Performativizing Papyrocentricity #71

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents…

Clive DriveUnreliable Memoirs (1980) and Always Unreliable: The Memoirs (2001), Clive James

Nou’s WhoArt Nouveau, Camilla de la Bedoyere (Flame Tree Publishing 2005)

Hit and MistletoeThrough It All I’ve Always Laughed, Count Arthur Strong (Faber & Faber 2013)

Beauties and BeastsShardik, Richard Adams (1974)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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)

Sward and Sorcery

Watership Down by Richard Adams with cover by Pauline BaynesWatership Down, Richard Adams (1972)

A book is a magical thing. Black marks on white paper create words; words conjure worlds. But the sorcery of Watership Down is remarkable even by literary standards. The world conjured here defies expectation and suspends disbelief. Richard Adams took a seemingly ludicrous subject – the adventures of a group of rabbits – and made it something that could grip the imagination and stir the emotions of readers at any age.

He did this by combining two distinct traditions of writing about animals: the realism of Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) with the fantasy of Wind in the Willows (1908) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Jack London’s animals are real and don’t speak, but Grahame and Potter turned animals into miniature humans, bringing them into our world, taming and civilizing them. Adams does the reverse: he takes us into the world of animals. He kept his rabbits wild and on all fours, sworn to the sward that they create with their teeth, but he used one piece of anthropomorphism. Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other rabbits can all talk. They have a language, Lapine, and communicate with other animals using a “very simple, limited lingua franca of the hedgerow and woodland” (Part II, ch. 20).

How else could there be a proper story? But that one piece of anthropomorphism is actually an umbrella sheltering many other things: intelligence, memory, planning, persuasion, story-telling, the ability to lie, and so on. With language, the rabbits become like a tribe of primitive humans, pre-literate, almost innumerate:

Rabbits can count up to four. Any number above that is Hrair – ‘a lot’ or ‘a thousand’. Thus they say U Hrair – ‘The Thousand’ – to mean, collectively, all the enemies (or elil, as they call them) of rabbits – fox, stoat, weasel, cat, owl, man, etc. There were probably more than five rabbits in the litter where Fiver was born, but his name, Hrairoo, means ‘Little thousand’, i.e. the little one of a lot, or, as they say of pigs, ‘the runt’. (Part I, “The Journey”, ch. 1, “The Notice Board”)

At the beginning of the book, Fiver is the unacknowledged shaman of Sandleford Warren and foresees the doom that approaches it. Unfortunately, few rabbits believe him, which is why Adams heads the first chapter with a quote from Aeschylus, Cassandra’s warning that “The house reeks of death and dripping blood.” Every other chapter has its apposite quote, ancient or modern, poetry or prose, whimsical or serious: Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Napoleon, W.H. Auden, Dr Johnson, Clausewitz, Walter de la Mare and so on. The quotes stitch Watership Down deftly into the literary canon and into history, because the book is, in part, a celebration of story-telling and the possibilities of language.

That celebration is echoed inside the book, because the narrative is broken up by stories of El-ahrairah, the rabbits’ trickster-prince and protector. He’s like Odysseus and Watership Down is like the Odyssey. It’s a cycle of folk-tales in the making. Like Odysseus, the rabbits have to rely on their cunning and their speed, tricking monsters, not directly confronting them. Their own adventures will, in time, be attributed to El-ahrairah. Without writing, they have no history and sooner or later real events will melt into myth. But that’s the natural way: writing is a mysterious and evil thing to those rabbits who can intuit its purpose:

In the livid, foggy twilight, Fiver stared at the board. As he stared, the black sticks flickered on the white surface. They raised their sharp, wedge-shaped little heads and chattered together like a nestful of young weasels. The sound, mocking and cruel, came faintly to his ears, as though muffled by sand or sacking. ‘In memory of Hazel-rah! In memory of Hazel-rah! In memory of Hazel-rah! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!’ (Part II, ch. 26, “Fiver Beyond”)

Like Tolkien in The Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings (1954-5), Adams is writing against the evils of technology and modernity; unlike Tolkien, he lists writing among those evils. A book that condemns writing is a paradox, but Adams is adopting a rabbit’s perspective. Tolkien’s books were, I’d suggest, a strong hidden influence on Watership Down. Rabbits are hole-dwellers like hobbits and the band of rabbits who set out from Sandleford Warren are rather like the Company of the Ring. Adams treats Lapine the way Tolkien treats his invented languages, using it to make us aware of the gulf across which the story comes to us:

With them was a third rabbit, Hlao – Pipkin – a friend of Fiver. (Hlao means any small concavity in the grass where moisture may collect, e.g. the dimple formed by a dandelion or thistle-cup.) (Part 1, ch. 4, “The Departure”)

Meriadoc was chosen to fit the fact that this character’s shortened name, Kali, meant in the Westron ‘jolly, gay’, though this was actually an abbreviation of the now unmeaning Buckland name Kalimac. (Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, “On Translation”)

But I think Adams is more linguistically creative and subtle than Tolkien, whose invented languages still seem like real ones: Welsh, Finnish, Old Norse and so on. Lapine isn’t reminiscent of anything familiar and some of its words – pfeffa, “cat”, and hrududu, “motor vehicle” – are cleverly simple, just the sort of onomatopoeias you can imagine a talking rabbit would use.

