Adams's second novel Shardik concerns a lonely hunter, Kelderek, who pursues Shardik, a giant bear he believes to embody the Power of God. Both Kelderek and Shardik become unwillingly drawn into the politics of an imaginary region called the Beklan Empire. This setting stands in sharp contrast to the rural England of Adams's first book, Watership Down.
Adams, famous for writing stories from animals' point of view (Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, and Traveller), here creates a story in which the animal, Shardik the Great Bear, is an antagonistic force that generates the entire plot and yet whose status remains ambiguous. The bear's point of view is narrated to the reader in the first chapter only, as a confused action sequence in which he flees a forest fire. This flight brings him to the channel island of Ortelga, whose natives are members of a cult that has waited for an unspecified, uncountable number of years for the return of a gigantic bear that embodies God's divine might. Kelderek and the others immediately determine this bear to be that embodiment. Shardik is never confirmed to be divine, remaining an enigma for the characters and readers to impose their views upon.
Adams' preface states, "Lest any should suppose that I set my wits to work to invent the cruelties of Genshed [the slave trader], I say here that all lie within my knowledge and some – would they did not – within my experience", which may refer to certain anecdotes recounted in his autobiography, The Day Gone By.
Kelderek is a young hunter nicknamed "Play-with-the-Children" because of his simple nature and love of small children. In the forest near his home on the river island of Ortelga, he sees an enormous bear. When a tremendous fire ravaged the forest, the bear managed to flee, to be found almost dead by Kelderek. The Ortelgans worship the bear-god Shardik and once ruled the entire territory now known as the Beklan Empire, but their territory and religion are now limited to a small barony of river-islands on the empire's outskirts.
Convinced that this bear is an incarnation of Shardik, Kelderek communicates this belief to the local priests and barons, eventually resulting in a military campaign to retake Bekla. The bear is sedated and caged by the priestesses to be carried forward with the Ortelgans but awakens from his slumber during a battle they are losing; as if in divine intervention, he breaks free, crushing the opposing army.
Shardik's worship is restored to central prominence in Bekla with Kelderek as the high priest to the recaged bear, but temporal power is held by the military barons. Still idealistic and unworldly, Kelderek is dismayed by the brutality and corruption that quickly surrounds him. When the bear escapes and flees again, it is Kelderek alone who follows in pursuit. The two of them stagger through the wilderness for a long time. Behind them, the capital city is torn apart by factions of rebels, and lawless chaos spreads through the entire empire.
On the brink of madness after days alone with no sleep, Kelderek follows the bear to a mysterious place called the Streels of Urtah. Here, Shardik enters one of the ravines comprising the Streels, and is presumed dead. A shepherd (later revealed as a guardian of the Streels) informs Kelderek that any who enter there are beings of great evil who are destined to die, with one past exception: a woman who entered the Streels but was able to climb out again, doomed to die horribly but by her death bring about greatness. This woman gave birth to a son as she left the Streels, a son who later grew to be a great hero who led the ancient overthrow of the Ortelgans from Bekla. As this story is told, Shardik emerges from the ravine and flees again into the woods.
Kelderek continues to follow Shardik, meeting many foes along the way, until he reaches Zeray, an outlaw town beyond the borders of civilisation. Here he re-encounters Melathys, a former priestess of Shardik. Having lost Shardik and his faith, Kelderek is captured by Genshed, a cruel slave-trader who already has a large group of children to eventually sell but is meanwhile tormenting them for his own amusement. Treating the children with his customary kindness, Kelderek is mocked and threatened by Genshed, who is on the point of killing him when Shardik erupts from the woods, mad and half-starved. The bear attacks Genshed, mortally wounding him before itself collapsing in the river. Kelderek, his faith and kindness restored but now tempered with knowledge of the world, returns to the town of Zeray with the children and attempts to re-establish a lawful society.
