Allan’s Wife and Other Tales by Henry Rider Haggard (1889)

29 July 2012

Allan’s Wife and Other Tales is a collection of stories by Henry Rider Haggard about his African hunter hero, Allan Quatermain. The title story is by far the longest, describing Allan’s childhood, upbringing in Africa, and meeting with his wife, and is accompanied by three genuinely short stories, Hunter Quartermain’s Story, A Tale of Three Lions, and Long Odds. They were published separately in magazines in the first flush of Haggard’s success, then collected in this volume.

Allan’s Wife (1889) is a moving account of Quatermain’s sad English childhood (when his mother and three siblings die of fever his father emigrates to South Africa), robust African upbringing, and the adventures which lead to his marriage. Unlike Kipling’s often forced and exhausting knowledgeableness, Haggard’s familiarity with guns and hunting, the South African landscape, and the customs and language of Zulus, Masai, Boers etc comes over clearly and convincingly. Apart from the main narrative arc about Quatermain’s meeting, wooing and wedding his wife, Stella, there are two striking features:

The African medicine man, Indaba-zimbi, accompanies Quatermain from early in his adventures and establishes himself as a voice of ancestral African wisdom, giving good advice and performing miraculous magic at key moments. Their first meeting at a competition with his rival to draw down lightning from an electrical storm is pretty dramatic. Repeatedly he says you white men are clever, but you don’t know everything. Thus, as in all the Quatermain stories, a black African is a key figure, representing wisdom, dignity, cunning and endurance.

The baboon lady Key to the plot is the notion that Allan’s wife-to-be, Stella, and her father, years earlier, had rescued a woman, Hendrika, who’d been captured as a baby and brought up by baboons and who, as a result, had extraordinary climbing skills and could communicate with the baboons (rather like Mowgli the man-cub can communicate with wolves and all the other jungle animals in the Jungle Books). This unexpectedly turns out to be the trigger for the crisis of the story, when she and her baboon army kidnap Stella and take her off to a cave in the hills.

As a footnote, it’s worth pointing out that, even here, there is a Lost World since Stella and her father, deep in inaccessible Africa, have reinhabited mysterious marble houses which they found abandoned by some previous, highly sophisticated, culture. In fact, though short, Allan’s Wife, packs in a load of the tropes and types of incident which made Haggard’s reputation.

Illustration of Quatermain finding his wife in the cave

Maiwa’s revenge, or The War of The Little Hand by Henry Rider Haggard (1888)

28 July 2012

Maiwa’s Revenge is the third Allan Quatermain novel (in order of writing), and an innovation in the series in that is a) short b) set within a frame narrative – Quatermain is on a shoot at his Yorkshire home with friends and, after bagging three woodcock in flight is persuaded to tell the story of how he bagged three elephants on one hunt. This anecdote leads on to a bigger story which Quatermain tells in the first person in the same fast-moving conversational style as the previous books.

Once again, as in KSM and AQ, the core of the story is the white man bringing war and slaughter to an African kingdom. Quatermain decides to go hunting into the interior of Natal. He pushes on into uncharted territory in pursuit of buffalo, and then is charged by a rhinoceros, only just escaping. On the basis of this feat local villagers ask if he can rid them of three giant elephants which are eating their crop. Again, Quatermain manages to kill all three, though only after some dicey moments. As his natives are cutting the ivory tusks from the dead elephants, a statuesque native girl appears. This is Maiwa and she explains that the area is ruled by the Matuku tribe, led by the wicked Wambe, who lord it over their neighbour tribe, the Butiana, led by the timorous king Nala. Maiwa was coerced into leaving her native Butiana to go and be married to Wambe, since when he has beaten her and then, when her baby by the king was eighteen months old, he brutally killed it by putting it in the “thing that bites”, a steel lion trap. the baby’s hand was severed and Maiwa has kept it ever since as a gruesome spur to revenge.

