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 #66

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Pygmies and Secret PolicemenFootball Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper (1994)

Writhing Along in My AutomobileCrash: The Limits of Car Safety, Nicholas Faith (Boxtree 1998)

A Boy and His BanditBeloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinoüs, Royston Lambert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1984)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Sept-Ember

“The Palace of Pan”

by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)


September, all glorious with gold, as a king
In the radiance of triumph attired,
Outlightening the summer, outsweetening the spring,
Broods wide on the woodlands with limitless wing,
A presence of all men desired.

Far eastward and westward the sun-coloured lands
Smile warm as the light on them smiles;
And statelier than temples upbuilded with hands,
Tall column by column, the sanctuary stands
Of the pine-forest’s infinite aisles.

Mute worship, too fervent for praise or for prayer,
Possesses the spirit with peace,
Fulfilled with the breath of the luminous air,
The fragrance, the silence, the shadows as fair
As the rays that recede or increase.

Ridged pillars that redden aloft and aloof,
With never a branch for a nest,
Sustain the sublime indivisible roof,
To the storm and the sun in his majesty proof,
And awful as waters at rest.

Man’s hand hath not measured the height of them; thought
May measure not, awe may not know;
In its shadow the woofs of the woodland are wrought;
As a bird is the sun in the toils of them caught,
And the flakes of it scattered as snow.

As the shreds of a plumage of gold on the ground
The sun-flakes by multitudes lie,
Shed loose as the petals of roses discrowned
On the floors of the forest engilt and embrowned
And reddened afar and anigh.

Dim centuries with darkling inscrutable hands
Have reared and secluded the shrine
For gods that we know not, and kindled as brands
On the altar the years that are dust, and their sands
Time’s glass has forgotten for sign.

A temple whose transepts are measured by miles,
Whose chancel has morning for priest,
Whose floor-work the foot of no spoiler defiles,
Whose musical silence no music beguiles,
No festivals limit its feast.

The noon’s ministration, the night’s and the dawn’s,
Conceals not, reveals not for man,
On the slopes of the herbless and blossomless lawns,
Some track of a nymph’s or some trail of a faun’s
To the place of the slumber of Pan.

Thought, kindled and quickened by worship and wonder
To rapture too sacred for fear
On the ways that unite or divide them in sunder,
Alone may discern if about them or under
Be token or trace of him here.

With passionate awe that is deeper than panic
The spirit subdued and unshaken
Takes heed of the godhead terrene and Titanic
Whose footfall is felt on the breach of volcanic
Sharp steeps that their fire has forsaken.

By a spell more serene than the dim necromantic
Dead charms of the past and the night,
Or the terror that lurked in the noon to make frantic
Where Etna takes shape from the limbs of gigantic
Dead gods disanointed of might,

The spirit made one with the spirit whose breath
Makes noon in the woodland sublime
Abides as entranced in a presence that saith
Things loftier than life and serener than death,
Triumphant and silent as time.

(Inscribed to my Mother) Pine Ridge: September 1893

Roses Are Golden

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) is based on an apocryphal episode in the sybaritic life of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus (204-222 A.D.), who is said to have suffocated guests with flowers at one of his feasts. The painting is in a private collection, but I saw it for real in an Alma-Tadema exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool sometime during the late 1990s. I wasn’t disappointed: it was a memorable meeting with a painting I’d been interested in for years. Roses is impressively large and impressively skilful. Close-up, the brush-strokes are obvious, obtrusive and hard to interpret as people and objects. It isn’t till you step back, far beyond the distance at which Alma-Tadema was painting, that the almost photographic realism becomes apparent. But you get more of the many details at close range, like the Latin inscription on a bowl below and slightly to the right of that scowling water-mask. Alas, I forgot to take a note of what the inscription was, though perhaps the memory is still locked away somewhere in my subconscious.