The epilogue skips forward a number of years. It is told from the perspective of a newcomer from Zakalon, a distant kingdom to the east of Bekla. This man, Siristrou, is the leader of the first embassy from Zakalon sent to reciprocate the first visit of a Beklan to their country. The formerly lawless border town is now the home of hundreds of orphans and refugees working together to build a better future. Kelderek is its mayor, widely regarded as a fair and wise leader, and is married to his love, Melathys. Kelderek takes the traveller into his home and tells him of the bear Shardik, now known as a great animal who taught the people of the land the meaning of both kindness and hardship. In the final passages, Siristrou stirs the logs in the fireplace and plays a game of spotting images in the flames: an island, a glowing knife, a barred cage, an old woman, a deep ravine, a shaggy bear; he recognises these images in turn, and finally remarks "That's a beautiful fire."
Shardik is the only non-human character in the book, an enormous bear more than twice as high as a man, with huge curved claws longer than a man's head. Unlike the animals in Adams' earlier book Watership Down, Shardik does not speak or appear to have conscious thought, and apart from the opening sequence the story is not told from his perspective. Shardik first appears in the opening chapters, when a forest fire forces him out of the wild lands north of the River Telthearna onto the island of Ortelga. There he is first encountered by the hunter Kelderek, whom he saves (apparently accidentally) from a leopard by killing the leopard with one swipe of his enormous paw. Kelderek goes then to tell the high priest of his people, the Tuginda about the huge bear which he believes to be a reincarnation of the divine bear Lord Shardik, come to save the Ortelgan people. It is never made clear in the book whether this is in fact true, and all of Shardik's behaviour can be explained as simply the natural actions of a very large and savage bear. Nevertheless, Shardik's actions do regularly set in train various events which Kelderek and others interpret as signs of his divine intervention.
After explaining what he has seen, Kelderek returns with the Tuginda and her priestesses to the place where Shardik was first spotted. Close by they find him dying of exhaustion and the severe burns which he incurred from the fire. At some risk to their own lives they treat Shardik and he recovers quickly. They then follow him as he goes about the island, seeking to divine his will and purpose. Shardik is very hungry by now and attacks the town at the eastern end of the island, somehow knowing to circumvent its defences on land by swimming out into the river and swimming back to it. After eating his fill from the town's supplies, Shardik leaves the town in uproar behind him and crosses a disused causeway to the mainland, heading south. Having seen Shardik's enormous size the Ortelgans believe in his divine status, and led by a young baron called Ta-Kominion they set out to follow Shardik, convinced that he is leading them to victory over the Beklan empire. Ta-Kominion persuades Kelderek that Shardik must be drugged and put in a cage to follow the troops and this is accomplished at the cost of the life of Rantzay, one of the Tuginda's priestesses. However, Shardik is not long in the cage before he reawakens and those hauling the cage lose control of it, just as the first battle with the Beklans commences. The cage goes careening onto the battlefield just when it appears the Beklans have the upper hand and bursts open right in front of the Beklan commander Gel-Ethlin. Shardik emerges in a rage, foaming at the mouth and dripping with blood from wounds caused by the cage and immediately strikes down Gel-Ethlin and his second-in-command before ploughing his way up the battlefield, slaughtering all before him. The terrified Beklans surrender in confusion and the ecstatic Ortelgans, convinced god is on their side, march on to Bekla, capital of the empire and capture it shortly afterwards.
After his escape Shardik travels to a remote region and is recaptured with some trouble by Kelderek and housed in a barred enclosure in the centre of Bekla city. The capture of Shardik exhausted him and the chains used to hold him left wounds, with the result that Shardik now has a limp. His incarceration has also left him sullen and lethargic and afflicted with worms and canker. Nevertheless he is still very powerful and when a live coal is thrown into his cage by the rebel baron Elleroth, he has enough strength to break down the bars and escape. Leaving by a gate in the outer wall left open by Elleroth, Shardik is able to leave the city entirely and heads north with Kelderek in tow. By the time Kelderek loses him in the far north, Shardik has lost a lot of his strength, and when Kelderek finds him again the wild region of Transvrako, Shardik is dying. Kelderek is captured by the slave trader Genshed, and loses Shardik again for a while, but eventually Shardik and Genshed come face to face in the jungle. Shardik by now is a shadow of his former self, gaunt and misshapen, with mangy fur and a wounded claw. Genshed makes the mistake of believing that Shardik is no longer a threat and shoots him in the face with a flaming arrow, intending to kill him. Now on fire Shardik pursues Genshed and when the slave trader hides under a rock, Shardik uses the last of his strength to split it open and rip Genshed to pieces with his claws. Shardik then finally dies. Kelderek interprets his death to mean that Shardik intended to save the enslaved children and renames him "Shardik-Die-For-the-Children". Kelderek and the priestess Melathys then set Shardik's body on a funeral pyre on a raft, and the last we see of Shardik is his burning body floating down the river, cradling in its fore-paws a slave girl who had earlier died at Genshed's hands.