Cover of a recent edition of Watership Down

Cover of a recent edition of Watership Down

Lapine is also like Nadsat, the teen-speak invented by Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange (1962). Adams leaves some words of Lapine untranslated at first, letting context give them meaning, sprinkling them through the text and allowing them to sink slowly into the reader’s mind. By the end of the book, you’ll find that you can understand basic Lapine: “Siflay hraka, u embleer rah,” says Bigwig to General Woundwort and the line doesn’t need translation.

General Woundwort is the Polyphemus or Sauron of Watership Down: a rabbit almost as big as a hare, the cunning and vicious megalomaniac who leads the slave-warren Efrafra. His wickedness is on a much smaller scale than Sauron’s, of course, but that makes it more credible and so more powerful. Lord of the Rings is more ambitious than The Hobbit, which is admirable, but also less successful, which was inevitable. Bilbo sets out to slay a dragon, not save the world. The rabbits in Watership Down are unwilling refugees who want to found a permanent warren of their own. It’s a small thing within the wider world, where humans rear giant metal pylons, span rivers with bridges, and speed to and fro in hrududim, but then human affairs are small within the wider universe.

It doesn’t matter: significance is not determined by size, purpose doesn’t have to be blunted by futility. The rabbits’ instincts drive them on and their ambitions are big enough for their abilities. They don’t need more. It’s General Woundwort’s desire to be great that prevents him from being so. He’s the most human of the rabbits and so the most evil: “All other elil do what they have to do and Frith moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.” (Part II, ch. 21, “For El-ahrairah to Cry”)

Man’s restlessness and meddling are a theme Adams took up again in The Plague Dogs (1977), a novel about two dogs that escape from a research laboratory in the Lake District. It’s a weak book set beside Watership Down, written more self-consciously and less coherently. Adams doesn’t stitch literary allusions into the story: he nails them in like corrugated iron. But his sympathy for animals is still there and so is his ability to describe the world through their sharper and subtler senses. The rabbits of Watership Down are like a primitive tribe of humans, but you never forget that they aren’t actually human:

A robin on a low branch twittered a phrase and listened for another that answered to him from beyond the farmhouse. A chaffinch gave its little falling song and farther off, high in an elm, a chiff-chaff began to call. Hazel stopped and then sat up, the better to scent the air. Powerful smells of straw and cow-dung mingled with those of elm-leaves, ashes and cattle-feed. Fainter traces came to his nose as the overtones of a bell sound in a trained ear. Tobacco, naturally: a good deal of cat and rather less dog and then, suddenly and beyond doubt, rabbit. He looked at Pipkin and saw that he too had caught it. (Part II, ch. 24, “Nuthanger Farm”)

That’s describing a raid on a farm that keeps pet rabbits. Hazel wants to find some does for the warren at Watership Down, where he and his fellow hlessil – “wanderers, scratchers, vagabonds” – seem to have finally found sanctuary. They’ve come a long way through strange country, but they’ll go further and see stranger before the end of the book. Watership Down is first and foremost an adventure story, but it’s also a celebration of the English countryside: its flowers, trees, birds, streams and rivers; its sounds, scents, shapes; its delights and dangers. The rabbits have their place there, naming themselves from nature, and unlike man, with his stinks and cacophonies, they don’t desire dominion over it.

The raucous gull Kehaar, their ally in their struggle with General Woundwort and Efrafra, brings word of far-off places and the mysterious sea, but their world is room enough. It fills their senses, challenges their cunning and ingenuity, sustains them, in the end will slay them. The countryside is the biggest character, as the title suggests, and rabbits were the best way to bring that character into a book. They’re social animals, mostly warren-dwelling, occasionally wandering, and if Adams could suspend disbelief and give them language, he could conjure a world of wonders through their eyes, ears, noses and mouths.

He could and did exactly that with the help of R.M. Lockley, who wrote The Private Life of the Rabbit, the “remarkable book” on which he drew for a “knowledge of rabbits and their ways” (“Acknowledgments”). Rabbits are in fact remarkable animals, but most people won’t realize that until they read the remarkable book called Watership Down. It’s a microcosm that mirrors the macrocosm, both reflecting man and reflecting on our ways. Rabbits “don’t name the stars”, Adams tells us, but in truth they don’t name anything, because Lapine doesn’t exist. It was his great achievement to make that impossibility plausible, turning sward-munchers into adventurers, mystics and dynasts with the sorcery of words:

A few minutes later there was not a rabbit to be seen on the down. The sun sank beneath Ladle Hill and the autumn stars began to shine in the darkening east – Perseus and the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, faint Pisces and the great square of Pegasus. The wind freshened, and soon myriads of dry beech leaves were filling the ditches and hollows and blowing in gusts across the dark miles of open grass. Underground, the story continued. (Part IV, ch. 50, “And Last”)

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #40

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Humanist Hubris The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

Paw is Less – The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams (Penguin 1977)

I Like Bike – Fifty Bicycles That Changed the World, Alex Newson (Conran Octopus 2013)

Morc is LessThe Weird Shadow Over Morecambe, Edmund Glasby (Linford 2013)

Nekro-a-KokoaComfort Corps: Cuddles, Calmatives and Cosy Cups of Cocoa in the Music of Korpse-Hump Kannibale, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2015)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR