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Haggard’s Questioning of the Heroic

John Coates


Rider Haggard is sometimes thought of as a writer who offered thrilling incidents, racial stereotypes and imperialist propaganda, or as a naïve myth-maker, unlocking his subconscious and reaching out to ours. Concentrating on ‘Eric Brighteyes’ (1891) and ‘Narda the Lily’ (1892), this paper argues that Haggard was far more nuanced and self-aware than is commonly supposed. The two novels explore his misgivings about the warrior ethic and competitive heroic societies.

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  • 1 Jonathan Keates, ‘Haggard, Sir Henry Rider 1856-1925’, Markers of Nineteenth Century Culture 1800-1 (...)

To understand and appreciate Rider Haggard is to understand the hankering for sheer, uncomplicated sensation and adventure which is a crucial and often disastrous element in the character of the Englishman.1

  • 2 C. S. Lewis, ‘The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard’, (1960 repr in Of This and Other Worlds Ed. Wal (...)
  • 3 Wendy R. Katz, Rider Haggard and the Fiction of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987 (...)

1Such a comment, in a standard work of reference, typifies a frequently expressed critical unease about Haggard’s work. But it is hard to dismiss novels some of which remain in print more than a century after they first appeared. If only as a cultural phenomenon, such writings must be significant. Time has only confirmed C. S. Lewis’s judgement that it is ‘no longer any good pretending that [Haggard’s] best work was merely an ephemeral and commercial success,’2 vanishing with the novels of Ouida, Stanley Weyman or Max Pemberton. The critical problem is why Haggard survives when the well-plotted and enjoyable work of such contemporaries does not. Rather than trying to solve the riddle, scholars sometimes prefer to deplore the public’s taste for this writer. As one commentator puts it, we should be particularly on our guard with Haggard’s ‘soft propaganda’. It ‘checks one’s critical abilities’ and, by ‘fostering a limited moral consciousness’ in readers, makes them vulnerable to ‘potentially dangerous ideas.’3

2Such a view is inherently implausible. If all Haggard had to offer was a mélange of thrilling incidents, racial stereotypes and imperialist propaganda he would hardly have appealed to such a range of readers for so long. Based on selective quotation, the critic may indict him for attitudes some consider racist but this is to ignore both the context in which Haggard wrote and the actual complexities of his views. In any case, the question of why we read Haggard, rather than, say, Henry Seton-Merriman, remains unanswered.

3This paper will examine one of the most important reasons for Haggard’s popularity; one underrated and misunderstood by critics. Through a close examination of the treatment of the heroic in two of his best novels, I shall seek to demonstrate that it was far from being an indulgence in violence and wild incidents produced by and aimed at, the immature mind. Hopefully, what will emerge from detailed reading is evidence of a writer questioning the adventurous world he created. Although Haggard celebrated heroism, he was far from being uncritical of the moral and emotional issues it raised. This article will argue that it was the depth rather than the shallowness of Haggard’s understanding of the heroic that explains his continued hold on readers.

1 Weakness of the View of Haggard as a Compulsive Myth-Maker

4A close examination of two of Haggard’s texts might be useful in another way. Those who have defended Rider Haggard’s novels have sometimes done so by presenting him as a myth-maker writing under compulsions. It is his emotional history which explains his work. Bedevilled by psychological needs which he did not understand but which are clear to us, he reached into some deeper level of the mind, bringing back strange, potent images. The fact that Carl Jung chose Ayesha in She as a prime example of the anima reinforced interpretation of this kind.

5There are facts in Haggard’s biography which give such views plausibility. Critics may point to a man undervalued by his irascible, exacting father who denied him the public-school and university education his brothers received. Unable to marry the woman he loved, he remained obsessed by her image and unsatisfied by a ‘sensible’ marriage to a dutiful, well-off wife. Perhaps, too, he wrote to prove his worth to his adored mother or because he wished to exorcise the anger he felt at the decline of the landowning class to which his family belonged by seeking refuge in fantasies of power, wealth and immortality.

