TT: Riding into History with Haggard

Welcome to the 100th Thursday Tangent!   Interested in having the whole set – for free?  Alan has set the Tangents up as an e-book.  Go to for your free download.

Oh!  And if you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back one for a look at where you might start when preparing for a career as a professional writer.  Then join me and Alan as we explore the secret realms of H. Rider Haggard.

She and her sequels

She and Her Sequels

JANE: Last time, I mentioned that it was interesting that sword and sorcery fiction often presents itself as a prehistory of our modern world.   For example, the final scene of Moorcock’s Elric novels could be interpreted as the beginning of our world – complete with the entry of Evil into Eden, or at least Chaos into Order.

There is a whole rich crop of Fantasy fiction that expands upon recorded history and myth, often adding dimension to both.  Being a myth junkie, I’m very fond of these sort of stories. (I talked about this a bit in my WW 3-09-11.)  From other discussions we’ve had, I know that one particular author who wrote in this area was your gateway into SF/F.

ALAN: That was Henry Rider Haggard. I was only about 11 years old when I first discovered him. I can still remember the incredible thrill I got the first time I read She – I recently re-read it for the umpteenth time and it thrilled me all over again! Some magic never goes away.

Anyway – I’d read the classical myths of course (Greek mainly) but to me they were just stories.

JANE: You mean, they were all Greek to you?

ALAN: Groan! Yes, that’s exactly what they were.

So because the myths were no more than stories to me, I’d never really appreciated the  power and influence that they had on contemporary culture. However, Ayesha (She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed) was 2000 years old when the events of the novel took place and she’d grown up with the Greek (and Egyptian) myths as a very real embodiment of the world she was living in. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, when the events of the novel took place,  they were still tremendously influential on her point of view. Somehow Haggard brought that home to me and one of the reasons that 11 year old me loved the book so much was because, for the very first time, I’d truly learned to appreciate the power of myth as reality. I doubt I phrased it that explicitly to myself back then (I wasn’t that precocious), but, nevertheless, that’s what it amounted to.

JANE: Myth was my gateway to Fantasy and SF.  Somehow, it all seemed very real to me.   I knew all the Greek gods (and their Roman alternates), the Norse, a good chunk of the Egyptian when I was still in single digits.  I remember being deeply disappointed when a girl named “Diana” was chosen to do the report on Artemis when I was about ten, because I’d already adopted Artemis/Diana as one of my favorites.

You know, I think it’s interesting that “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed” has become mythic – or at least proverbial – because the phrase is used by people who have never heard of the original novel and its fascinating central character.

I believe Haggard used mythology in more than just his tales of Ayesha, didn’t he?

ALAN: Yes indeed.  Later I read the series of novels that Haggard wrote about Allan Quatermain’s early years – Quatermain was the hero of many Haggard novels, but the ones I’m specifically thinking about here are the trilogy made up of Marie, Child of Storm, and Finished. On the surface they are simply Quatermain’s autobiography of his adolescence and “obviously” he’s the “hero” of his own narrative. But it soon becomes clear that the power behind the events of the novels is a Zulu witch doctor called Zikali (the Thing-That-Should-Never-Have-Been-Born) and the narrative is soaked through with Zulu spirituality and myth. This of course was completely new to me – I’d had no previous exposure to the Zulu world view at all and again the power of myth and the use that Zikali makes of what is, to him, the reality of the world was overwhelming. To me, these three books are much more Zikali’s story than they are Quatermain’s.

JANE: That’s wonderful!  Now I want to read these.  I didn’t, probably because – as with Conan – the pop culture adaptations gave me a distorted view.

How well grounded was Haggard in his material or does Zulu simply stand in for “exotic Africa”?

ALAN: Haggard  spent a lot of time living in that part of the world and he was intimately familiar with the Zulu people so he was definitely writing from knowledge, not from ignorance. He actually wrote a non-fiction book called Cetewayo and His White Neighbours which was about the social and political problems of integrating Zulu culture with that of the Europeans. So he certainly was not making the mythology up as he went along.

However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he watered it down  a bit for the sake of his audience who, of course, would probably be largely ignorant of the culture and who would need something at least semi-familiar to grasp onto. I’ve seen both views expressed and I don’t know enough about it to have a firm opinion either way. But of course that doesn’t really matter; the important thing is the effect the material has upon the reader – and to me it was a hammer blow between the eyes.

JANE: And a powerful one, indeed.  Thanks!

ALAN: Haggard explored the Zulu theme in many other novels – Nada The Lily is a particularly good one, but he also returned again and again to Egyptian, Greek and even Buddhist world views, mixing and matching as it suited his story. Consequently, I’ve been convinced from a very early age that the believability of a fantasy world goes hand in hand with the strength of the mythology and history that it is built upon. Without it, the world seems thin and unconvincing – and the extruded fantasy product we sneered at a while back doesn’t work because it doesn’t have these firm foundations. A puff of skeptical wind and it all falls down into ruins.

JANE: I wholeheartedly agree…  Even when the religious traditions aren’t key to a story – as, for example, they weren’t in my early Firekeeper (aka “wolf”) books – I still try to make it clear that my characters have a spiritual side and that their culture provides expression for it.

ALAN: Yes – it’s very important to be clear that people don’t do things for arbitrary reasons, which is something that EFP (see TT 4-03-13 if you wonder what “EFP” stands for) writers often forget.

But I see I’ve got a bit carried away with my enthusiasm for one of my favorite writers.  I don’t think we’ve come anywhere near close to exhausting all the wonderful fiction that draws on myth and history.  Shall we continue with it next time?

JANE: Absolutely!


4 Responses to “TT: Riding into History with Haggard”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Interesting. I’ll have to check out more of Haggard’s work.

    Incidentally, much of Haggard’s corpus is available at Project Gutenberg:



    She and Allan:


    Child of Storm:


  2. Sally Says:

    Just read my first Haggard novel a few weeks ago: Montezuma’s Daughter, set among the Aztecs just after first contact (thank you, I thought it was really good, especially given the general pro-conquest mindset at that time. Of course it probably didn’t hurt that the Inquisition-era Spanish were the invaders rather than the British.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    My first exposure to Haggard was a radio series of King Solomon’s Mines. Heard on CBC, but could have been from the Beeb.

    Very powerful. He seems to lend himself well to the medium. In fact, reading She for myself was almost disappointing

  4. Paul Says:

    I guess “She” is the only Haggard I’ve read (so far). There have been two movie adaptations, one back in 1935, with Randolph Scott of all people as the explorer hero, and in 1965 with Ursula Andress in the title role, and icons Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in supporting roles. I’m told there was another in 1982, all but unrecognizable from its source material. But doesn’t that always happen with the third or later remake?

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