Kelderek is the main protagonist in the story. The book begins with him as a young hunter who is called Kelderek Zenzuata or "Kelderek Play-With-The-Children" because he seldom socializes with other people his age but instead prefers to play with the children of Ortelga, especially a game called "Cat Catch a Fish." Soon after seeing the enormous bear, he goes to the Ortelgan temple-island of Quiso to tell the Tuginda that Shardik, the divine bear in which is invested the power of God, has returned as prophesied. Together he, the Tuginda, and her priestesses nurse Shardik back to health and follow him when he raids the settlement of the Ortelgans. Shardik's sudden appearance there means that the Ortelgans believe in his powers, and the young baron Ta-Kominion seizes power from the existing leader, the baron Bel-ka-Trazet, and leads the Ortelgans on a military campaign to reclaim the rule of the Beklan empire. Ta-Kominion persuades Kelderek that Shardik must be put in a cage so that he can be brought along with the troops to rally them to the cause. When the Tuginda disagrees with this Ta-Kominion has her imprisoned back on Quiso. Kelderek goes along with this strategy as he is afraid of appearing as a coward, and so Shardik is drugged and placed in a cage. This decision by Kelderek to agree to imprison Shardik and use him to gain power is the crucial mistake from which all the evils which follow flow.
At first the strategy appears to work as Shardik bursts from the cage at a crucial stage in the first battle with the Beklans and scatters them in terror. As a result the Ortelgans are fired up with crusading zeal and carry on to take Bekla (capital of the empire) and control of the empire shortly afterward. Kelderek becomes the priest king of Bekla and stylizes his name as Crendrik, the "Eye of God" . He searches for Shardik who has escaped to a remote region and brings him back to Bekla, imprisoning him in a barred enclosure. He feels this is necessary to legitimize his rule, although he never appears to have any qualms about the cruelty this is inflicting on Shardik who is visibly wasting away. Instead, Kelderek becomes obsessed with the idea that Shardik will reveal the great secret purpose of his power to him, and spends much of his days beside the bear, watching him through the bars. Although Kelderek is king of Bekla, this is more of an honorary title and real control rests with his generals who control the military. Nevertheless, Kelderek has real powers over trade policy and it is his decision to revive the slave trade in order to gain revenues for Bekla to fund their fight against the southern rebels who are resisting Ortelgan rule. The slavery also includes children, and so Kelderek Play-With-The-Children ends up enslaving them.
Kelderek's rule comes to an abrupt end when Elleroth, a rebel baron manages to engineer Shardik's escape. Kelderek feels bound to follow him and so begins a harrowing journey northwards, as Shardik flees from Bekla and tries to return to his ancestral homeland. Shardik moves north relentlessly and Kelderek has no time to stop or rest as he is afraid of losing him. Eventually however, he does lose Shardik, and ends up on the original battlefield where the Ortelgans first defeated the Beklans. By now he is so exhausted that he temporarily loses his wits and becomes a ragged vagabond, forgetting who he is and what he was doing. He is captured by troops loyal to Elleroth, who expels him into the wilds of the Transvrako region, warning him never to return. Kelderek wanders there aimlessly until he is rescued by the Tuginda. Together they are also reunited with Melathys when they reach the border town of Zeray. Romance starts to blossom between Kelderek and Melathys, but before anything has a chance to happen, Kelderek is captured by the slave trader Genshed while out looking for Shardik who has reappeared in the jungle nearby. Kelderek thus lives the full suffering of the child slaves and finally sees the full error of his ways. When Shardik later kills Genshed, Kelderek becomes convinced that this reveals the true purpose of Shardik's presence - that all homeless or abandoned children must be cared for, and that no child must be left to suffer. After he and Melathys are reunited he becomes governor of Zeray, and together they make it a haven where all children can be cared for and made safe.
