Sunday, August 12, 2007

Shardik (Richard Adams)

“A sword passed through me, I am changed for ever.”

Shardik on Amazon

I remember being so excited to buy this book when I first saw it. I’d read the fantastic Watership Down by the same author about ten times. In fact, someone once asked me, if there was just one book that I could make everyone in the world read, what it would be, and I answered Watership Down. For those who haven’t been lucky enough to read it, it’s a gripping epic about rabbits (seriously) who leave their traditional rabbit society and strike out for new ground.

This week, after several attempts over the past few years to get through Shardik, I made a concerted effort over five or six days without Tivo and internet to read the entire book. I’m not sure my life has been improved for it, though.

Shardik is different. Possibly, it’s harder to grasp; certainly, it’s the kind of book I should read more than once before making any judgments about just how much substance it contains. The essence of the plot is that a hunter named Kelderek finds a huge bear and becomes convinced that it’s a divine resurrection of the power of God, Shardik. His people decide to use the divine bear to recapture the power they once had, and six hundred pages of blathering about the power of Shardik commence. It gets repetitive, and despite the depth of Adams’ treatment of this concept, which I won’t deny, I was slogging through, rather than devouring.

Also, the epic simile thing just gets ridiculous. You know, the way Vergil used to do it, “And just as the ants carry their food back to their anthill, each one knowing his place, blah blah blah, [ten lines later] so did Aeneas and his buddies carry their burdens…” Or, you know, whatever. Richard Adams decides to resurrect something better left for the more-patient classicists (and don’t feel obliged to read this whole excerpt):

“As when villagers have taken away the calf from a strong cow she bellows with rage, breaks the rails of the stockade and tramples her way through the village, afraid of none and filled only with distress and anger at the wrong she has suffered; the villagers fly before her and in her fury she smashes through the mud wall of a hut, so that her head and shoulders appear suddenly, to those within, as a grotesque, frightening source of destruction and fear—so Shardik burst through the tall weeds…”

Etc, etc. The wordiness, particularly in these uselessly long similes, padded the book by at least a third. Then there was a lack of character development that was disconcerting, although I often feel dissatisfied with character depth when I read fantasy (which is infrequently; it’s not my genre). There’s a “romance,” in particular, that’s based on barely more than a man’s infatuation with a woman’s beauty.

The idea of exploring faith through this particular setup with the bear was actually pretty intriguing. I think Richard Adams did some cool things with it, but it got buried under flowery, oppressively wordy writing. There’s a really interesting part towards the end, if you make it that far, where Kelderek experiences a period of intense suffering; much of the beginning is somewhat slow and we aren't at first given much reason to care about this huge panoply of characters and their bear cult.

In Summary: Not recommended, except to the most patient of readers. Read Watership Down instead!

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