6Whichever of these compulsions they choose, such critics agree in putting them, rather than conscious artistic or intellectual choices, at the heart of Haggard’s work. Lacking literary skill or stylistic distinction, in some way Haggard could draw upon the turmoil in his mind produced by wounded pride, repressed anger, sexual disappointment and fantasies of a union with his true-love after death. Episodes in some of Haggard’s novels might certainly be read as authorial wish-fulfilment. The recovery of the beloved one had been forbidden to marry (Montezuma’s Daughter), the certainty of reunion with her after death (Dawn, The Way of the Spirit, Beatrice, Ayesha) or the saving of endangered estates and old, landowning families by unlooked-for good-fortune (Mr Meeson’s Will, Colonel Quaritch V.C, The People of the Mist), all look easy to relate to what we know, or surmise, about Haggard’s emotional life. There is perhaps a problem in the fact that episodes like these occur in other Victorian and Edwardian novels whose authors do not appear to have suffered from what we assume were Haggard’s emotional problems. A more serious objection to the notion of Haggard as a naïve myth-maker, unlocking his subconscious and reaching out to ours, is that it lacks explanatory power. Why did the process of transmuting raw emotion into mythic images occur in his case and not in others’? There must, after all, have been many Victorian squires’ sons with troublesome fathers and unhappy love lives. Secondly, how did the metamorphosis these critics imagine actually occur? Since, on this interpretation, Haggard’s work is a kind of automatic writing its transmutation of personal obsession into universally compelling image cannot really be elucidated.

7In fact, to see Haggard as a novelist only in this way is to ignore a substantial part of his resources and effects. Some, at least, of his fiction is informed by the painstaking gathering of facts and care in their interpretation which went into his social investigations. The gap between the impulse which produced Rural England (1902) or The Poor and the Land (1905) and that which lay behind several of his romances was not as great as some have supposed. Certainly, concerns about the nature of society are present, in a very overt form, in Haggard’s minor works such as Dr Thearne or Beatrice. Better-known novels show a desire to inform readers and provide them with ways of seeing historical events or other cultures. It is worth discriminating between the quality and kinds of Haggard’s work rather than blurring it together as ‘adventure fiction’. Potboilers, which he admitted were written to help support his Ditchingham estate, (such as The Ghost Kings or Queen Sheba’s Ring) differ from the two serious explorations of the ‘heroic’ and ‘primitive’ this paper will discuss, Eric Brighteyes (1891) and Nada the Lily (1892).

8Haggard produced these novels at a specific and significant point of his career. They were written immediately after and partly in response to, a burst of attacks on him by reviewers and just before the death of his much loved only son Jock (1891). Haggard’s bereavement, which produced years of acute mental depression and psychosomatic disorders, probably took much of the heart out of his novel writing. Certainly none of his later books stand comparison with what he had written before.

2 Haggard’s More Careful Writing in Response to Critics’ Attacks

  • 4 H. Rider Haggard, ‘About Fiction', Contemporary Review, (February, 1887) quoted by Tom Pocock, Ride (...)
  • 5 George Moore, Court and Society (March 30, 1887), quoted by Morton Cohen, Rider Haggard: His Life a (...)

9Envy which the runaway success of She aroused was exacerbated by an article Haggard wrote for The Contemporary Review. In this piece, he dismissed most contemporary fiction as worthless and the majority of reviewers as intellectually bankrupt. Only in his own field of adventure writing were there ‘still subjects that may be handled’ by those who had the talent. When other novels were forgotten, such work would appeal ‘to all time and humanity at large’.4 The combination of Haggard’s popular appeal, financial rewards and this bumptious article produced an avalanche of abuse. The reviewers heaped upon his head accusations of plagiarism, sadism, indecent eroticism, gratuitous violence, ‘gross excitements and vulgar display,’5 and plain bad writing. Haggard’s standing and self-esteem were permanently affected by the episode.

  • 6 Cohen 187.
  • 7 Cohen 188.
  • 8 Cohen 187.