Melathys was born on a slave farm in the Beklan Empire. When she was a small child, the Beklan army captured and emancipated the farm, but a wounded soldier brought Melathys with him to Quiso and offered her as a novice to the priestesses of Shardik, hoping that the Tuginda could heal his battle injuries. (Melathys at this age has a brief cameo in Adams' other Beklan book, Maia.)
When Kelderek comes to Quiso with news of the divine bear, Melathys is still a young woman, but already second in authority only to the Tuginda. However, when a small party (including Kelderek, the Tuginda, and Melathys) find the bear, it is of such a frightening size and ferocity that she loses confidence and runs off, effectively abdicating her position as priestess.
Melathys remains largely absent until the end of the story. Weak and destitute, Kelderek and the Tuginda find her in the rogue town of Zeray. Shardik is missing and all three are quite vulnerable to various brutes, murderers, and other undesirables. Since leaving the others, Melathys had fled here and briefly allied herself with Bel-ka-Trazet, a former High Baron of Ortelga who had resisted the identification of Kelderek's bear with the divine Shardik, and who briefly introduced some organization and justice to the town. Illness has since claimed him, though, and she fears that soon Zeray will lose the small amount of order the Baron had added and that she will soon die. The three live in the Baron's house under the protection of his bodyguard, Ankray. The ailing Tuginda also forgives Melathys for her betrayal.
However, news that Shardik is nearby soon reaches the group. Kelderek sets out to find him while Melathys stays behind to take care of the Tuginda. Finally, the rebel baron Santil-kè-Erketlis leads his army into Zeray, making it safe enough to leave the Tuginda with them and reach Kelderek with a smaller detachment. She finds him, with Shardik dead and having suffered greatly after being captured by the slave trader Genshed. Invited by the Southern aristocrat Elleroth, Kelderek and Melathys take up the governance of Zeray and the surrounding country of the Transvrako, which the South has plans to civilize and through it extend contact with neighboring empires. They live out the remainder of their lives in Zeray, leading humble lives and carrying out the divine duty of serving children they believe Shardik showed to them.
High Priestess of the cult of Shardik, she opposes the capture of Shardik for the purposes of aiding the conquest of Bekla, and so is exiled as a prisoner by Ta-Komininion (with Kelderek's consent) to the island of Quiso. When she hears of Shardik's escape from Bekla she leaves the island and sets out in search of him, entering the wild region of Transvrako and caring for an outlaw called Ruvit while she searches. Later Ruvit comes across Kelderek after his banishment into the transvrako and takes him to the Tuginda. After her initial shock she effectively forgives Kelderek his mistakes, even though he cannot bring himself to apologise to her for his betrayal. Together she and Kelderek set out to search for Shardik and so come to the lawless border town of Zeray. There they meet Melathys who has fled there after her failure to serve Shardik when he was first discovered. She restores Melathys' faith in her own ability as a priestess by forgiving her also. By now she is ill and weak and can take no further active part in proceedings, but she designates Melathys to act on her behalf as effectively her successor.
High Baron of the Ortelgans when Shardik is first discovered. He is first depicted as a cruel ruler, who has no faith in Shardik and seeks to have him killed. Part of the reason for this is that Bel-ka-Trazet was himself horribly mutilated by a bear when he was a young hunter. Later he emerges as a more sympathetic character who rules the lawless outpost of Zeray with some measure of justness and has the vision to try to turn it into a flourishing trading post. He also treats Melathys with respect when she seeks refuge with him in Zeray.
Young baron who seizes power from Bel-ka-Trazet and directs the campaign to take Bekla for the Ortelgans in the early stages. Although he believes in Shardik's power, he interprets the bear solely as a sign of military victory by the Ortelgans over their enemies. He persuades Kelderek to have Shardik drugged and put in a cage to help rally the troops, implying Kelderek is a coward when he hesitates about it. He also has the Tuginda chained and imprisoned when she refuses to agree to this strategy. Crucially Kelderek is too afraid of being called a coward to object to this ill treatment. Ta-Kominion is injured in battle but refuses medical attention as he is convinced that there is not sufuicient time for him to rest. His wounds turn septic and he becomes delirious, finally collapsing at the side of the road as the first and crucial battle with the Beklans begins. Symbolically Shardik's cage breaks free from its handlers and crushes him to death under its wheels as it careers downward onto the battlefield before bursting apart. The enraged Shardik kills the enemy commander and slaughters many before disappearing, giving victory to the Ortelgans as the Beklans flee in terror. Ta-Kominion's interpretation of Shardik as a symbol of military power, and Kelderek's acceptance of this against the beliefs of the Tuginda, is the crucial mistake from which the evil of child slavery eventually flows.