Now she has fled Wambe’s kraal and come to Quatermain with her tale of woe, carrying a message from a white man, John Every, who Wambe has held prisoner for seven years. In every way, then, Quatermain is incentivised and justified in leading a Butiana attack on Wambe’s heavily defended camp, against overwhelming odds, and attack he does! It is a glorious goulash of imperial cliches:

Thoughts Once again a white man entering an African kingdom brings war and death on a large scale. In all three narratives Quatermain’s arrival prompts civil war and the eventual triumph of his (White) side.  Haggard always makes sure the wars are elaborately justified; that they are righting egregious wrongs: the cruel tyrant Twala is not the rightful king; the cruel queen Sorais is trying to murder her sister; the cruel tyrant Wambe is, er, a cruel tyrant.

1. Forget the sexism or the (surprisingly mild) racism, the repeated message of Haggard’s books is that the White Man is justified in intervening in native affairs, in fighting small colonial wars to establish Peace and Security, to set his choice of king or queen upon the throne to ensure the territory becomes safe for White hunting and trading.

2. And the second message is in the medium itself: his prose is amazingly supple and fluid for the time; compare and contrast with the denser, slower style of literary writers such as Hardy or Conrad or Henry James. Haggard’s prose style itself conveys the attitude of derring-do, stiff upper lip, and thrills and excitement, especially in fast-moving battle scenes. Generations of boys must have been inspired to go off to Britain’s umpteen small colonial wars their heads full of Haggard’s thrilling, vivid descriptions.

“There too on the wall stood Maiwa, a white garment streaming from her shoulders, an assegai in her hand, her breast heaving, her eyes flashing. Above all the din of battle I could catch the tones of her clear voice as she urged the soldiers on to victory. But victory was not yet. Wambe’s soldiers gathered themselves together, and bore our men back by the sheer weight of numbers. They began to give, then once more they rallied, and the fight hung doubtfully.

“‘Slay, you war-whelps,’ cried Maiwa from the wall. ‘Are you afraid, you women, you chicken-hearted women! Strike home, or die like dogs! What—you give way! Follow me, children of Nala.’ And with one long cry she leapt from the wall as leaps a stricken antelope, and holding the spear poised rushed right into the thickest of the fray.

“The warriors saw her, and raised such a shout that it echoed like thunder against the mountains. They massed together, and following the flutter of her white robe crashed into the dense heart of the foe. Down went the Matuku before them like trees before a whirlwind. Nothing could stand in the face of such a rush as that. It was as the rush of a torrent bursting its banks. All along their line swept the wild desperate charge; and there, straight in the forefront of the battle, still waved the white robe of Maiwa.”

As a 21st century adult I am conflicted; the pleasure of the text derives from the schoolboy mentality it embodies and enforces; the battle scenes are thrilling; the stakes are black and white. But since Haggard’s innocent times we’ve had over a century of grotesque wars, starting with the Boer War and going rapidly downhill thereafter. If you stop to consider the bloodshed at the core of all of these stories, the grown-up in you can’t help but be appalled.

Illustration of Allan Quatermain (centre) following bearers carrying ivory down to the coast at the triumphal conclusion of ‘Maiwa’s Revenge’

The Joy of Sets or, the Allan Quatermain stories

26 July 2012

What is better than a series of novels which lets you follow the adventures of one or more protagonists over time and space, watching them age and change, and letting you link up scattered incidents to create a fulfilling alternative universe? In our time I’m aware of the Harry Potter series, the Mortal Engines series, the Twilight series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and there must be hundreds of others, especially if you include detective series like Ian Rankin’s Rebus series or the VI Warshawski series.

After his debut in King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Rider Haggard’s African hunter hero, Allan Quatermain went on to feature in over a dozen novels and short stories. There’s a close parallel with Sherlock Holmes who made his first appearance in the novella A Study In Scarlet in 1887 and went on to appear in three further novels and fifty-six short stories. Holmes’s last appearance was in a 1927 short story, The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, his publishing history thus spanning 40 years; while Quatermain’s last appearance was also in 1927, in Allan and the Ice-gods, pipping Holmes with a career of 42 years.