10He reacted to the charge of careless writing by taking far greater pains over his work. The ‘additional care’ Haggard spent on Eric Brighteyes serves ‘to distinguish it from his earlier six to ten week productions’. Nada the Lily was equally well planned and pondered. Written at the urging of Andrew Lang who ‘put Haggard on a train of thought that led him to write his best fiction,’6 it shows the effect of his friend’s proof-reading and Haggard’s willingness to take his advice. Lang pruned Haggard’s stylistic excesses, recommending a ‘serious consideration of epithets, adjectives’7 and curbed his taste for the sanguinary. More importantly, he tried to guide Haggard to mythic themes and ‘primitive’ societies. (One suggestion was that Haggard write about the priest of Nemi from Frazer’s The Golden Bough). Lang also prompted Haggard to fulfil a demand he had made in The Scots Observer for a novel ‘all Zulu without a white face in it.’8

3 Haggard’s Sense of the Ruthlessness of History

  • 9 H. Rider Haggard, Eric Brighteyes (1891 repr London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1924) 282. Subsequent re (...)

11The most significant fact about Eric Brighteyes and Nada the Lily, the two novels about ‘primitive’ societies Haggard wrote with Lang’s encouragement is that both tales portray worlds about to change radically. The late pagan Icelandic world and the Zulu empire will both shortly be culturally and politically transformed. Christianity in Iceland and the Boer Trek are imminent. In both novels characters encounter the new forces and recognise their future importance but in neither case do those forces play any significant part in the narrative. While it is not literally true that Nada the Lily is ‘all Zulu without a white face in it’, the first abortive incursion of the Boers makes no contribution to the tragedy which unfolds within the novel. On a visit to England, Eric encounters Christianity which he discusses with his bride Gudruda shortly before she is murdered. Gudruda is drawn to what he tells her since she is ‘weary of death and blood and evil deeds, such as are pleasing to our Gods.’9 This hint of what is to come proceeds no further and the novel ends with the reminder that its chief characters, Eric, Gudruda, Swanhild and Skallagrim all ‘lived and died before Thangbrand, Wilibald’s son, preached the White Christ in Iceland’ (324).

  • 10 H. Rider Haggard, ‘Books which have Influenced Me’, British Weekly Extra (London, n.d), quoted by D (...)
  • 11 E. G. E. Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race (1871 repr. Dover, NH: Alan Sutton, 1995), 109.
  • 12 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859 repr. London: The Folio Society, 1985), p. XV.
  • 13 Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 157.

12By removing external factors from his two portraits of late warrior culture, Haggard concentrates on what it is in each world which works its overthrow. The moral and physical fabrics of Icelandic and Zulu society unravel because of predispositions, choices and conflicts in each. Both are destroyed from inside before they are (or perhaps can be) replaced. The downfall of cultures interested Haggard intellectually and his imagination was fired by the idea of civilisations, often of great achievement, which are left devastated. Apart from Ayesha’s death in the pillar of flame, the image in all his work which remains in most readers’ memories is likely to be that of the ruins of Kor. There are many examples in his novels of the ruthlessness of history and its stern reckoning with societies it consigns to oblivion. Of course a historicism which stressed the rise and fall of civilisations, or societies, was widespread in his time. A clue to the slant Haggard gave such historicism may be found in his early reading. In 1887, he remarked that his two favourite books were Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race: ‘Both books I can read again with an added pleasure.’10 The mysterious subterranean race in Bulwer-Lytton’s early piece of science-fiction, the Vril-Ya, are destined to replace human beings because they have been ‘calmly developing. . . virtues to which our life, social and political, becomes antagonistic in proportion as our civilisation advances’. They will be mankind’s inevitable destroyers because their rational society has solved the problems of war, class-hatred, envy and the ‘vices that rot our cities.’11 Admitting his debt to the ‘philosophy of Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book’12 Dickens portrays the French aristocracy as doomed because they are useless, a ‘great heap of dolls’ or ‘a flock of birds unable to fly,’13 Read again and again when, as a youth, he first went to Africa, and retaining their hold on him in later years, the two books offered a particular view of historical change. The driving force of such change was not better weaponry or racial superiority. Societies fell because of their own moral failures or contradictions, their lack of coherent purpose or spiritual value, their inherent self-destructiveness and often because of those they excluded.

4 The Excluded and Unrecognised in the Heroic World, More Significant Than the Supernatural

13One significant feature of Eric Brighteyes and Nada the Lily is the importance which these stories of archaic, heroic societies give to the excluded and unrecognised, to those on the margins who must use cunning to survive or win revenge. Understandably (if not justifiably) angered by their treatment within the heroic world, these figures work its destruction. The narrative framework of each novel compels readers to question the nature of the societies in which champions enact their feats and live out their adventures. ‘Sheer uncomplicated sensation’ is an inadequate description of the problems the novels raise and of the subtlety of their effect.

