Why I Am a Christian

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Re-introducing a Great Adventure Writer

     One is hard pressed to find even a copy of H. G. Wells in my local suburban library, but when I was a teenager in the 1960s it was a source of hardback copies of lots of older writers, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Baroness Orczy, R. M. Ballantyne - and H. Rider Haggard. One day, my mother brought me home a book by the last author, Nada the Lily. At once I was immersed in a larger than life milieu: the bloody world of the Zulu king, Shaka, "the black Napoleon". I thrilled to the exploits of the invincible hero, Umslopogaas, who wielded a great axe, who roamed the veldt with his friend, Galazi, at the head of a pack of "wolves" (ie hyenas), and who loved the beautiful Zulu maiden, Nada. It left me with two ambitions: to learn more about this phase of African history and, most of all, to read more of the author. Over the following 50+ years, I have scoured libraries, secondhand book shops, and lately reprint publishers, and have just completed the twenty ninth.
     However, I have noticed that H. Rider Haggard appears to have dropped off many people's radar by now. Even my son-in-law, who grew up in South Africa, had never heard of him. In fact, I read on a now extinct website that most of his fans are people like me: baby boomers who were introduced to him by an earlier generation. In that case, it is time to pass the torch and reintroduce one of my favourite authors to a new generation.
     Even if you have never heard his name before, you probably know the titles of two of his novels, for they have never been out of print: King Solomon's Mines and She. Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1856 - 1925) was one of the most popular writers of exotic adventure stories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He introduced readers to the romance of the dark continent and, although he was not the originator of the "lost race" genre of fiction, he was certainly its chief proponent.
     The turning point of his life occurred at the age of nineteen, when his father, who considered him a "dunderhead" got him appointed to the staff of the Governor of the British colony of Natal in 1875. By the time he returned to England permanently in 1881, it was with a lasting passion for Africa, and a respect for its native races, or at least the Zulus. As he put it in The Ghost Kings (1908):
We whites are apt to consider ourselves the superior of such people, whereas we are only different. In fact, taken altogether, it is quite a question whether the higher sections of the Bantu are not our equals. Of course, we have learned more things, and our best men are their betters. But, on the other hand, among them there is nothing so low as the inhabitants of our slums, nor have they any vices which can surpass our vices. Is an assegai is so much more savage than a shell? Is there any great gulf fixed between a Chaka and a Napoleon? At least they are not hypocrites, and they are not vulgar; that is the privilege of civilized nations.
     It is also a privilege of our uneducated intelligentsia to assume that anybody who wrote during the height of the British Empire must somehow be contaminated with racism, and that their own prejudices about the world are the only views which can be taken seriously.
     Haggard returned to England briefly during the period 1879/1880, and brought back a wife whom he had acquired on the rebound. His first fiancée had married someone else. Indeed, it is not hard to see in these romantic entanglements the genesis of certain recurrent themes in his fiction: tragic lovers doomed to be parted and, in contrast, triangles involving a man and two women. In any case, a man does not easily forget his first love. More than a quarter of a century later he was called upon to help her when she was deserted by her husband, and was suffering from the syphilis with which he had infected her.
     Meanwhile, back in England, Haggard's first book was non-fiction: Cetewayo and His White Neighbours, Cetewayo being the then spelling of Cetshwayo, the Zulu king. Two novels followed, which acquired publishers, but only moderate sales. It was with novel number 3 that he hit paydirt. Having expressed a low opinion of Treasure Island, he accepted his brother's wager of a shilling that he couldn't write anything half as good. Never, apparently, having suffered from writer's block, Haggard put pen to paper while not at his day job, and after six weeks, the result was King Solomon's Mines.
     Now we come to an episode that should encourage frustrated authors, as well as make us wonder how many masterpieces are lost because of the short-sightedness of editors. The manuscript was rejected by half the publishers in England. At last, however, it was read by Andrew Lang, who presented it to the publisher of Treasure Island. He liked it - and offered Haggard £100 for the copyright in lieu of 10% royalties. Now, in those days the wages of a farm labourer were a mere pound a week, so £100 was not to be sneezed at. However, a clerk whispered to him that it would be better to take the royalties. He was right. By Christmas he had earned £750 - as well, no doubt, as his brother's shilling. In the first year it sold 31,000 copies, as against 12,000 for the first three years of Treasure Island. In his lifetime it ran up 650,000 copies.
     What's it about? It is narrated by a grizzled, 60-year-old professional elephant hunter, Allan Quatermain, whose name was borrowed from a farmer Haggard once knew, but whose character, despite what you may read elsewhere, was not based on Frederick Selous, whom the author had not even met at the time. (But there would have been many a man in South Africa at the time who could have served as a model.) Quatermain is enlisted by Captain John Good and Sir Henry Curtis to lead them into the interior in search of the Phoenician mines whence King Solomon had acquired his gold. On the way, they must deal with the Kukuanas, a tribe obviously modeled on the Zulus.
