I recently spent the best part of a week reading a 600-page novel about some imaginary barbarians who worship an imaginary bear. This is not the sort of thing I would ordinarily do, but I remembered how two years ago I was equally reluctant to start a 400-page book about a tribe of rabbits, and how wrong I was then. By now, over a million people have read Watership Down; for many it is a modern classic.
“That rabbit book” (even today hardly anyone I know can remember the title, which suggests a sinking boat) became an international best seller not just because it was well written and original. It was attractive also because it celebrated qualities many serious novelists are currently afraid or embarrassed to write about. The heroes and heroines of most contemporary novels (including mine) are sad, bumbling failures; hysterical combatants in the sex war; or self-deceptive men and women of ill-will. What a relief to read of characters who have honor and courage and dignity, who will risk their lives for others, whose love for their families and friends and community is enduring and effective—even if they look like Flopsy, Mopsy, and Benjamin Bunny.
With Shardik, Richard Adams is attempting something more difficult, and—possibly as a result—his new book is not receiving the welcome given its predecessor. Since it is at least as interesting, this may be due partly to the jaded irritability some critics feel toward any book which follows a best seller. Others may be disappointed because, in spite of its title and the picture on the cover, Shardik is not about a tribe of bears, but about men, some of whom are just as sympathetic and admirable as the heroes of Watership Down. Some critics are skeptical of this, since they know from their own experience, or introspection, that men are basically cowardly, dishonorable, foolish, disloyal, and selfish.
Perhaps Richard Adams was aware of this objection, for instead of setting his tale in any known time and place, he has invented an imaginary primitive world, the ancient Beklan Empire, complete with history, geography, climate, culture, and religion. When the story begins, Bekla is in the hands of conquerors, and its former rulers, the Ortelgans, survive only as primitive island hunters who worship God in the form of a giant bear.
Bears, of course, have always been very popular in English literature, though—or perhaps because—they are unknown in English life outside of zoos. From the comic butts of the fables and the enchanted princes of folklore through Kipling’s wise, paternal Baloo to Pooh and Paddington, they have always been portrayed as friendly; mischievous or clumsy sometimes, but easily domesticated and affectionate.
Richard Adams’s Shardik, the Power of God, is a different sort of animal, more American than English. Like the eponymous hero of Faulkner’s “The Bear,” he is a figure of terror and mystery, violent and unpredictable. He is Nature, literally red in tooth and claw, both dangerous and beautiful, fearful and desirable. Shardik, like Watership Down, is among other things an ecological novel, an allegory and history of the relationship of human beings to the physical world. And here, too, Richard Adams shows his gift for descriptive prose. Shardik begins with a brilliant set-piece on a forest fire:
…the wind strengthened, bringing a sound that seemed to stretch across the forest from end to end—a sound like a dry waterfall or the breathing of a giant….
The sound grew to a roaring and the creatures flying before it became innumerable. Many were almost spent, yet still stumbled forward with open mouths set in snarls and staring eyes that saw nothing. Some tripped and were trampled down. Drifts of green smoke appeared through gaps in the undergrowth…. The heat increased until no living thing—not a lizard, not a fly—remained in the glade about the rock…. A single flame darted through the curtain of creepers, disappeared, returned and flickered in and out like a snake’s tongue. A spray of dry, sharp-toothed leaves on a zeltazla bush caught fire and flared brightly, throwing a dismal shine on the smoke that was now filling the glade like fog. Immediately after, the whole wall of foliage at the top of the slope was ripped from the bottom as though by a knife of flame….
On his first appearance, driven out of his native jungle by this fire and badly burned, Shardik terrifies a halfsavage Ortelgan hunter for whom Nature is an overwhelming force to be dreaded and propitiated. Next, for a little while, the bear is healed and cared for. Then gradually he is surrounded, captured, and imprisoned—though never really tamed. As he passes from the control of primitive people to that of a more sophisticated and urban civilization Shardik is increasingly misused, neglected, and exploited under the pretense of being cared for and adored—just as our wilderness has often been destroyed under the guise of preservation. (Whenever we hear that some especially agreeable part of the local landscape is going to become a “recreation area” we know what it means: shadowy pine woods full of trailer hookups, mountain lakes echoing to the birdlike calls of outboard motors, and sunny meadows bright with rusted beer cans and broken glass.) And just as nature, too much abused, can turn against man, so eventually Shardik, dying, turns on his enemies and savages them.
Irritable reviewers, perhaps thinking of his first appearance in the book, have compared Shardik to Smokey the Bear; and in a way he is what Smokey would be, taken seriously. Even Smokey has his Faulkner side; he is not small and cuddly, but much larger than the cartoon people he usually confronts. He is generally represented as scowling, even threatening—and what, after all, does he intend to do with that shovel he carries, blade up?
But Shardik is not just a possible ecological allegory; it can also be read as a study in the psychology of religion. It cannot be accidental that the central symbol chosen by Richard Adams, the survivor of a Jungian analysis, harks back to what anthropologists have called the oldest surviving evidence of mythological belief, discovered in the mountain caves inhabited by Neanderthal man before 50,000 BC. There, ten thousand years earlier than the wall paintings of prehistoric hunters, the skulls of cave bears were grouped around a fire in the deepest rooms of the caves.