14In his introduction to Eric Brighteyes, Haggard draws attention to two features of the Icelandic Saga world, its belief in the supernatural and its reliance on fate as the explanation for events. The first was an example of the ‘tendency of the human mind. . . to supply uncommon and extraordinary reasons’ (IX) for what natural causes will easily explain. The ‘beauty and inherent power of such a woman as Swanhild’ (IX), her force of will and sexual appeal are enough for her to accomplish her ends. It is unnecessary to invoke witchcraft to explain her success since her own characteristics are ‘more forceful than any spell’. Similarly, Eric’s ‘human weakness’ explains his yielding to her. ‘Eric would have wanted no love-draught to bring about his overthrow’. Haggard wishes his readers to enjoy the novel’s supernatural scenes (as they no doubt will) but warns them against seeing spells, incantations or love potions as determining factors in its narrative. He is merely following the original saga practice of including the uncanny, in order to invest ‘the acts of heroes and heroines’ with an ‘added importance’ (IX).

15As far as fate is concerned, Haggard remarks that ‘the Norse mind had little belief in free will, less even than we have today’ (IX). The Viking belief in fate and the Determinism current in the later nineteenth century are responses to the experience of an ‘intense realisation of the futility of life, the vanity of its desires’ (X). By suggesting that such fatalism is a mood with which men of widely differing cultures may sympathise, Haggard demotes it from role as the single explanatory scheme of his story. It is too general an inclination at all times to be the final word on any specific personal or social situation.

16From the beginning of Eric Brighteyes we are offered a clear light on the origin of the course of destruction which runs through the novel’s plot. It comes about not through magic or fate but because of the nature of Icelandic society. Ruin comes upon Asmund, his daughter Gudruda, and her lover, Eric because of women’s anger at an initial act of injustice. The revenge Groa and her daughter Swanhild take is what drives the narrative of Eric Brighteyes. Eric performs his exploits in order to obtain the marriage to Gudruda which their intrigues have thwarted. The two women’s revenge is a years’ long tale of lies, treachery and murder. Yet, vile as their actions may be, they are understandable. Their behaviour has a context in the social usages of their world.

17The mainspring of action in Eric Brighteyes is identified at the outset as Asmund Asmundson’s refusal to marry Groa the Finnishwoman whom he discovered shipwrecked on the beach and made his mistress. Asmund, the Priest of Middalhof, embodies some of the conflict of values within his society. He won his wealth as ‘a red-hand’ Viking’ (14) in doings of which ‘black tales were told’. What he gained in his youthful raids and slaughter, he carefully invested in farms, merchant ships and ‘much money out at interest’ (14). He is a man of great standing, ‘skilled in matters of law’ and ‘feared by all’. Since ‘he loved money much’, his increasing wealth has mellowed his nature and ‘as he aged he grew more kindly’ (14).

18His bond with Groa is based on strong sexual attraction but even more, on a respect for her intelligence from which he ‘profited much’ (15) is his financial dealings. When he turns against her, after ‘the veil is lifted’ (70) and he sees her as she is, she declares, truly enough, that ‘however great my faults, at least I have always loved thee and laboured for thee. . . in some fashion thy fortunes are the debtor to my wisdom’ (71). Although in all other things Groa has led Asmund for years ‘as it were by a halter’ (22), she has not obtained what she most wants from him, marriage and the acknowledgement of their child Swanhild as his daughter. Although she ‘schemed and plotted much to bring it about that Asmund should wed her’ (22), she has to be content with a position those around her and she herself regard as disgraceful. Eventually, when Asmund plans to discard her in order to marry a more socially suitable woman, Groa reacts in a way with which the reader will probably sympathise: ‘What! Have I borne the greatest shame, lying by thy side these many years and shall I live to see a rival, young and fair, creep into my place with honour’ (70).