     The inspiration for the story is clearly the recent discovery of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, attributed by many to the Phoenicians, or even the Queen of Sheba. When I saw it, my first impression was the primitiveness of its construction, and the lack of inscriptions - but I was operating from hindsight. Nowadays we know that Great Zimbabwe was a Bantu construction, almost certainly made by the ancestors of the present day inhabitants, and that its most amazing feature was the political structure necessary to create it. But that wasn't obvious at first, and we should not condemn our forebears for not seeing it. After all, the contemporary natives were producing nothing like it. Also, the study of archaeology at the time was infused with strong diffusionist views: the idea that civilisation spread from a limited number of sources, and downplayed the ability of other cultures to develop independently - our own northern European ancestors as well as sub-Saharan Africans.
     In any case, King Solomon's Mines kick-started the movement of writers of lesser imagination to produce novels of lost civilisations and lost races in the unknown corners of the earth, and the genre did not peter out until the 1960s, by which time the blank spaces of the map had also petered out.
     That was in 1885. Next year came the Big Blockbuster: She. Written in white heat over six weeks with hardly any rest (his own words), it has gone on to sell an estimated 100 million copies to date. In a few words it is not possible to do justice to the imaginative scope of this novel. Narrated by Horace Holly, the ugly mentor of the handsome Leo Vincey, it tells how an ancient text leads them into the interior of Africa, where they discover the ruins of a dead civilisation older and more advanced than that of Egypt, now occupied by a debased race ruled by a mysterious white goddess known as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. The goddess turns out to be an incredibly beautiful Arabian called Ayesha, who has found the secret of immortality, and who has been waiting 24 centuries for her slain lover to return to her reincarnated. Leo Vincey is immediately recognized as the one, and she offers to share her immortality with him. But things don't quite work out as planned.
     Now here is a bit of trivia you probably won't read elsewhere, but when Haggard chose the name, Ayesha from the name of Muhammad's youngest wife, he didn't know how appropriate it was. In Arabic, it means "living". However, he was wrong to claim that it should be pronounced "Assha", even in Muhammad's (and Ayesha's) Meccan dialect, which converts internal glottal stops into semivowels. In "proper" Arabic, the name is Ā’ishah, but if she were really 11 centuries older than Muhammad, she would probably have called herself Ā’ishatu.
     The following year saw Allan Quatermain, the sequel to King Solomon's Mines. This time the intrepid trio, along with a Zulu retainer, journey down an underground river to discover a country the size of France inhabited by a white people called the Zu-Vendis, and ruled by two beautiful sisters, both of whom fall in love with Sir Henry Curtis. In the ensuing civil war both Quatermain and their African retainer lose their lives.
     And who was this African retainer? In 1877 the young Rider Haggard had accompanied Sir Theophilus Shepstone in his abortive annexation of the Transvaal, even personally reading out the declaration of annexation. At the time, one of his most impressive companions was a sixty-year-old son of the Swazi king, a stalwart warrior called uMhlopekazi, described by Haggard as a
tall, thin, fierce-faced fellow with a great hole above the left temple over which the skin pulsated, that he had come by in some battle. He said that he had killed ten men in single combat . . . always making use of a battle-axe.
     He called the axe Inkosikaas, or queen, and treated it like a wife. In battle he tended to strike with the spike on the reverse side of the blade, hence its alternative name of Woodpecker. Despite his warrior past, he was fated to die in bed in 1897, at the probable age of eighty. He was buried in the  native cemetery, which is believed to now be covered by the Clarendon Primary School at Pietermaritzburg.
      Well, apart from changing his nationality to Zulu, Haggard wrote him into the story exactly, even using the same name, which he spelled Umslopogaas. (The spelling of Zulu and Swazi had not been standardised at that period.) And yes, this was the same Umslopogaas whose youthful exploits were described in Nada the Lily.
     Needless to say, Allan Quatermain's fans were no more pleased with their hero being killed off than were Sherlock Holmes'. The author produced two "prequels", and then announced that that was the end. So he thought!
     In total, Haggard produced 54 novels, as well as several non-fiction works. Most of the former was adventure stories, some set in Africa, some of the lost race genre, some of both. Others contained no adventure at all, but were simply love stories, albeit generally more complicated and darker than those produced by women. But others took the reader far afield, and reveal the breadth of imagination and scholarship of the man whose father called him a dunderhead: Cleopatra, told from the point of view of a claimant to the throne who was a descendant of the Pharoahs, Eric Brighteyes, written in the style of an Icelandic saga, Montezuma's Daughter (an Englishman at the time of Cortes' conquest of Mexico), Virgin of the Sun (an Englishman in pre-Columbian Peru!), Red Eve, set during the Hundred Years War and the Black Death, Fair Margaret, in the days of Henry VII, and The Brethren, set during the Crusades.
