Beauties and Beasts

Shardik, Richard Adams (1974)

Is it thirty years since I last read Shardik? No, it think it’s nearer forty. But as I read the book in March this year I began remembering small things before I came to them again. And I realized how deep the characters and story had sunk into my mind on those early readings long ago. Indeed, I felt that coming across the book again in a second-hand shop had been important-with-a-capital-I, as though I’d been meant to meet it again now.

Maybe it wasn’t and maybe I hadn’t. But the opening chapters, in which the simple hunter Kelderek finds and helps to capture the giant bear Shardik, have been some of the most vivid and enjoyable literature I’ve ever read. Adams conjures the forest fire that drives Shardik, burned and near-dead, across the great river Telthearna; brings Kelderek and other characters to life with something like Dickensian vividness and depth; gives them a solid and scented world to inhabit; and evokes a genuine sense of matriarchal mystery and magic around the island of Quiso, where the Tuginda and her priestesses have awaited the return of Shardik for centuries. And Shardik himself is a huge and dangerous presence, slapping a leopard aside like a twig before he collapses and begins to die of his burns. He’s awesome even in his distress:

The bear was still lying among the scarlet trepsis, but already it looked less foul and wretched. Its great wounds had been dressed with some kind of yellow ointment. One girl was keeping the flies from its eyes and ears with a fan of fern-fronds, while another, with a jar of ointment, was working along its back and as much as she could reach of the flank on which it was lying. Two others had brought sand to cover patches of soiled ground which they had already cleaned and hoed with pointed sticks. The Tuginda was holding a soaked cloth to the bear’s mouth, as [Kelderek] himself had done, but was dipping it not in the pool but in a water-jar at her feet. The unhurried bearing of the girls contrasted strangely with the gashed and monstrous body of the creature they were tending. Kelderek watched them pause in their work, waiting as the bear stirred restlessly. Its mouth gaped open and one hind leg kicked weakly before coming to rest once more among the trepsis. – end of chapter 10 in Book I, “Ortelga”

If Shardik continued like that, I think it would be much better-known today. But it doesn’t. It turns not just grimmer, but less well-written and less psychologically plausible. The simple hunter Kelderek, friend of children and awestruck acolyte of Shardik, turns into a ruthless priest-king who cages his bear-god and oversees a trade in child-slaves to finance a war of attrition against the enemies of his tribe. And that small and impoverished tribe, from the half-forgotten river-island of Ortelga in the far north, has overthrown an empire by then. Shardik has given them victory, becoming a literal deus ex machina in a crucial early battle. Or perhaps that should be deus in machina:

Suddenly a snarling roar, louder even than the surrounding din of battle, filled the tunnel-like roadway under the trees. There followed a clanging and clattering of iron, sharp cracks of snapped wood, panic cries and a noise of dragging and scraping. Baltis’ voice shouted, “Let go, you fools!” Then again broke out the snarling, full of savagery and ferocious rage. Kelderek leapt to his feet.

The cage had broken loose and was rushing down the hill, swaying and jumping as the crude wheels ploughed ruts in the mud and struck against protruding stones. The roof had split apart and the bars were hanging outwards, some trailing along the ground, others lashing sideways like a giant’s flails. Shardik was standing upright, surrounded by long, white splinters of wood. Blood was running down one shoulder and he foamed at the mouth, beating the iron bars around him as Baltis’ hammers had never beaten them.

The point of a sharp, splintered stake had pierced his neck and as it swayed up and down, levering itself in the wound, he roared with pain and anger. Red-eyed, frothing and bloody, his head smashing through the flimsy lower branches of the trees overhanging the track, he rode down upon the battle like some beast-god of apocalypse. – Book I, ch. 22, “The Cage”

I don’t like that “splintered stake … levering itself in the wound.” It seems gratuitous. And that kind of thing doesn’t stop. Shardik suffers from beginning to end of the book and at times I felt as though he’d become little more than a punch-bag for the plot. Although many readers will come to this book as young fans of Watership Down (1972), I don’t think it’s a good book for children. There are cruelty and ruthlessness in Watership Down, but they don’t overwhelm the story as they come to do in Shardik. And the characters who suffer in Watership Down are rabbits; in Shardik, they’re children and a giant bear. There was one act of cruelty that struck me with horror when I read it as a teenager, because it suddenly and ruthlessly smashed the hope I had invested in a character.