19The formal reason for Asmund’s refusal to marry Groa is the oath his first wife extracted from him on her deathbed not to ‘take the witch-woman to wife’ nor to ‘have anything to do with her’. (He keeps the first pledge, if not the second). It is quite clear, however, that other factors are involved. Several references to her Finnish origins suggest that she belongs to a suspected foreign race. Her energy, cunning, intellect and her strange intuitions, proof to herself and others that she is ‘fey’ or a witch alienate as well as impress those with whom she comes into contact. (Haggard has already warned us to see the supernatural in his novel in psychological terms). Asmund exploits Groa’s abilities but comes to fear her, threatening to have her ‘hurled as a witch into Goldfoss pool’ (70). Anxious to cement a relationship with Asmund which will secure marriage to his legitimate daughter Gudruda, Eric suggests a suitable wife for the old man. Unna, Eric’s kinswoman, has all the qualities Groa lacks. ‘A fair woman skilled in all things’ (68) and ‘buxom’ as well as ‘blithe and bonny’ (69) she will obviously prove a reliable, undisturbing helpmeet and housekeeper. Not especially attracted to Asmund, Unna sees marriage to him as a sensible economic choice. Although ‘somewhat gone in years’ (69), he is ‘wealthy in lands, goods and moneys out at interest’ (69). The marriage and the motives of those who plan to undertake it suggest Icelandic social norms.

20Groa’s daughter, Swanhild inherits her mother’s anomalous social position and consequent sense of grievance. After trying to murder Gudruda, she goes to the root of the matter in an exchange with Asmund: ‘And this I say to thee who art my father: shame be on thee who hast not dared to own thy child!’ (112). While the treatment meted out to Groa and Swanhild cannot justify their plots and murders it does make their emotional state comprehensible. Slighted and denied legitimate status and position, like her mother, Swanhild follows her in deriving pleasure from manipulating and humiliating figures from the world of male authority: ‘This was her joy: to draw the hearts of men to her and then to mock them’ (23). Swanhild finds a particular satisfaction in undermining the man most respected in the society which has confined her to the margins. ‘Atli the good’, ruler of Orkney, is ‘the best of all the earls who lived in those days’ (72), a great warrior ‘famed for his wealth’ and a ‘man of many wise sayings’ (73). For Swanhild, Atli, a ‘great fish to be hooked’ (74) is the ideal victim: ‘It would be the best of sport to make this old man love her, and then to mock him’ (73–74). So much the model man of that place and time, he is, besides a more potent version of the father who refused to own her.

5 Haggard’s Supposed Fear of Female Emancipation

  • 14 H. Rider Haggard, She, Ed. Andrew.M.Stauffer, (Peterboro, Ontario, Plymouth, Sidney: Broadview, 200 (...)
  • 15 H. Rider Haggard, The Heart of the World (1894 repr. London: Harrap, 1928) 13.

21How are we best to understand powerful, angry women like Groa and Swanhild in Haggard’s novel? It might be tempting to discuss the powerful, rebellious women in Eric Brighteyes in terms of Haggard’s supposed anxiety about contemporary moves towards female emancipation. Recent critical accounts of She have dwelt on supposed connections between Haggard’s Ayesha and changing views of woman’s role at the end of the nineteenth century. As the novel’s latest editor puts it, She ‘engages the whole question of female political power’ and provides ‘a touchstone for many of the anxieties surrounding the New Woman in late-Victorian England’. However, readings which find the matrix of Haggard’s writing in anxieties about ‘female power and sexuality’14 encounter some difficulties. Concerns about the New Woman (if Haggard felt them) are not touched upon, even glancingly, in his autobiography Days of My Life or in his Diaries of 1914 to 1925. More significantly, sexual anxiety is not a feature of his novels as a whole. Their attitude to erotic and emotional relationships is matter-of-fact, unburdened by moralistic luggage and, for its time, open-minded. The descriptions in She of the sexual freedom of the Amahagger women are uncensorious. Varieties of erotic feeling get sympathetic treatment simply as things that happen in life. Soa’s lesbian passion for Juanna in The People of the Mist, the ‘love passing the love of women’15 of Don Ignatio for James Strickland in The Heart of the World or Skallagrim’s devotion to Eric whose ‘thrall’ he chooses to become are only a few examples of a refusal to judge or condemn the different faces of love. There are several examples, too of a woman taking power in a rebellion which the reader is clearly meant to endorse and enjoy. In Morning Star (1910), for instance, a sisterhood of brave women, Neter-Tua, Asti and Ahura defeat and humiliate various brutish, inadequate men in ancient Egypt.

