by Henry Rider Haggard
‘I have seen beautiful women in my day, and am no longer thrown into transports at the sight of a pretty face; but language fails me when I try to give some idea of the blaze of loveliness that then broke upon us in the persons of these sister Queens.’
This cracking adventure romance, written in 1885, had its title changed twice before appearing as a magazine serial from eighteen months to two years later. First called Zu-Vendis – the name of the imaginary country which features in it, it was later changed by the author to The Frowning City. Whether Haggard was responsible for the published title, Allan Quatermain – the name of its fictional narrator – I do not know. However, I think it a great pity it was changed at all.
Quatermain and his two friends, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good RN, leave England on a quest to find a legendary white race which inhabits the interior of Africa, to the west of Mt Kenya. They have difficulty engaging native African help until they encounter Umslopogaas, an exiled Zulu chieftain and friend of Quatermain.
They set off up-river to the nearest mission station, pursued by a band of warlike Masai, who attack their boats in the night. They reach the mission house with the loss of only one life. However, when the Masai kidnap Flossie, young daughter of the Rev. Mackenzie, and they plan a rescue mission, they must fight for their lives against a much superior force and do not escape without much blood being spilled on both sides.
‘The Masai ground his teeth with fury, and charged at the Zulu with his spear. As he came, Umslopogaas deftly stepped aside and, swinging Iknosi-kaas high above his head with both hands, brought the broad blade down with such fearful force from behind upon the Masai’s shoulder just where the neck is set into the frame, and its razor edge shore right through bone and flesh and muscle, almost severing the head and one arm from the body.’
Pursuing their adventure to find the mysterious white race, the four friends are sucked by a strong current into a cavern in the mountains. They emerge on a still lake and find themselves looking up at the Frowning City of Milosis, capital of the land of Zu-Vendis. Zu-Vendis is a sun-worshipping culture, ruled by two queens, the twin sisters Nyleptha and Sorais. The High Priest, Agon, wants the strangers executed and when the Queens intervene he is thwarted and plans his revenge.
Curtis falls in love immediately with Nyleptha, Good with Sorais. However, while Curtis’s feelings are reciprocated, Good’s are not. Sorais too loves Curtis and when he rejects her, the consequence is civil war. The last chapters of Allan Quatermain involve a bloody battle, a desperate nighttime rides and an heroic defence of the magnificent palace staircase – one of the best hand-to-hand engagements in all of fiction.
‘[Sorais] rose to her feet and seemed to be choking, but the awful thing was that she was so quiet about it all. Once she looked at a side table, on which lay a dagger, and from it to me, as though she thought of killing me ….. At last she spoke one word, and one only – “Go!” ‘
Allan Quatermain (along with the earlier companion novel King Solomon’s Mines) was one of my favourite stories when I was a boy. Reading it again after a few decades, I am immediately aware of how fiction has changed over time. Some modern readers will cringe at the novel’s politically incorrect language in respect of race – and maybe even gender and religion; though knowing what to expect, I did too, to some extent.
With the exception of Umslopogaas who, in a way, might be considered the real hero, native Africans are all servants – or are regarded as savages. Curtis and Good are white Englishmen and thus a superior breed apart. In respect of gender, it has to be said that neither Nyleptha nor Sorais is a wilting wallflower. Equally, neither is the kick-ass heroine of modern adventure tales. For all that, there is something ‘nice’ (- I can’t think of another word to describe what I mean -) about the old-fashioned courting and hand-kissing that is a feature of this novel, and of this era.
The author is kinder to the sun -worshipping Zu-Vendis than many of his contemporaries would have been. Nevertheless, he can’t resist hinting at the end, with Henry Curtis, that he hopes to see ‘the shadow of the cross of Christ lying on the golden dome of the Flower Temple.’
Viewed from a point of view more than a century after its creation, Allan Quatermain seems full of clichéed language. It may be, however, that a century was needed to make it so. Some of of Haggard’s writing is beautifully poetic. It does not have the haste and impatience of twenty-first century life and is pleasantly refreshing for that.
‘The quiet dawn began to throw her ever-widening mantle over plain and forest and river – mighty Kenia, wrapped in the silence of eternal snows, looked out across the earth – till presently a beam from the unrisen sun lit upon his heaven-kissing crest and purpled it with blood; the sky above grew blue, and tender as a mother’s smile; a bird began to pipe his morning song, and a little breeze passing through the bush shook down the dewdrops in millions to refresh the waking world.’
As against that, Allan Quatermain is a novel in which much blood is spilled, despite its narrator’s distaste (and by implication, its creator’s) for war and violence. Indeed, history records that Haggard received a great deal of criticism throughout his life for filling his books with scenes of violence and death. He defended himself in a way that was typical of his time:
‘Personally, I hate war, and all killing, down to the destruction of the lower animals for the sake of sport ….. But, while the battle-clouds bank up I do not think that any can be harmed by reading of heroic deeds or of frays in which brave men lose their lives.’
I’m goint to give the last word to Umslopogaas – who was actually a real-life person, though fictionalised in the present story.
‘ “One more stroke, only one! A good stroke! A straight stroke! A strong stroke!” – and drawing himself to his full height, with a wild heart-shaking shout, he with both hands began to whirl the axe around his head till it looked like a circle of flaming steel. Then, suddenly, with awful force he brought it down straight onto the crown of the mass of sacred stone…..’