I barely noticed the incident this time, because I knew it was coming and because I wasn’t captivated by Adams’ prose any more. He starts the book well, but his best here isn’t as good as his best in Watership Down. And his prose gets much less good after Book I. Plus, I could see his influences more clearly: classical myth and history, the Bible, Dickens. The book begins with these lines from Homer:

οἴκτιστον δὴ κεῖνο ἐμοῖς ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσι
πάντων, ὅσσ᾽ ἐμόγησα πόρους ἁλὸς ἐξερεείνων.

They’re not translated, but they mean:

It was the most pitiable sight of all I saw exploring the pathways of the sea. – Odyssey XII, 258

Homer’s influence hovers below the surface everywhere in Book I, sometimes bursting through in long and elaborate similes that don’t always work very well. But I think that something else that doesn’t always work very well is part of Adams’ linguistic cleverness rather than his clumsiness. Shardik is set in a fantasy universe with simple technology and some kind of magic. Like many writers before him and after, Adams creates new languages to go with his new world. The hunter Kelderek is nicknamed Zenzuata, meaning “Play-with-children”. Later he becomes Crendrik, the “Eye of God” and high-priest of Shardik, the “Power of God.” When he’s still a simple hunter he hears a song with the refrain “Senandril na kora, senandril na ro”; at another time he marvels at the beauty of a gold-and-purple bird called a kynat; at another he eats the ripe fruit of a tendriona on the island of Quiso, where the high-priestess is called the Tuginda and addressed with the honorific säiyett.

The strange names and words transport you from the here-and-now of reality to the elsewhere-and-elsewhen of fantasy. But what about Kabin, one of the cities of the Beklan Empire, and Deelguy, one of the lands bordering the Empire? Kabin echoes English “cabin” and Deelguy echoes English “deal” and “guy”. They don’t look or sound right (though perhaps Deelguy is meant to be pronounced “deel-goo-ee”). But that’s linguistic cleverness, I think. The paradox is that it’s not right if all the words and names of an invented language sound right to the ears of Anglophones. If they all sound right, that is, if they’re all exotic and alien, it means that they’ve been created with English in mind. So they’re a kind of un-English or anti-English, rather than something existing without any regard to English. In Shardik, it’s as though Kabin echoes English by chance, which is just what you might expect of a truly exotic and alien language. So that’s linguistic cleverness, I think.

And it’s also linguistically clever of Adams to invent an accent within the story for native speakers of Deelguy who are talking Beklan or Ortelgan. Here’s the slimy slave-trader Lalloc speaking to the chief villain of the story, the evil slave-trader Genshed: “I was in Kabin, Gensh, when the Ikats come north. Thought I had plonty of time to gotting back to Bekla, but left it too late – you ever know soldiers go so fost, Gensh, you ever know? Cot off, couldn’t gotting to Bekla […] no governor in Kabin – new governor, man called Mollo, been killed in Bekla, they were saying – the king kill him with his own honds – no one would take money to protect me.” (Book VI, ch. 51, “The Gap of Linsho”) The diminutive “Gensh” used by Lalloc is clever too. Genshed is a monster, but Lalloc thinks that the two of them are friends. His accent works as a kind of fantastic realism: yes, when someone from Deelguy spoke Beklan, he would speak in a strange way. And Adams captures that in English.