22Perhaps, however, he included potent and angry women in Eric Brighteyes simply from a desire for authenticity in what he describes as an attempt to write a modernised Icelandic saga ‘cast in the form of a romance of our own day’ (X)? Certainly, there are powerful, even terrifying women in the Icelandic sagas, such as Gudrun in Laxdaela Saga or Hallgerd and Bergthora in Njal’s Saga. However, there is a notable difference between these women and Swanhild. They pursue their vengeance from personal pique or slighted family honour. Swanhild and her mother react to an injustice which is implicit in the values of their society.

6 The Fault Lines in the Icelandic World

23The action of Eric Brighteyes turns upon a fundamental flaw in the way in which dark-age Icelanders see and try to make sense of their world and in its values. There is a contradiction in their vision of things from which the tragedies of the novel emerge. Asmund’s early life as a pirate and his later career of careful investment and well-protected financial status suggests conflicting priorities which, while they might be reconciled in the life of an individual, remain at odds in the society as a whole. As portrayed in the novel, Icelandic culture is preoccupied with status acquired through wealth and family alliances. These are the feelings to which Groa appeals when she wishes to break the love-bond between Eric and Gudruda so that her own daughter can have the young man. Exploiting Asmund’s consciousness of money and status, she pretends to put his thoughts into words: ‘Asmund would turn Gudruda’s beauty to account’ (23) and, of course, anyone who marries his daughter must be rich in friends and money. Rather than casting her away on ‘this troutlet of a yeoman’ (34–35) Eric, Gudruda should be used to ‘build a wall’ around Asmund. ‘Too prosperous’ he is hated by many for his ‘state and wealth’ (35). Even though he is ‘evil and hideous’ (35) and, in appearance ‘half a troll’ (38) Ospakar Blacktooth possessed of great riches and a hundred followers, would make an advantageous match. Asmund allows himself to be persuaded.

24‘But a farmer’ for whom ‘things have not gone too well’ (33), Eric, by contrast, has only one way to win his love. This is through success in displays of courage, the quality his culture values as much as wealth. Outstanding exploits are rewarded with gifts like the gold-ring Asmund offers Eric for saving his daughter (32) or the gold-chain Earl Atli throws around the young man’s neck after he has conquered the Mosfell Baresarks (110). The praise and status acts of daring win are almost as valuable. After he defeats Skallagrim, ‘as Brighteyes came, all men arose and with one voice shouted’ until the roof of the great hall rocked hailing Eric as the ‘glory of the South’ (109). When Eric makes his way to Asmund’s Yule-Feast down Golden Falls, the response is similar. By taking the only route to the feast Asmund will allow, an act of vividly described heroism (44–48), Eric, as his host admits, has ‘done a deed that shall be told while skalds sing and men live in Iceland’ (49).

25Eric Brighteyes explores the history of Eric’s exploits in terms of the conflict between status through prowess and status through wealth. Given the odds against him, the hero must continually raise the stakes. While his first exploits are bloodless, his later career is increasingly homicidal. It culminates in two outrages. Eric kills his friend and benefactor Earl Atli: who ‘loved [him] above all men’, after yielding to the advances of Swanhild, now Atli’s wife. He kills Atli because his ‘manhood might not bear’ (207) the taunts of the man he had wronged. Then at Ospakar’s abortive marriage to Gudruda, Eric initiates a bloodbath at which Gudruda herself looks down ‘eyes fixed in horror’ (243): ‘The blood of freeman, lord and thrall ran adown the floor. . . men sought no mercy and they gave none, but smote and slew till few were left to slay’ (242–243).