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888)

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888)

Whatever it is, I feel sure it is significant, because Roses is rich with meaning. That’s a large part of why I’m interested in it. Yes, I like it a lot as art, but the women would have to be more attractive for it to be higher in the list of my favourite paintings. As it is, I think there are only four reasonably good-looking people in it: the man with the beard on the right; the flautist striding past the marble pillar on the left; the red-headed girl with a crown of white flowers; and Heliogabalus himself, crowned in roses and clutching a handful of grapes beside the overweight man who’s wearing a wreath and sardonically saluting one of the rose-pelted guests in the foreground. When I first wrote about Roses in a pub-zine whose name escapes me, I misidentified the overweight man as Heliogabalus himself, even though I noted that he seemed many years old than Heliogabalus, toppled as a teen tyrant, should have been. It was a bad mistake, but one that, with less knowledge and more excuse, many people must make when they look at Roses, because the overweight man and his sardonic salute are a natural focus for the eye. Once your eye has settled on and noted him, you naturally follow the direction of his gaze down to the man in the foreground, who’s gazing right back.

A comparison between Alma-Tadema's portrayal of Heliogabalus and a bust of Heliogabalus from the Musei Capitolini in Rome

Something Like the Sun

And by following that gaze, you’ve performed a little ratio-ritual, just as Alma-Tadema intended you to do. Yes, Roses is full of meaning and much of that meaning is mathematical. I think the angle of the gaze is one of many references in Roses to the golden ratio, or φ (phi), a number that is supposed to have special aesthetic importance and has certainly been used by many artists and musicians to guide their work. A rectangle with sides in the proportions 8:13, for example, approximates the golden ratio pretty closely, but φ itself is impossible to represent physically, because it’s an irrational number with infinitely many decimal digits, like π or √2, the square root of two. π represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and √2 the ratio of a square’s diagonal to its side, but no earthly circle and no earthly square can ever capture these numbers with infinite precision. Similarly, no earthly rectangle can capture φ, but the rectangle of Roses is a good attempt, because it measures 52″ x 84 1/8". That extra eighth of an inch was my first clue to the painting’s mathematical meaningfulness. And sure enough, 52/84·125 = 416/673 = 0·61812…, which is a good approximation to φ’s never-ending 0·6180339887498948482045868343656…*
A circle with radii at 0 and 222 degrees
That deliberate choice of dimensions for the canvas led me to look for more instances of φ in the painting, though one of the most important and obvious might be called a meta-presence. The Roses of Heliogabalus is dated 1888, or 1666 years after the death of Heliogabalus in 222 AD. A radius at 222º divides a circle in the golden ratio, because 222/360 = 0·616… It’s very hard to believe Alma-Tadema didn’t intend this reference and I also think there’s something significant in 1888 itself, which equals 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 59 = 25 x 59. Recall that 416 is the expanded short side of Roses. This equals 25 x 13, while 673, the expanded long side, is the first prime number after 666. As one of the most technically skilled painters who ever lived, Alma-Tadema was certainly an exceptional implicit mathematician. But he clearly had explicit mathematical knowledge too and this painting is a phi-pie cooked by a master matho-chef. In short, when Roses is read, Roses turns out to be golden.


*φ is more usually represented as 1·6180339887498948482045868343656…, but it has the pecularity that 1/φ = φ-1, so the decimal digits don’t change and 0·6180339887498948482045868343656… is also legitimate.

Appendix I

I’ve looked at more of Alma-Tadema’s paintings to see if their dimensions approximate φ, √2, √3 or π, or their reciprocals. These were the results (ε = error, i.e. the difference between the constant and the ratio of the dimensions).