As with another series I’m exploring, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series, the new reader to Quatermain faces a bit of a conundrum – whether to read the stories in the order they were published in order to experience the author’s changing style and skill – or in the fictional chronology of the character’s life.

The excellent Wikipedia article lists the AQ stories by order of events in the hero’s life, with publication dates in brackets, helping you organise whichever option you choose.

Date            Text
1817                 Birth of Allan Quatermain

1835–1838   Marie (1912)
1842–1843  “Allan’s Wife”, title story in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1854–1856   Child of Storm (1913)
1858                “A Tale of Three Lions”, included in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1859                Maiwa’s Revenge: or, The War of the Little Hand (1888)
1868               “Hunter Quatermain’s Story”, in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1869               “Long Odds”, included in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1870               The Holy Flower (1915)
1871                Heu-heu: or, The Monster (1924)
1872                She and Allan (1920)
1873               The Treasure of the Lake (1926)
1874               The Ivory Child (1916)
1879               Finished (1917)
1879               “Magepa the Buck”, included in the collection Smith and the Pharaohs (1920)
1880               King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
1882               The Ancient Allan (1920)
1883               Allan and the Ice-gods (1927)
1884–1885 Allan Quatermain (1887)

18 June 85   Death of Allan Quatermain

But whichever option you choose you’ll have a problem trying to track down editions of these old books. As usual with older literature (and music), Haggard’s one or two greatest hits (King Solomon’s Mines and She) are available in countless editions, cheap or scholarly, but wander a few feet from the common highway and you are among thorns. There does appear to be one uniform edition of the complete Quatermain novels, by a small publisher, the Leonaur press, though a little pricey. You can, however, download them as Kindle texts from Amazon, or from the excellent Project Gutenberg Rider Haggard site.

Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925)

17 July 2012

Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) virtually invented the late-Victorian ripping yarn. His most famous books are King Solomon’s Mines (KSM) and She but he wrote over 70 novels, 14 or so featuring the action hero, Allan Quatermain.

Haggard was one of 10 children born to a Jewish barrister living in Norfolk. Considered a duffer he was sent to Africa in 1875, aged 18, to make his fortune, his parents scraping him a job as assistant to the secretary to the governor of Natal. He was not only present in Pretoria in April 1877 when the British annexed the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, it was Haggard himself who raised the Union flag and read out much of the proclamation when the official in charge lost his voice.

In 1880 he married and in 1882 returned to England to settle in Norfolk and study law. He didn’t like it, and moved to Hammersmith in 1885 to concentrate on his writing. His first book, King Solomon’s Mines, was an immediate bestseller and he never looked back.

KSM introduces the hero Allan Quatermain, a slight but hardy African hunter, who meets a giant of a man, Sir Henry Curtis, and ex-navy sidekick Captain Good, who are seeking Curtis’ brother who disappeared into the African interior two years previously in search of a legendary kingdom. Quatermain just happens to have come into possession of a map of the way there, years earlier, from a dying Portuguese explorer, and so the three set off, accompanied by some ill-fated Kaffir helpers and a striking Zulu, Umbopa, who is to play a key role in the plot.

Haggard joined a select band of 1880s authors who were pioneering short, punchy fiction with gripping characters and sensational plots, often set in the exotic lands opened up by Imperial conquests. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island had appeared in 1883 and Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes, was to make his debut a few years later in A Study In Scarlet (1887), Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, exotic in location if not gripping in plot (1888).

Portrait photo of Henry Rider Haggard

Rider Haggard fans point out that without Allan Quatermain there’d have been no Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981), although the films of Haggard’s novels have been mostly poor. There are film versions of KSM starring Paul Robeson (1937), Stewart Granger (1950), Richard Chamberlain (1985) and Patrick Swayze (2004), and numerous spin-offs including The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003) where Quatermain is played by an ageing Sean Connery, and bastardisations, eg the Michael Douglas movies Romancing The Stone (1984) and The Jewel of the Nile (1985). All of these films feature women as love interests. The original novels do not.

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