26The envy his fame arouses in Ospakar, Asmund’s son Bjorn and in others, is certainly part of the reason for Eric’s tragedy. A more fundamental cause lies in the pursuit of heroic glory itself. Each exploit must surpass its predecessor, and each involves more bloodshed. The cult of heroism grows out of and is fed by a culture of passionate self-assertion. Before his feast, Asmund gives out the toasts, to Frey asking for plenty, to Thor for strength in battle, to Freya for love and Bragi for delight but, above all, ‘a full horn to Odin praying for “triumph on their foes”’ (52). Groa tells her daughter that ‘happiness is to the bold’ (24). Whatever it is that brings Swanhild joy ‘cut thy path to it and take it; else all their life shall be but weariness’ (24). Now is the time to satisfy one’s longings ‘for age creeps on apace and beyond is darkness’ (25). These are not the perverse teachings of a witch-woman but identical with the attitudes of Icelandic male heroic society.

27Such values mean that Eric must maintain and constantly reinforce his reputation. After drinking the toast to Odin and Freya, then, he takes an oath to conquer Skallagrim ‘while the feasters applauded, striking their cups upon the board’ (53). Significantly, his love is not so enthusiastic: ‘Only Gudruda looked askance, for it seemed to her that Eric swore too fast’ (53).

7 Problem of the Hero’s Companion

28Central to the heroic mode of life whose codes it reflects, the relationship Eric forms with the Barsark Skallagrim is the chief route to the hero’s destruction. Originally ‘a yeoman of small wealth’ (84) Skallagrim had lost his wife to Ospakar whose mistress she had become after growing ‘weary of [their] hard way of life’ (84). Skallagrim goes ‘baresark’, a state of demented fury: (‘Fire raged before my eyes and voices in my ears called me to war and vengeance’ (85)). He falls on Ospakar’s servants and ‘when the madness passed, eight men lay stretched out before me and all the place was but a gore of blood’ (85). Such fits recur at regular intervals.

29His bonding with Skallagrim defines Eric’s future career. Gudruda is his one love among women, the object of a yearning consummated, after separation and many obstacles, in a single night of wedded love before her murder. Skallagrim, who becomes Eric’s ‘thrall’, after their encounter on Mosfell, is the hero’s constant companion and chief emotional support. The baresark who scornfully rejects women (‘cherish them and live in wretchedness’ (87)) becomes the devoted follower of the man who has conquered him and killed his ‘mate’ (80). (When Skallagrim was threatened, this second baresark rushed at Eric ‘like a she-bear robbed of her whelps’ (79)). The love Skallagrim offers Eric is total and unconditional. (‘Slay me if thou wilt or use me as thou wilt’ (83)). After he accepts the baresark’s offer to ‘live one life’ and ‘die one death’ (83) together the two men ‘fell asleep side by side and Eric had no fear’ (87).

30Skallagrim represents an extreme version of Icelandic cultural norms. Going beyond Asmund’s exploitative treatment of women, he utterly despises them. He takes the general aggression and vengefulness of his society to the point of mania. This latter trait has a crucial effect on Eric’s fortunes. When Ospakar ambushes the two men on their way back to Asmund’s hall, Skallagrim draws first blood in the encounter (a crucial point in Icelandic law) and then, growing berserk, hacks a wounded and helpless man in two (93). In breaking his new master’s command to ‘have done with Baresark ways’ (95) Skallagrim exposes him to a law-suit at the Althing which results in Eric’s banishment and later unhappiness.

8 Eric’s Disillusionment—Iceland and Saxon England

31Eric’s way of understanding his subsequent misfortunes is to see them as fated (‘Where the Norns lead there must I follow’ (110)). Yet, as the narrative makes clear, this explanation is inadequate. In an affecting conversation with Gudruda, just before he goes into exile, Eric is shown attributing to fate effects which result from the ethics and imperatives of the society in which he lives. ‘It is better to die than to live’, he declares, and ‘better never to have been born than to live and die’ (127). His chosen route to status and marriage, the pursuit of fame through heroic deeds, only raises ‘up foes, as it were, from the very soil, who, mad with secret hate, seek to stab us in the back’ (127). Following the code of competitive prowess is only a way to ‘lose peace’. Eric feels he has aimed at a false goal: ‘Happy then, is the man fame flies from, for hers is a deadly gift’ (127).

