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Methodius Hayes [userpic]

Rider Haggard and Allan Quatermain

June 21st, 2007 (08:05 pm)
current location: Tshwane, Gauteng

A couple of weeks ago seraphimsigrist mentioned Rider Haggard's King Solomon's mines and his protagonist Allan Quatermain.

And so I pulled down my copy of Allan Quatermain and reread it, partly because it's the only one of Rider Haggard's books I possess, and when I read his books as a child it was one of my favourites. I was quite shocked to see that I'd bought it 35 years ago. I was suddenly possessed of a desire to reread it as an adult, and went and bought a copy, and read about half of it, then gave up. And the point where I gave up was where reality turned to fantasy. Not that I was against fantasy -- at about the same time I was reading Ursula le Guin's "Earthsea" books, and thoroughly enjoyed them, yet on rereading them for the third or fourth time more recently I wondered what I had seen in them.

But when I reread Allan Quatermain this time I enjoyed it. And I wondered why.

As a child, I read it as an adventure story, of course, and as fantasy fiction. The most adventurous bit was the trip by boat down an underground river, borrowed, no doubt, by Enid Blyton in her The secret of Kilimooin, the first of her books I read, and which I read before reading Allan Quatermain. And Rider Haggard seems to have written most of his Allan Quatermain books posthumously. The one with the death of his hero seems to have been written quite early on.

I suppose one reason for enjoying Allan Quatermain more as an old adult than as a young adult is that I know more. It was written seven years after the battle of Isandlwana, in which my great-grandfather took part. I didn't know much about the battle of Isandlwana when I read the book before, having been forced to give up history at school, and only taken up the study of it in my mid-30s, when I became interrested in family history, and when my father's cousin sent me a transcript of my great-grandfather's diary with his account of the battle it took on even more interest.

My great-grandfather, Richard Wyatt Vause (1854-1926) was almost an exact contemporary of Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925), and was also known by his middle name. Wyatt Vause could not have known at the time that Allan Quatermain also took part in the battle of Isandlwana, because Rider Haggard had not yet invented him, but that too was something they had in common, and gave the book more interest.

My wife's great grandfather, Daniel William Pearson (1856-1929) was also a contemporary, though he spent most of his life in his native Whitehaven, first as a butcher, like his father, and then as a sanitary inspector and inspector of nuisances for the Whitehaven Town Council. No stirring battles for him, other than, in his capacity of inspector of nuisances, stirring the shit.

His elder brother, on the other hand, Charles William Pearson (1847-1917), actually beat Allan Quatermain and company to the unexplored territory beyond Mount Kenya, because while Allan Quatermain and Wyatt Vause were scarpering from Isandlwana, Charles William Pearson was leading an expedition to Uganda by way of the Nile, on behalf of the Church Missionary Society, spending Christmas 1978 at Albert Nyanza (Lake), Uganda. He was on his way from there to Rubaga (his destination) when the battle of Isandlwana took place on 22 January 1879. Pearson clashed with one MacKay, because although Pearson was the leader, MacKay had arrived in Uganda earlier, via the East coast. Perhaps he was the model for the missionary in Allan Quatermain.

Anyway, all this gave Allan Quatermain much more interest, and I had known none of it when I had read the book previously.

A few months ago I reread another book from my childhood, John Buchan's Prester John. As with Rider Haggard, as a child I had read it as a straightforward adventure story. Both John Buchan and Rider Haggard were available in the school library, and provided an easy escape from an otherwise boring afternoon. I reread it to get some insight into the way in which British colonial officials regarded African Independent Churches a century ago. Buchan was such an official, and it helped to make sense of what I now read in the archives when I research church history.

But I also see it with new eyes, having studied history, and now being aware of the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa, which filled the 30 years between 1884 and 1914. When Rider Haggard wrote Allan Quatermain the New Imperialism was just getting going. When Prester John was published 23 years later it was in full swing. And it shows. Prester John really flaunts the imperialist propaganda tinged with racism. In Allan Quatermain it is much more restrained though both Haggard and Buchan make no bones about their contempt for continental Europeans, where Haggard has Alphonse, the French cook, as the prototype of the "surrender monkey" (the French and British rivalry in the Scramble came to a peak in Uganda). Buchan does the same with the Portuguese in Prester John though the contempt goes deeper. Haggard has female characters, and some quite powerful ones, whereas Buchan's characters move in an all-male universe.

Now I'm thinking I should reread more of Haggard's books, but they're probably as hard to find as Phil Rickman's.