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)

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

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #69

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Psyches and Psychoses – the work of Guy de Maupassant

Buzz OffThe Wasp Factory, Iain Banks (1984)

Drink InkThe Way to Dusty Death, Alistair MacLean (1973)

LittleratureIn Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World, Simon Garfield (Canongate 2018)

Le Paon dans les PyrénéesThe Man in the Red Coat, Julian Barnes (Penguin 2019)

Bon and OffTwo Sides to Every Glory: AC/DC: The Complete Biography, Paul Stenning (Chrome Dreams 2005)

The Fuel in the SkullThe Jewel in the Skull, Michael Moorcock (1969)

Suspicious SubstanceSubstance: Inside New Order, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster, 2016)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Un Paon Papyrocentrique

Le Paon dans les Pyrénées — a review at Papyrocentric Performativity of Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat (2019), which contains a lot about Robert de Montesquiou


Elsewhere other-accessible

Portrait of a Peacock — Cornelia Otis Skinner’s biographical sketch of Montesquiou

Young Out to Dry

“I am sick to death of people saying that we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.” — Angus Young of AC/DC


Elsewhere other-accessible

Bon and Off — a rogue review at Papyrocentric Performativity of Two Sides to Every Glory: AC/DC: The Complete Biography

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #68

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Powerful in PatchesThe Kraken Wakes (1953) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), John Wyndham

Twists in the TaleNo Comebacks: Collected Short Stories, Frederick Forsyth (1972)

A Hundred HeresiarchsBowie’s Books: The Hundred Literary Heroes Who Changed His Life, John O’Connell (Bloomsbury 2020)


Posted at Overlord of the Über-Feral

ChlorokillThe Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)

Chlorokill

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)

If you want to know the difference between talent and genius, compare The Day of the Triffids (1951) with the book that obviously inspired it: The War of the Worlds (1897). John Wyndham (1903-69) had talent; H.G. Wells (1866-1946) had genius. But Wyndham had a lot of talent, all the same. And it’s powerfully displayed in The Day of the Triffids. However, although it’s his most famous book, it isn’t his best. I’m not sure what it is. Wyndham was an uneven writer, not very good at dialogue or characterization, and although he was born decades after Wells, in some ways his books have dated more.

And maybe he was better at short stories than novels. Either way, his big ideas were almost always good and so were the titles of his novels. There’s the humanity-hating submarine race in The Kraken Awakes (1953); the mysterious telepathic alien in Chocky (1968); the persecuted telepathic mutants in The Chrysalids (1955); and the world-threatening super-children in The Midwich Cuckoos (1955). In The Day of the Triffids there are really two big ideas: walking plants and worldwide blindness. In the chronology of the book, but not the narration, the walking plants comes first: they’re the triffids, three-legged, seven-feet tall and equipped with a deadly whip-sting. Once you’ve mentally pictured them, the triffids will never leave your head. I think they’re a clever, chlorophyllic adaptation of the giant three-legged Martian war-machines in War of the Worlds.

But how can the triffids get loose and wreak havoc on the human race as the Martian war-machines did? Triffids are blind and sense rather than see their targets, so they are no match for sighted humans. Obviously, then, Wyndham had to take sight away from humans to get triffids and humans battling for possession of the earth. He did it in rather contrived but still memorable fashion, recorded like this by the first-person narrator as he lies in a hospital bed with bandaged eyes after a triffid attack:

“The sky’s simply full of shooting stars,” [a nurse] said. “All bright green. They make people’s faces look frightfully ghastly. Everybody’s out there watching them, and sometimes it’s almost as light as day – only all the wrong colour. Every now and then there’s a big one so bright that it hurts to look at it. It’s a marvellous sight. They say there’s never been anything like it before. It’s a pity you can’t see it, isn’t it? (ch. 1, “The End Begins”)

In fact, it isn’t a pity: it saves his life. It’s soon apparent that the green light from the “shooting stars” has destroyed the sight of everyone who watched them. The narrator describes how he takes the bandages off his eyes and discovers that he’s one of the very few sighted people left in a blinded world: London becomes “The Groping City”, as the title of chapter 3 puts it. The blindness would have been bad enough, but the triffids now begin breaking loose from the farms on which they’re being kept. The green light of the meteor-storm, probably an optical weapon accidentally released by a military satellite, has created a world where chlorophyll is king. Triffids don’t need sight to slash and slay, so blinded humans now have a simple choice: stay in hiding or try to find food and risk being stung to death by one of the triffids invading London in search of prey.