However, he puts words into the mouth of another character that are clumsy rather than clever: “the resources of this splendid establishment” (used of an inn); “riparian witch-doctor” (used of Kelderek); “bruin-boys [who] burst on an astonished world” (used of the followers of Shardik); “bear-bemused river-boys” (ditto); “some nice, lonely place with no propinquitous walls or boulders”; and so on. Those are the words of Elleroth, Ban of Sarkid, a “dandified” aristocrat who is secretly working against Kelderek and the Ortelgans. He’s an important character, central to the plot, so it’s a pity that, in part, he’s also a cliché out of old-fashioned boys’ literature. He’s a fop who’s also a fighter and whose languid, drawling irony covers serious purpose and emotion. It’s as though an Old Etonian or Harrovian has suddenly appeared. The way he’s presented is out of place in the fantasy universe of Shardik: “propinquitous” would work in one of Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea stories. But it doesn’t work here as dialogue.

Another aspect of Elleroth’s character does work. Before he appears, we’ve seen Shardik through the eyes of his devoted followers, who swear “by the Bear” and see him triumph over all doubt and lead the Ortelgans to victory. After Elleroth appears, we suddenly see Shardik and his cult through the eyes of someone who despises “the bear” and his followers. To Elleroth, the Ortelgans are ursine swine. Later still, the perspective shifts in another way. The final chapters of the book are partly in the form of home-bound letters by an ambassador from Zakalon, a hitherto unknown land where they swear “by the Cat”. What is that about? What cult is practised in Zakalon? We never learn, but the glimpse of something beyond the story increases the power and reality of Shardik’s world.

And Shardik is, despite its frequent clumsiness, a powerful book. Sometimes its power is beautiful, sometimes it’s horrific, and new readers will remember both the beauty and the horror as I did in all the time that has passed since my last readings. Forty years on, I’m glad to have met it again, read it again, and re-acquainted myself with its power and its beauty. It isn’t as good as Watership Down, but it’s better than The Plague Dogs. And not many books are as good as Watership Down.

Elsewhere other-accessible…

Sward and Sorcery – a review of Watership Down (1972)
Paw is Less – a review of The Plague Dogs (1977)

Rainbows in the Dark

Iridogorgia sp. octocoral bush with two squat lobsters, Gulf of Mexico

Post-Performative Post-Scriptum

Iridogorgia are corals growing in the dark of the deep Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Part of their name comes from Greek ἶρις, ἰριδος, iris, iridos, “rainbow”, referring to their sometimes iridiscent colors. So they remind me of a Dio song that I’ve never heard but always liked the title of: “Rainbow in the Dark”. In this photo, I also like the contrast between the beauty of the coral and the grotesqueness of the squat lobsters.


Suppose you start at the middle of a triangle, then map all possible ways you can jump eight times half-way towards one or another of the vertices of the triangle. At the end of the eight jumps, you mark your final position with a dot. You could jump eight times towards the same vertex, or once towards vertex 1, once towards vertex 2, and once again towards vertex 1. And so on. If you do this, the record of your jumps looks something like this:

The shape is a fractal called the Sierpiński triangle. But if you try the same thing with a square — map all possible jumping-routes you can follow towards one or another of the four vertices — you simply fill the interior of the square. There’s no interesting fractal:

So you need a plan with a ban. Try mapping all possible routes where you can’t jump towards the same vertex twice in a row. And you get this:

Ban on jumping towards same vertex twice in a row, v(t) ≠ v(t-1)

If you call the current vertex v(t) and the previous vertex v(t-1), the ban says that v(t) ≠ v(t-1). Now suppose you can’t jump towards the vertex one place clockwise of the previous vertex. Now the ban is v(t)-1 ≠ v(t-1) or v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1 and this fractal appears:

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1

And here’s a ban on jumping towards the vertex two places clockwise (or counterclockwise) of the vertex you’ve just jumped towards:

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+2

And finally the ban on jumping towards the vertex three places clockwise (or one place counterclockwise) of the vertex you’ve just jumped towards:

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+3 (a mirror-image of v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1, as above)

