Today is the anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1856 – 1925). Haggard was a Norfolk born English writer famous for his adventure stories, but he also wrote non fiction. His two most popular books were King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1886). A Rider Haggard Society (UK) was formed in 1985.
Trivial fact: Haggard named three of his daughters after heroines in his books.
It is a testament to Rider Haggard’s terrific story telling abilities that he is still popular today. His novel She had supposedly sold 83 million copies by 1965*. If we assume that figure is correct, and She hasn’t sold a single copy since, that puts it just ahead of The Da Vinci Code (80m) and just behind The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (85m). Impressive.
Haggard’s hero, Allan Quatermain, was a template for Indiana Jones – the lead character in a vast media franchise. A fifth Indiana Jones film is planned for release in 2020. Quatermain is also a main character in the multi-format League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
When reading Haggard you may occasionally do a double take as you stumble upon a passage that is best described as a “product of it’s times”, or you might briefly imagine that you’ve drifted into one of those postmodern Ladybird books. This might not be as common as you expect, but it does happen.
This faithful but unpretending record of a remarkable adventure is hereby respectfully dedicated by the narrator, Allan Quatermain, to all the big boys and little boys who read it.” Quatermain freely admits, “I can safely say there is not a petticoat in the whole history”. – King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
Like most people I read a lot of novels that contain characters or attitudes that don’t meet contemporary mainstream societal standards, and no doubt many books written today will fall short in the not-so-distant future on fresh grounds (e.g. the representation of mental illness, disability issues, animal rights, lookism, classism, violence, etc).
As standards change what do you do about it? The ostrich solution: hunker down and ignore the change happening around you – in books, the media, social media, education system and elsewhere? The goldfish solution: limit your reading to what has been written in the last 10 years? The Disney solution: edit and sanitise classics from the past? The egg shells solution: only write very safely to future proof your writing for as long as possible? For me none of that is acceptable but, apart from putting things into context and trying to read widely, I don’t have a grand answer.
And now for those promised Rider Haggard quotes.
12 Quotes from H. Rider Haggard’s novels
12. “I have never observed that the religious are more eager to die than the rest of us poor mortals.”
11. “I am, to be honest, a bit of a coward, and certainly in no way given to fighting, though somehow it has often been my lot to get into unpleasant positions, and to be obliged to shed man’s blood. But I have always hated it, and kept my own blood as undiminished in quantity as possible, sometimes by a judicious use of my heels.”
10. “As I grow older I regret to say that a detestable habit of thinking seems to be getting a hold of me”
9. “Everything has an end, if only you live long enough to see it.”
8. “There is no such thing as magic, though there is such a thing as knowledge of the hidden ways of Nature.”
7. “It is a well-known fact that very often, putting the period of boyhood out of the argument, the older we grow the more cynical and hardened we become; indeed, many of us are only saved by timely death from moral petrification, if not from moral corruption.”
6. “What is imagination? Perhaps it is the shadow of the intangible truth, perhaps it is the soul’s thought.”
5. “Passion is like the lightning, it is beautiful, and it links the earth to heaven, but alas it blinds!”
4. “It is curious to look back and realize upon what trivial and apparently coincidental circumstances great events frequently turn as easily and naturally as a door on its hinges.”
3. “The acorn of ambition often grows into an oak from which men hang.”
2. “Wealth, which men spend all their lives in acquiring, is a valueless thing at the last.”
1. “Yea, all things live forever, though at times they sleep and are forgotten.”
REFERENCES: * Wikipedia quotes two sources for the sales of She, both sources lack authority. The figures given are 83m and 100m. The figure 83m is generally used elsewhere, so I’ve gone with it. I failed to find a more reliable source, but I’m confident the sales were huge.
BELOW: Audio interview on Rider Haggard
Listen below for an interview with Roger Luckhurst by Oxford Academic (OUP) on H. Rider Haggard and King Solomon’s Mines. Roger was editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of King Solomon’s Mines. About 16 minutes long – I found it enjoyable and enlightening.
Or use this link to go to the Soundcloud website direct.
‘About Roger Luckhurst – Editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of King Solomon’s Mines. He has written widely on Victorian popular fiction, science fiction and Gothic literature. He has edited Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stoker’s Dracula, and an anthology of Late Victorian Gothic Tales for Oxford World’s Classics, and an edition of H. P. Lovecraft’s Classic Horror Stories. His books include The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy (Oxford, 2012).’
BELOW: Rider Haggard on Pinterest (via The Long Victorian)
I’m pleased you posted this. Sanitising great literature of the past is like rewriting history to remove all the bits we don’t like. It’s like denying the Holocaust, to coin an expression. We are supposed to study both history and literature for what they teach us, the idea being to avoid making the mistakes our ancestors made. We’re not very good at doing that, it seems to me!
I loved Haggard’s stories when I was a boy. He was no more questionable in his attitudes than a thousand (and more) other authors of the past. The important thing is not to allow the ostriches and the goldfishes to set the literary agenda.
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Thank you 🙂 I love a rollicking good yarn and Rider Haggard knows how to write them. Hopefully people looking in will now have some idea what they’re going to get with his writing. I suppose it could be said that Haggard’s Quatermain character has been “rewritten” for the Indiana Jones and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie/video game franchises.
Most readers probably think of Haggard as a simple, direct writer. But before someone dismisses Haggard as “rough and ready”, it’s worth considering why he was so popular – and his stories/characters get rewritten so successfully.
If you listen to the Roger Luckhurst interview at the end of the post (editor of the Oxford World’s Classics King Solomon’s Mines) he mentions that Freud, Jung and C.S. Lewis “borrowed and elaborated” on Haggard – they appear to have thought that Haggard tapped into something primal in us all. Freud said that Haggard tapped into “mythic, primal narratives“. Jung thought that Haggard’s writing contained all of the archetypes of the unconscious. Ooh ‘eck. 😮
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I will definitely be listening to that interview soon. Thanks for sharing it.
One of my favourite parts of She was how beard-obsessed he seemed to be. He would constantly work the beards into his descriptions. My favourite, which I’m still trying to work into casual conversations, was:
[…] since we had started from England I had allowed my naturally luxuriant beard to grow at its own sweet will.
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Ha ha! That’s excellent. XD I’m always looking out for good food/eating references and also pipes/pipe smoking in classic literature, but facial hair is a whole new area to explore. Dickens is probably good for all three.