Nada the Lily by Henry Rider Haggard (1892)

13 August 2012

Nada the Lily is Rider Haggard’s sixth novel. Haggard distinguished between his “Romances” – which included the She and Allan Quatermain series, both featuring a large element of fantasy and the supernatural – and his “Novels”, which are more naturalistic, where the emphasis is more on human relationships than the fantastic.

Blacks The most striking feature of Nada the Lily is that it is set entirely among South African blacks.  An (unnamed) white man only appears in the few pages of the frame narrative where he meets an ancient witch-doctor. I don’t know of any other novels of the time which are set only among blacks, and where the thoughts of black characters good, bad and indifferent are described in great detail.

Tragic romance The last hundred or so pages of the novel describe the love affair between the the mighty warrior Umslopogaas and the beautiful Zulu maiden, Nada, which gives the book its title. (It’s true that, early in the book the narrator hints that Nada might have white blood in her, from a Portuguese trader who stayed with the Swazi tribe from whom Mopo’s wife, Mcropha, came.)

Chaka the tyrant But this love story is completely overshadowed by Mopo’s long servitude to the Zulu tyrant, Chaka, and the multiple examples of Chaka’s appalling cruelty and sadism which dominate the first 200 pages. Chaka (nowadays known as Shaka) was a real historical character, founder of the Zulu nation as the predominant military force in south-east Africa, a dominance they held from his kingship (1816-28) until the Zulu wars with the invading British in the late 1870s. Chaka is portrayed as a precursor of Stalin, paranoid and cruel in the extreme, given to ordering the extermination of whole tribes, the casual execution of complete innocents on the slightest pretext. The Wikipedia article on Shaka says some of the legends about Shaka’s cruelty might be colonial and apartheid propaganda; but still says there’s plenty of evidence of the large areas laid waste, of murder, torture, cannibalism carried out under his unhinged edicts:

“After the death of his mother Shaka ordered as a sign of mourning that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, though it wasn’t restricted to humans, cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like.”

Violent African novels The novel is like this only more so, and for 200 long pages. It cast a cloud of misery and murder over me for the week it took to read. The sadistic cruelty and casual violence found on every page reminded me of other African novels I’ve read –

  • the psychopathic African leader, Sam, at the heart of Chinua Achebe’s 1987 novel, Anthills of the Savannah
  • the sadistic father, Eugene, at the heart of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2003 novel, Purple Hibiscus
  • the psychopathic Idi Amin at the heart of Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, The Last King of Scotland
  • the sadism and cruelty taught to child soldiers during the war in Sierra Leone described in Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s 2005 novel,  Moses, Citizen and Me
  • several books about the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in the Congo, about Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, about the Sudan and Darfur, about the civil wars in Mozambique and Namibia..
  • I might as well mention Heart of Darkness (1899)

Thus, most of the books about Africa I’ve ever read, whether fiction or non-fiction, detail a stupefying level of violence and cruelty, so Nada, extreme though it is, fits right in with what I’ve read elsewhere.

An African Epic However Haggard isn’t detailing Chaka’s psychopathic behaviour for racist reasons (unlike later Boer and apartheid propagandists). The opposite. Haggard is deliberately setting out to write an African epic, a genre which raises its characters to the level of archetypal heroes and is written in a high, unflinching and sombre style. The story of how Umslopogaas is rescued at his birth reminds me of the legend of Moses and even the childermass; the harsh man-to-man combats in the dust and heat of the African veldt remind me over and over of the unforgiving brutality of The Iliad.

Haggard, like many of his contemporaries, was fascinated by folk tales, ancient myths and legends but, unlike most, his vast output includes attempts to rewrite them or bring them into the modern age: Haggard actually wrote a Viking saga, Eric Brighteyes, and a continuation of the Odyssey, The World’s Desire. To my mind, in Nada, he is consciously striving for an epic oral style to give Homeric dignity to his Zulu protagonists. The long story is told out loud over a succession of evenings by the old witch-doctor, Mopo, to the anonymous white man who takes it down and publishes it. The opening echoes conventions of the epic form:

“You ask me, my father, to tell you the tale of the youth of Umslopogaas, holder of the iron Chieftainess, the axe Groan-maker, who was named Bulalio the Slaughterer, and of his love for Nada, the most beautiful of Zulu women. It is long; but you are here for many nights, and, if I live to tell it, it shall be told. Strengthen your heart, my father, for I have much to say that is sorrowful, and even now, when I think of Nada the tears creep through the horn that shuts out my old eyes from light.”

