Rider Haggard

After reading a few League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book episodes I began to wonder: "Who is this Allan Quartermain dude, anyway?"

So at the local used-book sale a week ago I snagged a tattered 50 cent ex-library copy of King Solomon's Mines, and soon was aboard a roller-coaster ride by H. Rider Haggard. The prose isn't stratospheric, but it gets the job done. Characterization is decent; imagery is quite good, particularly in its description of native exotica. The plot is a bit transparent at times --- perhaps because so many of Haggard's devices have since been used, often less adroitly, by countless other writers and filmmakers:

Haggard's tale has strong echoes of Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico. And as I read King Solomon's Mines I am often reminded of "Akuji the Heartless", a Mesoamerican-themed video game, and also the "Tarot of the Ages" deck, my favorite set of tarot cards with its lovely and fierce Aztecs (Cups), Africans (Batons), Vikings (Swords), and East Indians (Coins). Most surprisingly pleasant of all, to me: Rider Haggard manages to avoid ~98% of the customary racism of his times. That leaves ~2%, alas, which a modern reader must charitably overlook or forgive; not too bad, given the climate within which Haggard wrote.

As for philosophy, witness a couple of striking comments. In a statement by a tribesman in Chapter 5, "Our March into the Desert":

'What is life? Tell me, O white men, who are wise, who know the secrets of the world, and the world of stars, and the world that lies above and around the stars; who flash their words from afar without a voice; tell me, white men, the secret of our life --- whither it goes and whence it comes!

'Ye cannot answer; ye know not. Listen, I will answer. Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go. Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of the Nowhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! we are gone again into the Nowhere. Life is nothing. Life is all. It is the hand with which we hold off Death. It is the glow-worm that shines in the night-time and is black in the morning; it is the white breath of the oxen in the winter; it is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself at sunset.'

Then much later, in Chapter 12, "Before the Battle", some musings by Allan Quartermain himself:

I shook my head and looked again at the sleeping men, and to my tired and yet excited imagination it seemed as though death had already touched them. My mind's eye singled out those who were sealed to slaughter, and there rushed in upon my heart a great sense of the mystery of human life, and an overwhelming sorrow at its futility and sadness. Tonight these thousands slept their healthy sleep, tomorrow they, and many others with them, ourselves perhaps among them, would be stiffening in the cold; their wives would be widows, their children fatherless, and their place know them no more for ever. Only the old moon would shine serenly on, the night wind would stir the grasses, and the wide earth would take its happy rest, even as it did aeons before these were, and will do aeons after they have been forgotten.

All sorts of reflections of this sort passed through my mind --- for as I get older I regret to say that a detestable habit of thinking seems to be getting a hold of me --- while I stood and stared at those grim yet fantastic lines of warriors sleeping, as the saying goes, 'upon their spears'.

(see also LosConquistadores (8 Feb 2001), Extraordinary Gentlemen (29 Apr 2003), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicLife - 2003-06-27

(correlates: Comments on Rider Haggard, Worse Obsessions, EmersonOnNatureAsAntidote, ...)