EVER SINCE READING, as a teenager, H. Rider Haggard’s classic adventure novels She and King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Allan Quatermain, I’d been hungry to find more from Haggard. It wasn’t until, as an adult, I was gifted a Kindle and found an ebook of his complete works that I was able to: aside from the well-known titles already mentioned, hardly anything remains in print from an author who was once one of the English-speaking world’s most popular.
This likely has to do with much of Haggard’s work’s status as colonial fiction, which has had a hard time attracting any readers since around the advent of post-colonial literature. Kipling, one of the most prominent writers of his own time, is nowadays hardly read, save for the odd academic defence or condemnation. Heart of Darkness remains on syllabi, likely aided by being so deconstructionary and generally difficult, but the rest of Conrad’s colonial fiction is obscure.
Haggard himself inaugurated the genre with King Solomon’s Mines, but his full oeuvre of more than fifty novels spans almost half a century and an array of genres including early examples of science fiction and the historical novel, and settings ranging across Africa, Europe, Asia and North and South America as well as throughout human history. Popular sales and enthusiastic reviews sustained his career well into the twentieth century, and dozens of film adaptations appeared, from Georges Méliès’ 1899 “The Pillar of Fire”, based on She, to Hammer’s 1965 treatment of the same material, while the last thirty years has seen Haggard’s only screen representation come from the 2008 Asylum mockbuster Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls, taking more cues from the successful (and Haggard-influenced) Indiana Jones films than the text it purportedly adapts. To this day, echoes of Haggard’s work are evident in all kinds of stories of adventure and fantasy, exploration and colonisation – the recent success of Marvel’s Black Panther film, set in a Haggard-like hidden African kingdom, attests to this – but his novels themselves remain little-read and overdue for re-interpretation.
The books in question, it must be said, range in quality as well as content – though the very roughest still make for stirring yarns – but the most remarkable among them is Nada the Lily, an early example of the spin-off prequel for a successful series, exploring the younger days of Umslopogaas who, in Allan Quatermain, had played a formidable variation on the Man Friday noble savage part.
Already the ambition of Nada the Lily is evident, for it is hard to imagine the original Man Friday, nor any of his literary descendants, meriting their own derivative work – particularly not one in which the narrative is at no point driven by their relationship to white European characters. In fact, the entire cast of Nada the Lily are black Africans, and many of them are real historical figures, or closely based on them: while the “Lost World” literary genre began with the imaginary Kukuanaland of King Solomon’s Mines, and was more fully explored in the hidden Zu-Vendis kingdom of white Africans in Allan Quatermain, Nada the Lily’s action takes place in the very real Zululand, and in what was then the fairly recent past. We would not, either, expect the prequel to a fantastical adventure story to fall more into historical fiction, then still a relatively young genre having been codified by Sir Walter Scott in the first half of the century. No prior attempts appear to have been made at a novel of African history, and Nada holds the distinction of being the first ever novel with an entirely black cast. In fact, given the paucity of African written records, such a novel could probably only have come from a colonial adventurer such as Haggard, who relied heavily on the oral histories he picked up from natives as well as the partial reconstructions attempted by some of his contemporaries, such as the missionary Henry Callaway.
In a favourite technique of Haggard’s, the narrative is presented as a genuine artefact, with occasional interjections by its “editor”. In the frame narrative, a white explorer becomes stranded in a sudden and mysterious snowdrift, whereupon he gets caught up hearing the main story, which is recounted to him by the elderly Mopo, who was once witch-doctor to the great king Chaka (better known to modern readers as Shaka Zulu), and father of the beautiful Nada who is the object of the young Umslopogaas’ love. Umslopogaas has been raised as Nada’s brother but is in actuality the son of Chaka, kept secret by Mopo due to Chaka’s policy of having all his sons killed lest one should rise against him.
Following Chaka’s assassination by his half-brother Dingaan, Nada is forced to flee, taking refuge on the great Ghost Mountain, with “a grey peak rudely shaped like the head of an aged woman” in a manner recalling the twin peaks nicknamed Sheba’s Breasts, in King Solomon’s Mines. Unlike Sheba’s Breasts, however, the Ghost Mountain really exists, though Haggard never visited and took some dramatic licence in its depiction. Here his carefully-researched historical epic takes a turn into the phantasmagorical territory which made his name, with Umslopogaas’ introduction to the mountain’s unique resident, Galazi the Wolf, who has been raised by the mountain’s resident wolf-pack (Kipling acknowledged in a letter to Haggard that the concept for The Jungle Book grew from reading Nada the Lily), though presumably the “wolves” are hyenas. Galazi acts as the pack’s leader and the wolves do his bidding, making for an unforgettable Haggard set-piece as he makes his last stand on the Ghost Mountain.
