Allan Quatermain by Henry Rider Haggard (1887)

24 July 2012

Clutching the book, perched on the edge of my seat, I read on, enthralled by the heroic description of the brave Zulu Umslopogaas defending the entrance to the Palace of the Sun as the priests of the lost civilisation of Zu-Vendi try to storm it in order to kill the sacriligeous Queen Nyleptha who has fallen hopelessly in love with the English hero Sir Henry Curtis, who is away leading her army against that of her rival queen – and rival for his affections – Queen Sorais. Yes – it’s another ripping yarn from the pen of the inimitable Henry Rider Haggard!

After the phenomenal success of King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Haggard went on to write over 60 adventure novels, 14 or so featuring his hunter hero, Allan Quatermain.

Allan Quatermain‘, the sequel to the Mines, opens sombrely with a preface dwelling on the tragic death of Allan’s son, a promising medical student who dies suddenly of smallpox. Aged 63 (!) Allan’s life loses its meaning. He realises he’s fed up of living in Yorkshire off the diamond money. He agrees with his old pals Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good that they need to return to Africa, to experience the wide open spaces, to go on an adventure.

“After all, as Mr Mackenzie said, it was odd that three men, each of whom possessed many of those things that are supposed to make life worth living — health, sufficient means, and position, etc. — should from their own pleasure start out upon a wild-goose chase, from which the chances were they never would return. But then that is what Englishmen are, adventurers to the backbone; and all our magnificent muster-roll of colonies, each of which will in time become a great nation, testify to the extraordinary value of the spirit of adventure which at first sight looks like a mild form of lunacy. ‘Adventurer’ — he that goes out to meet whatever may come. Well, that is what we all do in the world one way or another, and, speaking for myself, I am proud of the title, because it implies a brave heart and a trust in Providence.”

Some of the ingredients of the boys own adventure are in this quote:

  1. Patriotic flattery: gosh, aren’t we Englishmen spiffing!
  2. Boyish irresponsibility: of the three adventurers none of them has a wife, and Allan is the only one who had a son and he has been conveniently eliminated. They are footloose, and one of the flatteries the genre performs is to persuade its (male) reader that, if only he didn’t have all the entanglements of wife, children, mortgage, job then he, too, would light out for some corking adventure, braving underground rivers, hordes of attacking natives, and nefarious palace plots!

Once again there is a Quest (cooked up from nothing, a half-baked effort to see if rumours about a white race living in central Africa really are true); again there’s an underground sequence as their canoe is sucked into an underground river, a harrowing trip which lasts for days! Again there’s a Lost Civilisation (turns out the white race does exist) with astonishing architectural and artistic achievements to its credit. There are two gorgeous joint queens (happily for all male readers, rather scantily clad), and a wicked Priest, Agon, who’s jealous of our heroes.

Once again there’s an enormous battle: in King Solomon’s Mines the true king, Umbopa, raises an army which battles forces loyal to the cruel king Twala. The numbers are huge, 60,000 or more. In Allan Quatermain once again, the arrival of the whites leads directly to a massive civil war, after the two joint queens both fall in love with the super-manly Henry Curtis. The slaughter is gruesome and intense. This violence bothers me more than the ludicrous sexism or occasional racism of his texts.

And the hunting. I know the character is a hunter but still, the wanton slaughter of elephants, lions, giraffes, hippopotami and antelope turns my stomach. I’d hazard a guess that that’s the biggest change since Haggard’s day: sexism and racism continue endemic elements of the human condition, but big game hunting is no longer an acceptable sport.

Apparently Haggard referred to the necessity of grip in telling a yarn, the quality which captures our attention in a romance, a yarn, a thriller, the quality people are thinking of when they say they are hooked. And, faults of style or plotting or outdated attitudes notwithstanding, Haggard’s yarns have plenty of grip and, in its closing pages, no shortage of pathos. I welled up at the end. I’ve come to really like Quatermain and I want to read more about him. I am, in short, hooked!

Jacket illustration of ‘Allan Quatermain’

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