by Henry Rider Haggard
For my final look (for now) at the works of Rider Haggard, I have chosen, quite by accident, a novel that appeals to me on two levels – literary and personal. Set in South Africa, The Ghost Kings has as its main protagonist a young woman, Rachel Dove, daughter of an English missionary and his Scottish wife. Mrs Dove, it should be mentioned, is what the Scots used to call fey, which lends to the opening chapters a sense of mysterious anticipation. Mr Dove is a Christian zealot and, though he apparently loves his family, he is driven, come what may, to ‘convert the heathens’.
‘Not that he quailed personally from the prospect of martyrdon …. but, zealot though he was, he did shrink from the thought that his beautiful and delicate wife might be called upon to share the glory of that crown.’
‘The Boers ….. did not appreciate his efforts to Christianise their slaves. The slaves did not appreciate them either …..’
While still a teenager, Rachel is trapped by a violent storm, and is rescued by Richard Darrien. Although they spend only a few hours together, Rachel senses that they are destined to meet again in later life. Also, stories of her remarkable deliverance give rise to native rumours that she is more than human.
The Doves move from Cape Colony to Natal, where Mr Dove sets up a mission station. The move brings them into contact with the Zulus, and with a mysterious white man called Ishmael. Prompted by Ishmael, the Zulu king, Dingaan, successor to the great King Chaka, invites Rachel to visit him. Despite having several native wives already, Ishmael is determined to marry her!
Eventually, Rachel does visit. However, Dingaan and his advisers, believing she is the supernatural spirit of the tribe, decide to keep her. Rachel is well-treated among the Zulus; indeed she is given a role as a judge of the various criminal cases involving the local population. However, she longs to escape but cannot. Not only is she virtually a prisoner but Ishmael is pursuing his lustful objective with determination and violence against people she loves. Her only friend in the Zulu capital is Noie, a native girl whom she has saved from death at the hands of a squad of Dingaan’s warriors. Noie’s mother was Zulu but her father belonged to a tribe of tree- and ghost-worshipping pigmies.
‘Yet how could such things be? Why should the universal laws be stretched for her? Why should she be allowed to lift a corner of the black veil of ignorance that hems us in, and see a glimpse of what lies beyond?’
Rachel has a vision that Richard Darrien is coming to rescue her. She has thought a great deal about him over the years, and fancies herself in love with him. By a combination of mystical and rational storytelling, Haggard does eventually bring them together, but not before both have endured much danger and hardship.
‘Eddo heard, and his yellow face grew white with rage, or fear. He stamped upon the ground, he shook his small fat fists, and spat out curses as a toad spits venom.’
Full of Haggard’s beautiful but antiquated prose, and heavy – like his other novels – with British Imperialist and Christian political incorrectness, The Ghost Kings is a very readable romance. Though it is largely fantasy, the historical background is authentic. Significant events of the reign of Dingaan, of the colonising of Southern Africa, and the quarrel between British and Boers, seem to date the story to the 1830s.
My personal interest in this tale is a family one. Some seventy or seventy-five years after the (real) events related in The Ghost Kings, several members of my own family, including the four people who would become my grandparents, settled in South Africa. My father was born in what is now Kwa-Zulu Natal; my mother spent several of her childhood years at a missionary establishment in the North West Province. I have to add that, from the little I know about him, the reverend gentleman of the London Missionary Society – who would have been a distant cousin of mine – was rather less of a zealot than the fictional Reverend Dove!