Critical Context

Fantasy tales traditionally dramatize a conflict between good and evil, whose partisans are easy to distinguish. Shardik falls into the subcategory of Christian fantasy, whose most famous predecessors for young readers are the Chronicles of Narnia. Where Lewis portrayed simplistic moral lessons, however, Richard Adams depicts the difficulties of faith and steadfastness; many characters argue that Shardik is not divine and that they have seen nothing miraculous in the story’s events. Also contributing to the characters’ believability is the fact that none, except Genshed, is entirely good or evil. Genshed represents Satan and is so evil that he enjoys converting others to evil for the demonic joy of it, but the rest display a mixture of good qualities and bad, giving the novel a deeper psychological realism than much Christian fantasy offers.

Shardik never received the popular adulation of Watership Down, being grimmer and far longer, at more than five hundred pages. Where the earlier work was more fantastic and accessible to a younger audience, however, Shardik takes a serious look at humanity’s greatest cruelties. Much post-World War II fantasy borrows directly from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and is therefore predictable and unable to frighten or involve the reader in any serious way; the happy ending is assured. Shardik leaves the reader in serious doubt that Kelderek will understand his mistakes or will deserve to escape his final crisis, the torments meted by Genshed. In this way, the book is truly suspenseful and will grip young adults, so that they care about its ultimate meaning.