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 …
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Odd Sound September 18, 1975