It doesn’t quite invoke a Muse, but it does justify the purpose and form of the text, it foretells the tragic ending of the tale right at the start, and it uses multiple epithets to build up the heroic stature of the male protagonist, Umslopogaas. The whole text is cast in this style, an imagining by Haggard of the elevated yet also laconic style of a pre-literate, oral people. The deeper you read, the more completely convincing it becomes, and you find yourself entranced, sitting in the gloom of a cramped African hut, listening to the low voice of an eerie old man as he tells his long and tragic tale.

“All that day till the sun grew low we walked round the base of the great Ghost Mountain, following the line of the river. We met no one, but once we came to the ruins of a kraal, and in it lay the broken bones of many men, and with the bones rusty assegais and the remains of ox-hide shields, black and white in colour. Now I examined the shields, and knew from their colour that they had been carried in the hands of those soldiers who, years ago, were sent out by Chaka to seek for Umslopogaas, but who had returned no more.”

 I think it’s a triumph!

Jacket illustration of Nada the Lily

King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard (1885)

20 July 2012

Henry Rider Haggard, age 29, was on a train journey with his brother. He was back in England after a five years’ sojourn in South Africa and the two were discussing the merits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, still wildly popular after its publication in 1883. Henry says, “Oh there’s nothing special about the book, really.” His brother says, “Well I bet you five bob you can’t write something better.” So Henry sat down and wrote King Solomon’s Mines in 12 weeks, for a bet. It was published in 1887 by Cassels, the same firm who had published Treasure Island, and has gone on to become one of the great classics of adventure fiction, and one of the great bestsellers, of all time.

Reading King Solomon’s Mines in 2012 is rewarding on a number of levels:

Identifying with the hero At the simplest level it’s a boy’s own adventure, full of thrills and spills designed to test and exercise and reassure the white adolescent male reader: the men are strong and heroic; they survive extreme physical tests; they triumph against overwhelming odds; some natives are trustworthy unto death; others are cruel savages who must be tamed; there are no white women (‘petticoats’ as Haggard calls them) to distract our heroes; though there are plenty of ‘preposessing’ and scantily clad African maidens! There is treasure beyond counting! Vicariously, the reader experiences all these excitements, and triumphs and lives.

It is fiction at its most primitive: total identification with the Hero Who Overcomes.

The gang Except there isn’t just one hero; it is about a gang with attractive attributes distributed among them. Thus the (male) reader can choose whether to identify with Quatermain, experienced, self-deprecating; Henry Curtis, a lion of man, the pick of the white race, a heroic Englishman; Captain Good, a comedy figure, running to fat, wearing his comedy eyeglass, eternally fussing about his clothes and with a weakness for the fairer sex; or the brave and physically superb Zulu, Umbopa. For some reason the combination of the plucky with the comic, and the idea of a small group of heroes,  reminds me of Tintin (and also because the plot hinges on our heroes impressing the natives by predicting a solar eclipse, as Tintin does in ‘Prisoners of the Sun‘).

The Plot On board ship to Durban, South Africa, Quatermain, an ageing but hardy African hunter, is introduced to a giant of a man, Sir Henry Curtis and his 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 route, years earlier, from a dying Portuguese explorer. And so the three team up and set off, accompanied by some ill-fated Kaffir helpers and the striking Zulu, Umbopa, who is to play a key role in the plot. You can read the book, free, on Project Gutenberg.

Tone and humour The text isn’t as dated as you’d expect. It is kept fresh by the rhythm and pacing of Haggard’s plot, moving confidently from one tense action scene to another. And it is written in an open, serviceable prose, very unlike the clotted Latinate phrasing of ‘literary’ authors of the time. The prose is frequently adorned with hilariously over-the-top poetic descriptions of the African scenery or 5th form thoughts about the meaning of Life. And Haggard’s  good humour (English and self-deprecating and often schoolboyish) comes through in every line:

       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… 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.

       ‘Curtis,’ I said to Sir Henry, ‘I am in a condition of pitiable funk.’

Not as racist as expected Haggard’s attitude to Africans is noticeably sympathetic. Early on he says he’s met plenty of blacks who are true gentlemen and plenty of whites who are not – and many overtly heroic deeds are performed by Kaffirs and blacks. One black servant dies very nobly saving Good from a rampaging elephant. And Umbopa the Zulu grows in regal stature throughout the book. When the adventurers come among the lost people of Kikuana land the black natives are highly differentiated; the king Twala may be a sadistic tyrant, the crone Gagoola an uncanny witch, but the maidens who attend them are courteous and beautiful and other leading Kikuaners like Ignosi are honest and valiant. The point is Haggard depicts blacks as variegated individuals, nothing like the appalling racism found among, say, the Boers of the same time and place.

