There are few writers who have the distinction of creating a new genre of fiction, still fewer whose influence is felt generations later. H. Rider Haggard is one such writer. With the publication of King Solomon’s Mines in 1885, the Lost Race genre was fully launched as a modern style of writing. There are of course precedents before Haggard made his mark, elaborate travelers’ tales of visits to imagined lands inhabited by unknown tribes. But Haggard took that motif of a hidden land of unknown wonders, stirred in the classic treasure hunt story, and wrapped it in a realistic, up-to-date Victorian setting.
Haggard sold very well too. His books were enormously popular. He had fifty-eight novels and story collections to his credit by the time he passed away in 1925. His influence on the rising generation of popular adventure and fantasy writers was enormous. Reflections of Haggard’s Lost Race adventures can be found in Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, A. Merritt, and dozens of others, in print, film, and other media. Haggard’s fiction was an object of interest in the new generation of literary criticism-cum-culture studies. Freud and Jung were both fascinated by Haggard’s work, particularly She (1887) with its bold depiction of an immortal sorceress and her undying love for the object of her desire. Not bad for a fellow who just wanted to write something as good as Treasure Island.
Henry Rider Haggard was born in 1856 at Bradenham, Norfolk, a village in southern England. His father was a barrister and his mother a writer. In 1875, Haggard’s father, fed up with his son’s lack of ambition, told him to go to Africa and make something of himself. Haggard duly went and found a position on the staff of Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Britain’s proconsul in South Africa.
This was an eventful era. Haggard accompanied Shepstone on missions to the Zulu king and raised the British flag over a newly annexed Boer republic. Haggard served as an administrator in Transvaal, married in England, farmed in Natal, and witnessed British triumphs and disasters in the Zulu War and the Boer War of 1881. Haggard and his wife returned to England where he settled down to life as a country lawyer.
Haggard had the desire to write though. His first novel, Dawn, was a fairly standard Victorian family romance. Shortly afterward, Haggard made a wager with his brother that he could write a novel as good as Treasure Island. Haggard won the bet with King Solomon’s Mines.
The story tells of an expedition by an English baronet and a semi-retired Royal Navy captain, accompanied by a white hunter and various natives in search of a missing man. They are guided by an old Portuguese map that reveals the route to an unexplored region with ancient ruins, fierce tribes, and vast treasure. To a seasoned reader of adventure novels, this sounds like formula, but it’s literally where the formula was invented.
The tale is narrated by Allan Quatermain, an old hunter eking out a living on the African frontier. He tells us what kind of cart you need for a trek into the wilderness, the sort of guns to bring along, the right type of oxen, and the importance of native servants. Thanks to Allan Quatermain’s voice, King Solomon’s Mines is grounded in a down-to-earth vision of life.
Yet King Solomon’s Mines is a romance in the classic sense of the word. It’s a story of love, greed, homecoming, and revenge. A knight-errant goes on a quest and finds love, a prince reclaims a stolen birthright, and explorers find a lost city from the pages of the Bible in the heart of Africa.
King Solomon’s Mines was a huge success and launched Haggard’s career. He immediately followed up with another success, She, a History of Adventure (1887). In this story, a young Englishman, Leo Vincey, and his guardian travel to East Africa to seek out the answer to the mystery of Leo’s family origin. They encounter perils from cannibal tribes before they find Ayesha, known as “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” an immortal Egyptian sorceress whose undying love for a Greek warrior transcends time and reincarnation’s vagaries. If anything, She is more fantastic than King Solomon’s Mines.
Both King Solomon’s Mines and She inspired multiple sequels. Allen Quatermain and Ayesha even met in She and Allan. Haggard’s output was not limited to stories of Allan and Ayesha, or even Africa. He wrote novels of English country life, tales of Ancient Egypt (Cleopatra), Phoenicia (Berenice), the Aztecs (Montezuma’s Daughter), the Dutch War of Independence (Lysbeth), and a Viking romance (Eric Brighteyes) among other settings. Two of his classic African adventures, The People of the Mist and Benita, closely follow the Lost Race formula he developed while sharply criticizing the greed inherent in treasure hunting.
The Zulu kingdom’s rise and fall loom large in Haggard’s stories. His classic “Zulu Trilogy,” Marie, Child of Storm, and Finished, tells of the witch doctor Zikali and his deep revenge on Shaka’s royal line. More Zulu drama is covered in Swallow, The Ghost Kings, and Nada the Lily. In particular Child of Storm and Nada the Lily, with their Zulu heroines, are superb adventure-romances.
Above all it is Haggard’s characters, whether they are an English county lad, a Zulu princess, a wizard, or a Royal Navy captain on half-pay who come to life. Ayesha, Mameena, Swanhilda the witch, and Nada the Lily are memorable women who blaze through Haggard’s novels like lightning. Umslopogaas, Captain Good, Zikali, Skallagrim the Berserk, and Horace Holley are just a few of Haggard’s supporting characters who stand out, sometimes even upstaging the heroes and villains.
Perhaps Allan Quatermain, who Haggard returned to in over a dozen novels and many short stories, is his greatest creation. It’s sometimes claimed Quatermain is based on notable hunters of the era such as John Dunn or Frederick Selous (whose adventures span the era from the Zulu War to World War I). The truth is, Quatermain speaks with Haggard’s voice. “I always find it easy to write of Allan Quatermain, who, after all, is only myself set in a variety of imagined situations, thinking my thoughts and looking at life through my eyes.”
Quatermain is a rustic Englishman transplanted to South Africa making his living as a hunter, prospector, and scout. He has a vast experience of the land, whether involving native tribes, flora, or fauna. Quatermain’s one dependent is his son, for whom he will risk a great deal to secure a better life.
He’s at home in a native kraal in Africa or a drawing room in England. He knows men and he knows elephants. He undertakes death-defying journeys to unknown realms hidden on the edge of time’s abyss, but he does so for the most prosaic reason of all, to provide for his son. Quatermain is an English everyman speaking with Haggard’s down-to-earth voice of unimaginable adventures.
And that perhaps is where Haggard’s genius shows. His stories aren’t just about ruins and treasure, tribes and wars, they are about people and the things that matter to them. Among the fantastic journeys and far voyages, Haggard tells us about love and hate, greed and generosity, loss and redemption. We are fortunate that Haggard took up his pen to spin his yarns for us. They open windows to imagined worlds beyond our own, but like all the best writing, they open windows to our souls.
David Hardy is an award-winning scholar in the field of Robert E. Howard studies. Hardy is also a prolific author of historical adventures and tales of sword-and-sorcery. His stories can be found on Amazon.