Haggard’s blending of fantastical elements with historical narrative makes Nada the Lily one of his most appealing works; his books have always been sold on his great imaginative power, while the lofty tone of his prose, informed by Homer and the King James Bible, is often undercut by a lack of polish and an occasional clumsiness. He himself seems to have been aware of this, but preferred to leave his manuscripts unrevised, asserting in his autobiography The Days of My Life that “wine of this character loses its bouquet when it is poured from glass to glass”. The energy and roughshod nature of his earlier adventure novels is less evident in the latter half of his body of work, which is dominated by melodramas and further historical tales. Indeed, the narrative of Nada the Lily itself is revisited and continued in a trilogy of novels – Marie, Child of Storm and Finished – which fully integrate Allan Quatermain and his wife Marie into the action, covering a number of key historical events such as the Great Trek, the Weenen Massacre and finally the Anglo-Zulu War with the detail of an amateur historian and, in some cases, an eyewitness. All are captivating, but Nada the Lily stands as the ultimate Haggard work. The tone is set in the very opening lines of the “Introduction”, as detailed documentary narrative begins to give way to the spellbinding voice of folk-tale or oral history:
Some years since–it was during the winter before the Zulu War–a White Man was travelling through Natal. His name does not matter, for he plays no part in this story. With him were two wagons laden with goods, which he was transporting to Pretoria. The weather was cold and there was little or no grass for the oxen, which made the journey difficult; but he had been tempted to it by the high rates of transport that prevailed at that season of the year, which would remunerate him for any probable loss he might suffer in cattle. So he pushed along on his journey, and all went well until he had passed the little town of Stanger, once the site of Duguza, the kraal of Chaka, the first Zulu king and the uncle of Cetywayo. The night after he left Stanger the air turned bitterly cold, heavy grey clouds filled the sky, and hid the light of the stars.
The synthesis of styles is sufficiently convincing to allow for a premonition much later in the book, and spelling out its underlying theme, not to spoil the narrative immersion:
Thou canst not kill this white men, for they are not of one race, but of many races, and the sea is their home; they rise out of the black water. Destroy those that are here, and others shall come to avenge them, more and more and more! Now thou hast smitten in thy hour; in theirs they shall smite in turn. Now they lie low in blood at thy hand; in a day to come, O King, thou shalt lie low in blood at theirs.
So prophesies Mopo to Dingaan, elaborating on a prophesy made earlier by Chaka with his dying breath. The Shakespearean wrangling for the Zulu throne which has driven the novel’s tragic events is given a deeply ironic weight by the reader’s sure knowledge that all of this contending for power is in vain, and the alienating effect on the European reader shown himself as Other, as relentless monster, is increased by the richly immersive detail with which the novel portrays the Zulu way of life. The cultural destruction wrought by colonialism has never been more vividly made plain, though Chinua Achebe’s novel of immediately pre-colonial Nigerian life, Things Fall Apart, does make use of a similar effect.
Both are novels which make no attempt at “whitewashing” pre-Christian African values; Nada the Lily’s heroes and villains alike are recognisably Zulu in culture, with their multiple wives, pragmatic attitudes toward death, and glorification of war and conquest. Haggard’s treatment of Chaka, in particular, is spectacular. His cruelty and paranoia, and the sheer arbitrariness with which so many of his acts are conceived and carried out, is chillingly similar to the tyrants that came before and after him: Genghis Khan, Caligula, Idi Amin. Yet Chaka is also a visionary, terrible but great, and fits in with popular conceptions of tragic conquerors like Caesar or Napoleon.
Like every one of Nada the Lily’s characters, in short, his actions play out on a grand, larger-than-life scale, something Haggard was unique among Victorian authors – and even early-to-mid 20th-Century writers – in acknowledging could be afforded to native African affairs. The aforementioned superhero film Black Panther has broken a number of box-office records, and won much critical acclaim for its images of a bold, vibrant, and epic black African adventure directed at mainstream audiences. Yet it has an antecedent, more than a century old, in Nada the Lily and the rest of the series.