In the second chapter, the narrator looks back to describe the origin and spread of the triffids, and how he came to receive that a sight-preserving dose of triffid-poison in his eyes. Those opening few chapters have scenes and images that have always stayed with me since I first read the book as a kid. There’s the wonder and beauty of the meteor-storm; the horror of sudden, near-universal blindness and the first spate of suicides; the strangeness and deadliness of the triffids; and so on. Here’s one of the memorable images Wyndham conjures with words:

Perhaps Umberto’s plane exploded, perhaps it just fell to pieces. Whatever it was, I am sure that when the fragments began their long, long fall towards the sea they left behind them something which looked at first like a white vapour.

It was not vapour. It was a cloud of seeds, floating, so infinitely light they were, even in the rarefied air. Millions of gossamer-slung triffid seeds, free now to drift wherever the winds of the world should take them… (ch. 2, “The Coming of the Triffids”)

The triffids have been created artificially and mysteriously behind the Iron Curtain and yield a highly valuable vegetable oil. But that raises questions that aren’t answered. Why did they need to walk? Why are they equipped with long and deadly stings? Why are they uncannily intelligent? And how do they nourish themselves once they mature and begin walking? Their tripodic roots can’t dig very deep when they’re at rest and although Wyndham describes how they pull pieces of flesh off the decaying bodies of people they’ve killed, he doesn’t describe their digestive systems.

These unanswered questions mean that The Day of the Triffids is sometimes more like magic realism than hard science fiction. Particularly when the triffids show signs of intelligence, coordination and even cunning. But none of that is apparent when the triffids begin to sprout all over the world after the seeds in that “white vapour” reach the ground. The growing triffids attract curiosity but not wonder or fear. And even when they begin walking and stinging, they seem easy to manage. Thanks to that valuable vegetable oil, they’re soon being farmed in huge numbers. Their whip-stings are deadly, of course, and if the stings are docked, they yield less oil. But sighted humans can kept triffids under control easily enough, despite an occasional unlucky accident and the triffids’ unsettling ability to communicate between themselves. They have a kind of intelligence even though they don’t have brains. The narrator is a botanist conducting research on triffids and suffers one of the unlucky accidents, when a triffid lashes at the wire-mesh mask covering his face and a few drops from the poison-sacs reach his eyes.

So he’s in hospital when the meteor-storm lights up skies all around the world for a couple of days. He and a few other fortunates can’t watch the storm for one reason or another, so they keep their sight and have to fight the triffids to have a future. Wyndham describes how bands of survivors come together in various ways and decide on different ways of fighting the triffids. And that’s when the quality of the writing and the power of the imagery take a turn for the worse. The opening few chapters of The Day of the Triffids have always stayed with me since that first reading. I’ve re-read the book several times since then, but on this latest re-reading I found I’d almost completely forgotten what happened in the second half of the book.

But I can recommend it highly all the same. It might not be Wyndham’s best, but the triffids and their menacing ways will be with you for life once Wyndham’s words have become pictures in your head. And more than pictures:

The evening was peaceful, almost the only sounds that broke it were the occasional rattlings of the triffids’ little sticks against their stems. Walter [a triffid-researcher] regarded them with his head slightly on one side. He removed his pipe.

“They’re talkative tonight,” he said. (ch. 2)


Elsewhere other-accessible

Reds in the Head — review of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897)