The Godfather: Peter Corris on H Rider Haggard
If your name were Henry Rider Haggard, what would you select as a professional name if you aspired to be a popular novelist? Not Henry Haggard, obviously; what else but H Rider Haggard, with its suggestion of dash and painfully acquired experience?
Rider Haggard was a prolific author whose works included dozens of novels, all of which are forgotten now except two – King Solomon’ s Mines (1885) and She (1886). Having enjoyed the 1950 film of King Solomon’s Mines, starring Stewart Granger, and the 2004 telemovie with Patrick Swayze, I thought I’d try the book, which I’d never read, to gauge why the story had been filmed five or six times.
The audio version ran for 27 hours and occupied me for four or five days. Splendidly read by Simon Prebble, the tale catered to most of the beliefs and prejudices traditionally associated with the Victorian era – ‘darkest’ Africa; the superiority of the white race and of Englishmen in particular; the physical and emotional inferiority of women; and curiosity about hitherto unknown places. It is also a rattling good story with the intrepid adventurers into the dark continent encountering hazards resembling (closely in some cases) those of Indiana Jones.
The racism was tempered in the films but is in full flight in the book, making the faithful African servant dispensable (unable to stand the travails of the doughty Brits) but acknowledging the (almost) equality of black individuals of royal blood. There is an admixture of some heavy-handed music hall-style humour involving one of the party having to go about without his trousers.
But imperialism is the prevailing ethos, with one variation. Alan Quartermaine, the great white elephant hunter and narrator, notes with approval that the king of the isolated tribe wants no intrusion by ‘praying men’ to undermine their culture. I gave a cheer at that.
I learned that She, which has been adapted for the screen more times than the earlier book, had, at last count, sold 83 million copies. If King Solomon’s Mines was the Raiders of the Lost Ark of its day, She was clearly the Harry Potter series.
I took on a modern novel before launching myself into She. Haggard had hit on a formula that he was to follow in many books, without the enormous success of this one – a lost tribe (again), a quest (again) and a party of resolute English adventurers. Once again a loyal African servant can’t stay the distance, and royalty will prevail. The difference is the element of fantasy – the notion of a queen (white of course) living for 2000 years.
Where in the earlier book the sadistic cruelty of the evil leader was played out in full view, in She the nasty stuff takes place offstage and the atmosphere is fantastical more than threatening – escapism plus.
Rider Haggard was a man of his age, and comparatively enlightened. Although nominally a Christian, Horace Holly, the narrator of She, is acquainted with Islam, Judaism and even Buddhism. He is also something of a Darwinian. These are touches that help the book to be mildly entertaining for the modern reader despite the elements of the absurd and the supernatural which, apparently, so enchanted the Victorians.