     Haggard had always wanted to set the sequel to She twenty years later so, incredibly, he waited nineteen years before producing Ayesha, or The Return of She. Then, in 1912 he decided to write a trilogy around a witchdoctor's plot to destroy the Zulu nation, and for that he brought back - would you believe it? - Allan Quatermain. That was 23 years after the "final" Quatermain novel, Allan's Wife. And, although that book had stated, in no uncertain terms, that he had been married only once (Quatermain was a widower), now he introduced a first wife by the name of Marie. After that came a series of Allan Quatermain adventures, always in Africa, and always of the "lost race" genre, and it has always provided fans with an interesting exercise to determine exactly when in his life the adventures occurred. Just the same, in my opinion, they are some of the best of the Haggard's works.
     In his memoires, Haggard claimed that Allan Quatermain was
only myself set in a variety of imagined situations, thinking my thoughts and looking at life through my eyes.
     He presents as a stolid, unimaginative, basically decent character who, nevertheless, differs in one major respect from his creator: he appears to be blind to the supernatural elements which intrude into his life.
     The supernatural never seems to be far from the scene in Haggard's novels. It most commonly presents as psychic dreams or prophesies, or a witchdoctor who appears far older than any man has a right to be. But sometimes it goes deeper. As was pointed out, he believed in reincarnation - but of a rather unusual kind. After all, it is one thing for a soul to be recycled into another body, but to have that body physically identical to the old would appear genetically impossible. The paranormal reaches such a critical level in some of his novels that they have been reprinted by modern publishers as part of their fantasy range. Morning Star, for instance, is a strange story based on the ancient Egyptian concept of the ka or spiritual double of a person. In this case the ka leaves its owner's body and operates separately from its owner to counteract the latter's enemies, so that the heroine appears to be in two places at once.
     Rider Haggard's novels typically leave one with vivid visual imagery. We need cite only a few examples:
King Solomon's Mines: the rounded mountains known as Sheba's Breasts, rosy in the sunlight, the elephant's trunk descending on the hapless horse's back, Captain Good forced to walk trouserless for the natives to admire his white legs.
Allan Quatermain: the pillar of fire in the underground river, and Umslopogaas' last battle on the marble staircase.
Queen Sheba's Ring: the adventurers cowering under a sheet as a terrible sand storm blows over them.
A Tale of Three Lions: Allan Quatermain sitting rock still as the rough tongue of a lion under the cart licks his leg.
Hunter Quatermain's Story: the native Mashune stabbing the buffalo with an assegai.
Allan and the Holy Flower: the great gorilla god, and Quatermain wading through the lake to confront the witchdoctor.
The Ivory Child: the battle with the huge elephant god.
She: where to start? the corridor illuminated by burning mummies, the perfectly preserved little foot, the statue of a naked woman as Truth atop a globe above the bones of ancient plague victims, the harrowing crossing of the abyss on a plank and a teetering rock, Ayesha naked and wrapped in supernatural flames as the novel reaches its dramatic climax.
     From all this, it would seem obvious that the novels would translate into excellent movies. Yet the only ones adapted to the screen are King Solomon's Mines and She, and they always foul it up, because they don't follow the books. I've seen this before. John Carter would have been much better if it had followed the book exactly. Even a telemovie about King Shaka - one of the most dramatic periods in African history - was ruined by the writers deleting major episodes of his life in order to insert fictitious elements. Screen writers know how to convert text into dialogue, and recognize when certain episodes would not translate well onto the screen. The trouble is, it makes them think they really have as much talent as an author. They don't realise that the reason the novel is being filmed is because it is popular, and it is popular because it is well written.
     Be that as it may, Rider Haggard's novels are genuine romances: adventures in exotic places and times, with heroes who are generally not larger than life. It allows the reader to identify with them, and to enjoy vicariously these exotic experiences.
      So, what to read? Well, King Solomon's Mines, She, and Allan Quatermain, obviously. Apart from that, it is probably best to check the summary or a review to determine whether it is of the genre you prefer. (I, for example, prefer the adventures to the love stories.) However, a few words of advice. Marie, Child of Storm, and  Finished form a trilogy, and should be read in that order. She must be read before Ayesha. The other two in the series, She and Allan (yes, Quatermain did meet Ayesha) and Wisdom's Daughter (Ayesha's autobiography) may be read later, or not at all. The Ivory Child is the sequel of The Holy Flower (sometimes published as Allan and the Holy Flower) in the sense that the same characters appear in each, but they can be read separately.
     Where do you get them? Things are easier than in my day. Wildside Press is busy publishing them in trade paperback form. The Project Gutenberg has almost all of them available as free e-books. And, of course, you can also go to Amazon where, as well as individual books, a Kindle edition of the complete collection is being offered for just £2.99. You can't complain much about that.