The Roman Wine Tasters (1861), 50" x 69 2/3": 150/209 = 0·717… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·02)
A Roman Scribe (1865), 21 1/2" x 15 1/2": 43/31 = 1·387… ≈ √2 (ε=0·027)
A Picture Gallery (1866), 16 1/8" x 23": 129/184 = 0·701… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·012)
A Roman Dance (1866), 16 1/8" x 22 1/8": 43/59 = 0·728… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·042)
In the Peristyle (1866), 23" x 16": 23/16 = 1·437… ≈ √2 (ε=0·023)
Proclaiming Emperor Claudius (1867), 18 1/2" x 26 1/3": 111/158 = 0·702… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·009)
Phidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon Athens (1868), 29 2/3" x 42 1/3": 89/127 = 0·7… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·012)
The Education of Children of Clovis (1868), 50" x 69 2/3": 150/209 = 0·717… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·02)
An Egyptian Juggler (1870), 31" x 19 1/4": 124/77 = 1·61… ≈ φ (ε=0·007)
A Roman Art Lover (1870), 29" x 40": 29/40 = 0·725… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·034)
Good Friends (1873), 4 1/2" x 7 1/4": 18/29 = 0·62… ≈ φ (ε=0·006)
Pleading (1876), 8 1/2" x 12 3/8": 68/99 = 0·686… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·041)
An Oleander (1882), 36 1/2" x 25 1/2": 73/51 = 1·431… ≈ √2 (ε=0·017)
Dolce Far Niente (1882), 9 1/4" x 6 1/2": 37/26 = 1·423… ≈ √2 (ε=0·008)
Anthony and Cleopatra (1884), 25 3/4" x 36 1/3": 309/436 = 0·708… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·003)
Rose of All Roses (1885), 15 1/4" x 9 1/4": 61/37 = 1·648… ≈ φ (ε=0·03)
The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), 52" x 84 1/8": 416/673 = 0·618… ≈ φ (ε<0.001)
The Kiss (1891), 18" x 24 3/4": 8/11 = 0·727… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·039)
Unconscious Rivals (1893), 17 3/4" x 24 3/4": 71/99 = 0·717… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·019)
A Coign of Vantage (1895), 25 1/4" x 17 1/2": 101/70 = 1·442… ≈ √2 (ε=0·028)
A Difference of Opinion (1896), 15" x 9": 5/3 = 1·666… ≈ φ (ε=0·048)
Whispering Noon (1896), 22" x 15 1/2": 44/31 = 1·419… ≈ √2 (ε=0·005)
Her Eyes Are With Her Thoughts And Her Thoughts Are Far Away (1897), 9" x 15": 3/5 = 0·6… ≈ φ (ε=0·048)
The Baths of Caracalla (1899), 60" x 37 1/2": 8/5 = 1·6… ≈ φ (ε=0·018)
The Year’s at the Spring, All’s Right with the World (1902), 13 1/2" x 9 1/2": 27/19 = 1·421… ≈ √2 (ε=0·006)
Ask Me No More (1906), 31 1/2" x 45 1/2": 9/13 = 0·692… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·03)

Appendix II

The Roses of Heliogabalus is based on this section from Aelius Lampridius’ pseudonymous and largely apocryphal Vita Heliogabali, or Life of Heliogabalus, in the Historia Augusta (late fourth century):

XXI. 1 Canes iecineribus anserum pavit. Habuit leones et leopardos exarmatos in deliciis, quos edoctos per mansuetarios subito ad secundam et tertiam mensam iubebat accumbere ignorantibus cunctis, quod exarmati essent, ad pavorem ridiculum excitandum. 2 Misit et uvas Apamenas in praesepia equis suis et psittacis atque fasianis leones pavit et alia animalia. 3 Exhibuit et sumina apruna per dies decem tricena cottidie cum suis vulvis, pisum cum aureis, lentem cum cerauniis, fabam cum electris, orizam cum albis exhibens. 4 Albas praeterea in vicem piperis piscibus et tuberibus conspersit. 5 Oppressit in tricliniis versatilibus parasitos suos violis et floribus, sic ut animam aliqui efflaverint, cum erepere ad summum non possent. 6 Condito piscinas et solia temperavit et rosato atque absentato…

Historia Augusta: Vita Heliogabali

XXI. 1 He fed his dogs on goose-livers. He had pet lions and leopards, which had been rendered harmless and trained by tamers, and these he would suddenly order during the dessert and the after-dessert to get on the couches, thereby causing laughter and panic, for none knew that they were harmless. 2 He sent grapes from Apamea to his stables for the horses, and he fed parrots and pheasants to his lions and other beasts. 3 For ten days in a row, moreover, he served wild sows’ udders with the matrices, at a rate of thirty a day, serving, besides, peas with gold-pieces, lentils with onyx, beans with amber, and rice with pearls; 4 and he also sprinkled pearls on fish and used truffles instead of pepper. 5 In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his parasites in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top. 6 He flavoured his swimming-pools and bath-tubs with essence of spices or of roses or wormwood…

Augustan History: Life of Heliogabalus