Baron of the southern province of Yeldashay. He remains loyal of the Ortelgans on the surface, but is actually working for the rebel baron Santil-kè-Erketlis who opposes Ortelgan rule. His main motivation for opposition to the Ortelgans is the fact that they have legalised slavery throughout the empire, and especially child slavery. His own child Radu was in fact stolen by the child slaver Genshed. Elleroth attempts to kill Shardik, and is condemned to death by Kelderek as a result. Kelderek however, makes the mistake of arranging the execution of Elleroth in front of Shardik's cage and so Elleroth turns the tables by making a speech which shames Kelderek in front of the leaders of Bekla. He then grabs a live coal out of a brazier beside him and before anyone can stop him he throws the coal into Shardik's cages where it catches fire on straw. A terrified Shardik breaks out of the cage and in the ensuing chaos Elleroth escapes. Elleroth (now called Elleroth One-Hand on account of his burned hand) plays a prominent role in the successful rebellion against Beklan rule that follows and later captures Kelderek when he has become a wandering vagabond. He spares Kelderek's life because he believes that Kelderek is doomed to die anyway, having come out of the Streels of Urtah. In the end he is reconciled to Kelderek because of the part that Kelderek plays in the rescue of his son Radu, and he makes Kelderek governor of the town of Zeray.
Baron who leads the rebellion against Ortelgan rule. He is an excellent military leader and succeeds in forcing the Ortelgans to recognise his rule over the southern provinces of what was the Ortelgan empire, and also rule over the province of Transvrako in the north. He directed Elleroth in his successful rebellion against Kelderek.
Illegal child slave trader. Although Genshed operates illegally, the legalisation of the slave trade by Kelderek means that he can sell children on the black market as the rules are not enforced. Genshed is a psychopath, whose sadistic treatment of his slave children goes far beyond any harsh but 'necessary' disciplining. He takes particular pleasure in corrupting the older children into his service as overseers, by giving them preferential treatment in return for them inflicting cruelties on the younger children. He kills any child who is too sick or weak to travel and tells the other children that they have gone to 'Leg-by-Lee'. He has Elleroth's son Radu as one of his slaves and later captures Kelderek (hoping to ransom him), so that he too undergoes the suffering of the slave children. Genshed is ultimately responsible for killing Shardik (although the bear is dying already) by firing a flaming arrow into his face. An enraged Shardik kills Genshed in turn before he dies, essentially by ripping his face off.
Siristrou is a metaphysician from the empire of Zakalon and the first "ambassador" to the Beklan Empire.
Quiso is a small island in the river Telthearna, just east of Ortelga. It is the home of the Tuginda, her priestesses, and other women who constitute the cult of Shardik.
The island is narrow, and roughly elliptical, oriented in with its upstream extremity pointed northwest and its downstream extremity southeast. It consists mostly of beaches and a large, central mountain where the Tuginda and her women dwell. Part of the north face of the mountain was carved into a series of enormous, steplike ledges, which converge on a single point at their base. Near the northern extremity of the island is a quarry where much of the stone that makes up the architecture of the island was mined.
Zakalon is an empire similar to ancient Persia neighboring the Beklan Empire. As it is revealed near the end of the novel, little is known of Zakalon. It appears to be a kingdom far more advanced than the Beklan Empire, with a dazzling capital, studies in metaphysics (and presumably other areas of philosophy), and horses, of which the citizens of the Beklan Empire were previously unaware.
Deelguy is a kingdom of traders and merchants to the north-east of the Beklan Empire. The frontiers of Deelguy are a matter of dispute, however it is usually accepted that the territory belonging to the country includes the semi-desert land, known as the Deelguy Desert, lying to the east of the Telthearna River.
Adams later wrote a novel called Maia that takes place earlier in the same world. Several characters appear in both novels.