Forefathers of Sword and Sorcery: H. Rider Haggard


Belated birthday tributes are still better than none, right? I certainly hope so, because I was unable to post this on Sir Henry's birthday last Friday, due to the fact that I considered the centennial of "The Moon Pool" of paramount importance. There was also the fact that another, semi-secret project I'm working on required immediate attention.

Contemplate this list: Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Sax Rohmer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Harold Lamb, Talbot Mundy, A. Merritt and HP Lovecraft. That's a fairly complete roundup of the "grandsires of sword and sorcery"--i.e., the generation of authors that immediately preceded and influenced the birth of full-blown sword and sorcery in the pages of Weird Tales.

Now, ponder this list: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, CL Moore and Henry Kuttner.


What ties all of those authors together? One man and one man only: H. Rider Haggard. Every author listed above was a fan of Haggard. HRH not only influenced the first generation of S&S authors directly, he also influenced most of the other authors that influenced them. When it comes to the literary movers and shakers who influenced sword and sorcery, Haggard towers above all as a colossus, a titan, if not the outright supreme deity thereof.*

Haggard stands at the fountainhead and nexus of what I call "exotic adventure fiction." Such fiction moves beyond the sort of stories told up until that time--adventures of pirates, cowboys, swashbucklers, explorers and whatnot-- and adds something extra, something over the top, something truly exotic. One strand leads to tales of Indiana Jones, another to James Bond, another leads to John Carter or Tarzan... and another leads to Conan of Cimmeria. Haggard looms titanically behind all of that.

Consider Tolkien's massive, foundational influence upon high/epic fantasy. A sub-genre of a genre. Haggard's influence is the same for an entire macro-genre. Tolkien was also an HRH fan, by the way. In modern popular literature, Haggard's influence is inescapable.


Getting back to sword and sorcery, we know that Robert E. Howard named HRH among his "favorite authors." The volumes of Haggard in Howard's personal library that were recorded or have survived until today probably represent a fraction of the HRH that Bob actually read. In the early twentieth century, Haggard's fiction was ubiquitous, appearing in pulps as well as being bought by public libraries. I've only read around twenty of Haggard's novels and I've spotted an astonishing number of elements from them that REH likely borrowed. All of that rates another post(s) at some point.

While we know just the basic fact that Moore and Clark Ashton Smith were HRH fans, it turns out that Henry Kuttner was actually working on a master's thesis devoted to Haggard when he died. Leigh Brackett was a Haggard fan and Manly Wade Wellman likely was as well. Poul Anderson admired HRH. We also know that Moorcock admires Haggard's work. John Maddox Roberts based his novel Conan and the Treasure of Python upon King Solomon's Mines. As I said: inescapable.

I'm sure many of you out there are getting nervous, wondering if Haggard's fiction reads "all Victorian and old and stuff." Fear not, gentle readers. Sir Henry's prose reads surprisingly modern--though with a much better command of the English language than one usually sees nowadays. About the worst thing I can say about the average Haggard novel is it generally requires two or three chapters of setup before things start rockin'. After that, HANG ON. Would you rather spend a couple chapters letting HRH light the fuse for an explosion of adventure, or slog through a doorstopper chocked-full of the so-called protagonists examining their feelings for hundreds of pages? Haggard delivers the goods.

For S&S fans wanting to get into Haggard for the first time, it's hard to nail it down to just one novel. King Solomon's MinesEric BrighteyesThe Wanderer's Necklace and The People of the Mist all tend to be cited by HRH fans I know. I'm also very partial to She and Allan. Deadtree editions of Haggard are cheap and plentiful from online sellers. For those who want to digitally dip their toes into the Wellspring of Exotic Adventure, I heartily recommend Roy Glashan's online HRH archive.

*Though the argument can be made for one other, perhaps.