Now suppose you introduce a new point to jump towards at the middle of the square. You can create more fractals, but you have to adjust the kind of ban you use. The central point can’t be included in the ban or the fractal will be asymmetrical. So you continue taking account of the vertices, but if the previous jump was towards the middle, you ignore that jump. At least, that’s what I intended, but I wonder whether my program works right. Anyway, here are some of the fractals that it produces:

v(t) ≠ v(t-1) with central point (wcp)

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1, wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+2, wcp

And here are some bans taking account of both the previous vertex and the pre-previous vertex:

v(t) ≠ v(t-1) & v(t) ≠ v(t-2), wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1) & v(t-2)+1, wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+2 & v(t-2), wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1) & v(t-2)+1, wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1 & v(t-2)+1, wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+2 & v(t-2)+1, wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+3 & v(t-2)+1, wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1) & v(t-2)+2, wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1 & v(t-2)+2, wcp

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+2 & v(t-2)+2, wcp

Now look at pentagons. They behave more like triangles than squares when you map all possible jumping-routes towards one or another of the five vertices. That is, a fractal appears:

All possible jumping-routes towards the vertices of a pentagon

But the pentagonal-jump fractals get more interesting when you introduce jump-bans:

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+2

v(t) ≠ v(t-1) & v(t-2)

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+2 & v(t-2)

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1 & v(t-2)+1

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+3 & v(t-2)+1

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1 & v(t-2)+2

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+2 & v(t-2)+2

v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+3 & v(t-2)+2

Finally, here are some pentagonal-jump fractals using a central point:

Post-Performative Post-Scriptum

I’m not sure if I’ve got the order of some bans right above. For example, should v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+1 & v(t-2)+2 really be v(t) ≠ v(t-1)+2 & v(t-2)+1? I don’t know and I’m not going to check. But the idea of jumping-point bans is there and that’s all you need if you want to experiment with these fractal methods for yourself.

Pascal’s Paradox

« Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte. » — Blaise Pascal, Lettres provinciales (1657)

“I’ve made this [letter] longer only because I haven’t had time to make it shorter.” — Blaise Pascal

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #70

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents…

Fish, Not FrogDizionario Italiano: Dizionario della Lingua Contemporanea (Vallardi 2017)

Headstrong, Heroic and Hellbent on Glory – The Brigadier Gerard stories of Arthur Conan Doyle

Art of DarknessArt-Bandit: Interrogating the Outlaw Aesthetics of Über-Maverick Gay Atelierista John Coulthart, Dr Joan Jay Jefferson (Visceral Visions i.a.w. University of Salford Press 2022)

Fuller FrontalDeviant. Devious. Depraved.: The Sickening, Slimy and Sizzlingly Septic Story of Noxiously Nasty Necrophile Nonce David Fuller, David Kerekes, with an introduction by David Slater (Visceral Visions 2022)

Submarine SkinkUnderwater Adventure, Willard Price (1955)

Pair’s FairThe Dark Hours, Michael Connelly (2021)

Front Row for the Axl ShowNothin’ But a Good Time: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Glam Metal, Justin Quirk (Unbound 2020)

Posturing ProctoglossistHumour, Terry Eagleton (Yale University Press 2019)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Flit Lit

From the arts-sports [like ice-dance] I took heart [about my possible triviality]. They proved that creativity is indivisible. The skaters, the divers and the gymnasts reminded me that what I read in books, saw in pictures and heard in music had all started in a fundamental human compulsion to give dynamism shape. […] There are moments in Shakespeare when he sets three or four ideas all travelling at once through each other’s trajectories. He couldn’t have been thinking of Bach, who wasn’t born yet. But he might well have been thinking of a juggler he stopped to watch on the way to work. — from “Souls on Ice: Torvill and Dean”, Postscript (ii), in Reliable Essays: The Best of Clive James, Picador 2001.


« La couleur est mon obsession quotidienne, ma joie et mon torment. » — Claude Monet (1840-1926)

     “Color is my day-long obsession, my joy and my torment.” — Claude Monet