Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #26: H. Rider Haggard

Categories change. If Sir Henry Rider Haggard were writing today, some of his books would be marketed as fantasy, others as thrillers, or historical fiction. My own copies of his books are divided about evenly between those reprinted (and shelved) as mainstream novels and those reprinted as fantasy.

Haggard wrote adventure fiction. At a time when the unexplored portions of the map were rapidly being filled in, he was populating the remaining mystery areas with the remnants of lost civilizations and lost continents, with ancient lovers chasing each other from incarnation to incarnation, ancient magics and ancient curses. And he was doing this in the 1880s (as well as for the four decades that followed), which is to say that he was *originating* many of these now-common devices.

Haggard's books display the paradoxical attractions of the best genre classics: They retain much of their power, wonder, and freshness, but they also have to be appreciated as period pieces which could not have been published had they been written today. Too many conventions have changed. Fair enough: Those are the terms upon which we can appreciate Verne and Wells and Kipling, too. Like their books, those of Henry Rider Haggard can be enjoyed as long as the reader doesn't insist on thinking less of the author for not being born a century later. In Haggard's world, as in Kipling's, nobility, courage, and honor were not the property of any one race -- but God was definitely English.

"King Solomon's Mines" (***) is where it began. Haggard dashed it off in 1885 on a bet (that he could write something half as good as "Treasure Island") and it made an astonishing splash. The book introduces us to AllanQuatermain, the canny white hunter who was Haggard's most frequently returned-to character, who is engaged by a Sir Henry Curtis to help find his brother -- and perhaps the fabled diamond mines for which the brother was searching. As in "Treasure Island", there is a map, and it leads the party into an unexplored corner of Africa, where the treasures of King Solomon are guarded by dangerous natives -- and a far more dangerous witch. "King Solomon's Mines" is the best known of Haggard's works, both as a book and as a movie.

Haggard was to return to this lost-civilization-adventure formula several times, and with increasing skill. "Allan Quatermain" (***) is the last (chronologically) and best of the Quatermain novels. The book reunites him with his companions from "King Solomon's Mines", as well as with Umslopogaas, a Zulu who is prominent in several other novels. In this novel, written a couple of years after "King Solomon's Mines", the party seeks and finds a lost white civilization in the heart of Africa, and becomes enmeshed in its intrigues. Much of what follows is cliche -- today -- the handsome hero, the sister queens, jealousy, civil war, treachery, and heroic last stands. But it wasn't cliche then, so the writer was able to tell the story powerfully and without self-consciousness. "The People of the Mist" (***), written a few years later, is an even more skillful working of the lost-civilization adventure.

"She" (***+) is my favourite of Haggard's books. It is also the one in which he crosses the line between adventure fiction and fantasy. The tale begins in a manner appropriate for a public that was intoxicated by the great archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth century, with a potsherd that has been passed down within a single family for over two thousand years --a potsherd upon which a fantastic tale is engraved -- along with whatever translations and annotations have accrued over that time. The original inscriber tells of Kallikrates and Amenartas of Egypt, and of an immortal sorceress who loved Kallikrates and slew him. Followup notations tell ofdescendents who tried to seek out the land of that sorceress (and the secret of her immortality) and failed. Needless to say, the latest of these descendents also makes the attempt. He and his companions find the immortal Ayesha -- She-who-must-be-obeyed -- who recognizes him as Kallikrates reborn. They, in turn, find wonders which so many later authors, taking their inspiration from Haggard, would turn into commonplaces, including the remains of a great prehistoric civilization and its lost secrets.

"She" ended unhappily, but the lovers got a second chance when Haggard eventually wrote a sequel, imaginatively titled "The Return of She: Ayesha" (**+), which takes the adventurers to a lost city in central Asia in search of Ayesha. Completists may also read "Wisdom's Daughter" (**-), a prequel which fills in Ayesha's own story. I wouldn't bother. There's also "She and Allan" (**), a solid but unremarkable book Haggard used to get his two best characters into the same story.

Haggard also brought his unique style to bear on historical material. My personal favorite among these works is "Montezuma's Daughter" (***), about an Englishman who follows a Spanish enemy to the New World, and takes theAztecs' side. I'm not sure whether the books placed in the Africa of earlier in the nineteenth century should count as historical fiction or as adventure fiction (if it matters). One of particular interest is "Nada the Lily" (**+), which tells of a brother and sister whose tribe got in the way of the Zulus' slightly genocidal empire-building, and of the youth of Umslopogaas, who appears most notably in "Allan Quatermain". The novel is unusual for its time in having an all-black cast.

"The World's Desire" (**), coauthored with Andrew Lang (best known for "The <your favorite color here> Fairy Book"), is a story of Oddyseus, who returns to Ithaca from one restless trip too many, to find his home destroyed. Aphrodite orders him to Egypt, to seek out the immortal Helen (whom, you will recall, he wooed before settling for Penelope). It's not one of Haggard's better books, but it's important for the kind of fantasy it pioneered. I'd say the same about "Eric Brighteyes" (**), a tale patterned on the Norse sagas which were only then being translated for the English public. And, if I'm listing books which are more noteworthy for their contributions to the genre than for how enjoyable they are today, I shouldn't omit "When the World Shook" (*+), which gave us another staple of the genre -- a pre-historic high-tech civilization, whose last survivors are in suspended animation. (It's done with radium, of course. There was a stretch of several decades in which 'radium' was the automatic pseudo-science explanation for anything. Well, okay, Mark Twain used uranium...)

The sheer volume, variety and originality of Haggard's writing threatensto make this review unmanageable, and prevents me from doing justice to the plot of any one book. I hope I've at least done justice to his originality: My brief descriptions of some of his books undoubtedly reminded you of many subsequently written novels with similar plots or themes -- but of few if any earlier ones. And the best of these books are not simply historical curiosities, but skillfully written novels that still give pleasure today.

%A Haggard, Sir Henry Rider
%T King Solomon's Mines
%T Allan Quatermain
%T The People of the Mist
%T She
%T The Return of She: Ayesha
%T Wisdom's Daughter
%T She and Allan
%T Montezuma's Daughter
%T Nada the Lily
%T The World's Desire
%T Eric Brighteyes
%T When the World Shook


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Dani Zweig