Shardik, like the cave bears, is not really a magical being; he is not anthropomorphized. All that he does is within the range of normal animal behavior; only to those who believe in him does it seem symbolical, an Act of God. Because of this belief, however, lives are changed utterly; hundreds of men, women, and children die; a barbaric empire is destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again, and finally brought a little nearer to civilized humanism.
One of Shardik’s first effects is to set men against women: the Ortelgan warriors, who want the bear to lead them to victory over Bekla even if they have to drag him onto the battlefield in a cage, and the priestesses of the neighboring island, Quiso, who—like the bear-worshiping women and girls at the Temple of Brauron in Classical Greece—wish only to feed the bear, heal him, and sing to him. This part of the book should make some amends to feminists for the condescending treatment of the female rabbits—Flopsys and Mopsys all—in Watership Down. Through most of Shardik, women are not only important but more admirable generally and closer to nature and the truth than men are. Unfortunately, this does not carry through, and the Good Society established in the happy ending is illogically and disappointingly patriarchal.
In the course of his book, Adams manages to picture most known Western varieties of religious attitude, from the simple totemistic faith of the Ortelgans through the Dionysiac intoxication of the young priestesses of Quiso to the obsessive ritualism or half-superstitious, half-conventional holiday observances of the rich Beklan townspeople, who light their torches at the annual Fire Festival in the spirit of an American parent plugging in the Christmas tree.
Agnosticism and atheism, both primitive and sophisticated, are not forgotten. The High Baron of Ortelga, when informed that Lord Shardik, the Power of God, has appeared on his island, reacts as most shrewd temporal (or spiritual) rulers would to a reputed miracle: by trying to suppress it, and to persuade the High Priestess to help him. His argument, though unsuccessful, is highly pragmatic:
“We have found a large bear—possibly the largest bear that has ever lived…. But if you heal it, what will follow?… Even supposing that it does not kill you, at the best it will leave the island and then you, having tried to make use of it and failed, will lose influence over the people…. As a memory and a legend, Shardik has power and that power is ours, but to try to make the people believe that he has returned can end in nothing but harm.”
The introduction of such characters has a secondary advantage: by over-representing the skeptical position, they parody and deflect the objections of a skeptical reader. This is especially true in the case of the aristocrat Elleroth, a sort of Gore Vidal figure, whose scorn of all religious faith is sure to outdo that of most readers:
“…you don’t understand the dynamic ideas prevalent down on the river where the reeds all shiver. Matters there are determined by resort to hocus-pocus, mumbo jumbo and even, for all I know, jiggery-pokery—the shades of distinction being fine, you understand…. Bears…have to be interpreted no less than entrails and birds, and some magical person has to be found to do it…. I have no idea what methods he employs—possibly the bear piddles on the floor and he observes portents in the steaming whatnot.”
Richard Adams’s own position seems to be a variant of that of the Grand Inquisitor. “Superstition and accident manifest the will of God,” he quotes (from Jung) in his epigraph. Even if the supernatural does not exist, it is good for men to believe in it—not because it makes them behave better, but because it gives shape and purpose to their existence. In Shardik, belief causes men to act cruelly and destructively as well as nobly; the bear is a kind of test which brings out hidden strengths and weaknesses, even in those who do not believe in him.
The hero of the novel, the simple hunter Kelderek who discovers Shardik first, is completely transformed. Following the bear, he becomes first its prophet, then its companion in war, and finally its captor and jailer, the powerful priest-king of Bekla. Power corrupts Kelderek as it does many other characters in the book, though in a different way. Like most readers of this magazine, Kelderek would not consciously do evil, but he is capable of permitting unpleasant things to occur outside the range of his immediate attention. In order to support the expensive Beklan war economy and maintain what he thinks of as Shardik’s empire (though Shardik is halfmad in a temple dungeon), he allows his merchants to re-establish the slave trade, managing not to hear, or rather not to heed, reports of traders who kidnap and mutilate children.
Later, with the poetic justice which operates less often in contemporary war economies, Kelderek himself becomes a slave in the power of the worst of these traders, a man named Genshed. This section of the book reads so much like a sadistic nightmare that Adams has felt it necessary to disclaim responsibility in a prefatory note:
Lest any should suppose that I set my wits to work to invent the cruelties of Genshed, I say here that all lie within my knowledge and some—would they did not—within my experience.
Adams, a British civil servant who spent twenty-five years in the Clean Air Section of the Environmental Department, does not say what experience.
Gifted writers of fantasy, even when they disclaim belief in magic, often seem to have a supernatural precognition of historical events, so that their books are more relevant years after they appear than when they were written. H. G. Wells’s pretty, silly, commercially exploited Eloi were invented long before the Flower Children; and Huxley’s characters blurred the natural depression caused by his Brave New World with Soma well before the discovery of tranquilizers. Authors often disclaim this gift, and even deny that their books might be read symbolically, as Tolkien insisted that Frodo’s Ring of absolute destructive power had nothing to do with modern science or the atomic bomb.
Similarly, Richard Adams would probably claim that no thought of the war in Southeast Asia crossed his mind while he was writing Shardik. If so, it is merely a lucky coincidence that this brilliant and frightening novel should appear in America just at a time when we, like Kelderek, have finally and fully become aware of how much destruction of the natural world and innocent people, how much mutilation and kidnaping of children, has been done in the name of our gods in the past twenty years.
Odd Sound September 18, 1975