Imperialism of the imagination Nonetheless, whatever Quatermain’s sympathy for and admiration of native Africans, it is crystal clear that the white Englishmen have an innate superiority over all natives, all women and indeed all other white men. White Englishmen just are naturally superior, why else would the British Empire be the greatest the world had ever seen? Reading this as a white Englishman it is hard to resist the repeated signals in the text as to my superiority. I can smile at its naivety but it still tugs at my imagination. The text flatters me. I can well imagine all women and non-white people finding this pretty tedious, if not offensive. The inscription to the sequel, Allan Quatermain, says it all:

I inscribe this book of adventure to my son ARTHUR JOHN RIDER
HAGGARD in the hope that in days to come he, and many other
boys whom I shall never know, may, in the acts and thoughts of
Allan Quatermain and his companions, as herein recorded,
find something to help him and them to reach to what, with Sir
Henry Curtis, I hold to be the highest rank whereto we can
attain — the state and dignity of English gentlemen.

Women One stereotype which is conspicuous by its absence is there are no white women at all in the book. Scantily clad African women, yes, but no ‘petticoats’, as Haggard puts it. Presumably this reflected the physical reality of the time – reading Kipling’s frontier stories, there was continual warfare with native tribes and the Zulu Wars in South Africa had only just ended. It’s dangerous frontier territory.

But it’s striking how all the screen versions of KSM do include women, as love interest and as ‘terror-prompts’ ie woman cornered by fierce beast/dinosaur/native who has to be rescued by gallant white hero. What does the addition of the Woman In Peril cliche – not necessary in 1885 but indispensable from the 1920s onwards, up to and including Romancing The Stone and Indiana Jones – tell us about the 20th century, and about us?

King Solomon’s Influence The biggest obstacle to reading the text is the fact that I seemed to have read or seen so much of it before. This book has been copied in scores of other novels, films, TV dramas and comics. What must have been extraordinary incidents to its original audience have been worn smooth by over a century of assimilation. Just one example, the treasure chamber is entered by a massive rising & descending stone door; while our heroes are distracted by the chests full of treasure, the wicked crone Gagool triggers the lowering mechanism in order to trap them; she stabs the (prepossessing) serving maid who has accompanied them to the chamber and makes to escape but the dying maiden grabs her foot and so the crone tries desperately to wriggle free even as the vast doorway slowly descends until it gruesomely (and noisily) squashes her to a pulp.

In how many films and TV dramas have you seen a mechanical doorway inexorably descending as a protagonist tries to slip under it to safety? Was this the first time this trope, this meme, this cliche, was ever used?

Stereotypes One of the great pleasures of reading King Solomon’s Mines is in savouring the gorgeous tapestry of cliches and stereotypes. The whole text is built of cliches. Possibly the text could be represented visually as sets of overlapping boxes or diagrams, each containing a plot or character device. They’re like jigsaw pieces laid out at the start of the text, which are then dovetailed together as the plot unravels, with satisfying clicks. Everything about it seems familiar:

  • the brave band of adventurers
  • the Quest to an Unknown Land
  • the plucky native assistants who one by one are picked off in mishaps
  • our heroes almost dying in the desert ie pushed to the limits of human endurance
  • their sudden arrival in a land of plenty and marvels
  • the mysterious carvings on the mysterious road
  • the way they fool the tall, strong blacks who suddenly surround them that they are gods ‘come from the stars’
  • the cruel leader of the lost tribe (Twala) who suspects they are ordinary men after all

On and on it goes, every element seeming familiar as if from a dream, and in fact from hundreds of films, TV series, comics which I consumed avidly as a boy. If Haggard really is the source of these scores and scores of climactic scenes and sensational scenarios, then he’s one of the most influential writers of all time, his adventure memes a permanent part of the pulp imagination of all of us.

Conclusion There are so many superficial reasons for objecting to King Solomon’s Mines (the casual racism, the sexism, the violence) that there is, ultimately, no point objecting. Either you buy into the conventions of a genre or you don’t. If you know you’re going to see an adventure movie, don’t be upset if it features strong heroes, cowardly baddies, damsels in distress in exotic foreign locations populated by unreliable locals. The interest is in feeling Haggard shape and develop the stories, stereotypes and cliches which were to help form the popular imagination of our culture. Without Allan Quatermain – no Indiana Jones.

Illustration of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’

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