A primitive civilization conquers enemy cities when they capture the legendary bear-God Shardik, but their power crumbles when the bear escapes. Shardik tells the story of Kelderek, a primitive hunter who finds a giant bear thought to be the bear-god Shardik, and details his tragic journey from peasant to conquerer to fallen priest-king as he loses control of the animal.
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One day while hunting, Kelderek finds an enormous bear injured and displaced by a forest fire. Thinking the animal to be his people's prophesied divine being, Kelderek nurses the animal back to health with the help of local priestesses. He drives the bear back to his people, the Ortelgans, to live as their object of worship. However, opportunistic warrior Ortelgans convince Kelderek to use the bear to stir their army into religious mania, dragging it in a wheeled cage on a long march to fight their enemies.
The small Ortelgan army is victorious against all they battle, finally overtaking the walled city of Bekla at the center of their country. Kelderek rules Bekla as a priest-king with Shardik caged at the center of the city for all to see and worship. Without a local economy the conquering Ortelgans reinstitute the slave trade, an act that causes enemy assassins to hatch a plot against Kelderek and his bear. The bear is injured and escapes the city. A wounded Kelderek follows him, tracking him for miles until he is far away from his city.
Kelderek tracks the bear for weeks as it tries to return to its home in the faraway mountains. He encounters much opposition until finally he is captured, sick and exhausted, by Genshed, a dealer in child slaves. Kelderek is led in chains for days as the wicked Genshed brutalizes the children he is trying to sell. Kelderek witnesses the true cost of the slave industry he helped reinvigorate. When all seems lost, the party encounters the dying Shardik. Genshed fatally wounds the bear with arrows but is overtaken and killed by Shardik with the last of the animal's strength. His god dead and his kingdom fallen, Kelderek makes a home for himself in exile, marrying and providing sanctuary for the surviving slave children of the Ortelgan empire.
Best part of story, including ending:
I love the book's insights on how human notions of religion, good, evil, and nationalism motivate them to actions that seem greater than they are capable.
Best scene in story:
The first battle that the Ortelgans win is incredibly dramatic and suspenseful. Their destruction seems unavoidable, but Richard Adams writes a victory that is believable and awe-inspiring.
Opinion about the main character:
Kelderek is idealistic to a fault. Even when he sees the folly of his actions, he plays the part of the religious ruler to the destruction of himself and his people.