed, it becomes inescapable. There are scenes of horror at intervals throughout, and the gratuitous and repulsive cruelties described in the penultimate book are enough to capsize the whole story: yet they do not, and we read on to a conclusion of tranquillity and reconciliation. Some readers take exception in principle to these 20th-century fantasy epics, supposing that they make too easy a claim to a depth of significance that they cannot earn. I doubt if this is more than an a priori prejudice, but however that may be, the objections to Adams cannot be the same as those to Tolkien. Whatever we are being seduced by, it is not the blandishment of an Edwardian nursery tale: what is at work here is a powerful, often macabre and perhaps somewhat disordered imagination.

Part of the strength of Shardik is that though the bear’s presence broods over the whole narrative, there is no attempt to enter into his consciousness. So the dangers and absurdities of portraying anthropomorphised animals are avoided. They hover perpetually over Watership Down, and are successfully overcome, but they grow more threatening with The Plague Dogs. Here the narrative is divided between the dogs themselves – tortured victims from an animal research station, too far gone to bear the ideological weight that is laid upon them – and a miscellany of human characters, ordinary denizens of modern Britain. We then make the curious discovery that Adams’s imagination, so powerful when it is exercised on remote, archaic, hardly accessible states of consciousness, becomes quite commonplace in dealing with the familiar modern world.

It is not that his assortment of characters – lakeland farmers, scientists, journalists – are incompetently drawn. They are quite effective, but at best only with the ordinary effectiveness of a television serial; at worst, they are opinionated caricatures. Hints of such a lapse had been apparent already. The battered hero of Shardik and his destined mate, both having endured what we have been totally persuaded to accept as an extreme physical and spiritual ordeal, show distinct signs when it is all over of turning into the neatly-finished, buoyant young couple of any soap opera. But this is only a hint and is caught only in the closing pages.

In The Girl in a Swing we are faced with a whole novel set obstinately and specifically in modern Britain – to be precise, in Newbury in the 1970s. The protagonist keeps a china shop and his girl is a German typist. The story of their courtship and marriage plunges us into the dampest and most odorous depths of the Romantic Novel. Somewhere on the way down we pass Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, but we do not stop. Encompassed by quotations from German lyric poetry, we get lost amid clouds of flower-sprigged apricot organdie, pink cotton jersey and two complete sets of satin underclothes ‘frothy with lace, cool and smooth to the touch as a basket of greengages’. But all is not well, in spite of the apricot organdie: there is a mystery, which the hero glimpses by extrasensory perception but which scout’s honour forbids me to reveal. The end is darkness.

The hero, Alan Desland, tells his own story. He goes to Copenhagen on business; the girl who types his letters is a German, of staggering beauty. He instantly falls in love with her, and, less explicably, she with him. He gets her back to England, all lined up for a church wedding, with the results outlined above. The first-person narrative creates problems from the start. Is this the unwitting revelation by a solemn booby of how he was seduced by a dreadful Teutonic charmer? Vielleicht, as she constantly says: but warum, as she also remarks, could she possibly want him? Well, it is no use asking. We are evidently meant to take it all at face value, including Alan’s second sight, Karin’s instantly-acquired expertise in English porcelain, and a honeymoon trip to Florida impulsively paid for by an American customer. It is hardly possible to recount the full fatuity of the plot, and of the melodramatic conclusion. Yet even here, it must be confessed, Adams retains his narrative skill. The impulse to throw the thing away is overcome by the desire to know what happens next just overcome. But the reader is left in a state of considerable bewilderment as to the nature of Richard Adams’s powers. He has always chosen genres fraught with risk, perilous tight-rope walks for anyone with aspirations as a serious writer. He pulled it off in Watership Down, and in Shardik, to my mind, he triumphed. But he can only triumph on condition that he keeps away from conventional realism and the traffic of every day. His imagination is inhabited by mythic figures, driven by a few profound impulses. Their habitat is the natural world, in its beauty, ferocity and indifference. These images have little to do with surface experience. Wherever they come from, it is clear that he must take them as they come: any attempt to exchange them for the current coin of today is evidently fatal to his vision. We can only wish him a safe return to the archetypal realm.