32One might argue that reading Eric’s disillusionment with the values of his society as more than the expression of a mood involves looking at him unhistorically. After all, he is supposed to be a Dark Age Viking in a tale of adventure. In this connection, Eric’s visit to Anglo-Saxon England has an interesting and essential function. Rather than judging Eric’s Iceland by our own standards we are to compare with other possibilities available in that age. Under Alfred’s vigorous successor Edmund, Christianized England is well-ordered. (The King hangs the Viking pirates Eric captures for him ‘for they had wrought damage to his ships’ (160). With security comes wealth and Edmund’s hall is ‘adorned with things more splendid than [Eric’s] eyes had seen’ (160–161). More significantly, England offers the experience of a moral framework different from the attitudes the young Viking has known. He arouses the love of Elfrida, a lady of royal blood, and ‘the sweetest of women’. When she realises he cannot return her affection, her reaction is utterly different to the Icelandic norms. Instead of Swanhild’s life-long rage or Gudruda’s recurring suspicion, Elfrida is dignified and sensible. She makes Eric promise to return to her, if Gudruda proves unobtainable. When she hears of his death, she builds a church in his honour. Remaining unmarried in later years ‘she became very wealthy and was much honoured for her gentleness and wisdom’ (165). We are invited, by his comparison with a contemporary culture, to consider the role and attitudes of women in Icelandic society.

9 Eric’s Tragedy one of Choice not Fate

33The role of Fate in Eric’s relations with women poses some interesting questions. Swanhild is shown casting spells to beguile him. However, quite apart from Haggard’s warning not to take the witchcraft scenes in the novel as literal truth, it is clear that at crucial moments Eric acts by choice not compulsion. When he outrages the unseen Gudruda by kissing Swanhild, it is because the latter’s ‘great dewy eyes’ make things grow ‘strange and dim’ and ‘only for her love and tender beauty’s sake’ (119). Gudruda calls him a ‘feather man. . . blown about by the first breath of a woman’s tempting’ (121). More significantly, it is before drinking Swanhild’s love-potion (‘before thou drinkest, grant me one little boon’ (199)) that Eric commits his greatest act of betrayal. Believing the lies Swanhild and her agent Koll have told about Gudruda (and without allowing his betrothed to defend herself) he allows the temptress to ‘shore through’ (199) his long hair which only Gudruda was to have cut on his return. Rather than the Fate he invokes, it is Eric’s weakness which determines the course of his life.

10 The Excluded Narrator in the Zulu Heroic World

  • 16 H. Rider Haggard, Nada the Lily (1892 repr. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914) 17. Subsequent refe (...)

34In his next novel, Nada the Lily, Haggard explores even more thoroughly the pain inherent in a heroic society. Crucial to the reader’s response, Haggard’s choice of narrator is the book’s salient feature. Told by Mopo, confidant and eventual murderer of Chaka and his equally evil successor Dingaan, the story of Umslopagaas and Nada is also an inner history of the Zulu people. The tale would never have come to light but for an unexpected chance. A white man seeks Mopo’s help in finding some lost cattle in freak weather: ‘There had been no deep snow in Natal for years.’16 Even though the revelation must be partial and the full force of the Zulu idiom be lost, Mopo’s narrative represents an interruption of European ‘reality’. The old man’s oral, and therefore more authentic, first hand account, suggests meanings different from those given when ‘the white men write them down in books’ (22). (In his preface, Haggard has already referred to the source in out of the way books and rare ‘tales and traditions’ (11) on which Nada the Lily is based).

35As a narrator, Mopo has another function more important than a revealer of inner histories others cannot know. He is an outsider, marginalized and exiled by his culture who must make his way, and sometimes save his life, by his wits. Even more than Eric Brighteyes, this novel makes room for the voices of the oppressed, those whom the heroic world torments or sacrifices. From the very beginning of the narrative in Mopo’s meeting as a child with the boy Chaka, who is fleeing with his mother Unandi, the future Zulu king displays his conception of chieftainship and masculinity. When Unandi has begged his mother for water and been refused since she belongs to a hostile tribe, Mopo is moved to pity (‘I was sorry for the woman and the boy, they looked so tired’ (25)). Chaka takes the gourd which he does ‘not offer his mother’ and would have drunk it all ‘had not his thirst been quenched’ (25). In this incident lie the seeds of future developments. The male pride of the ‘very handsome boy’ whose bright black eyes when he scowls are ‘like the sky before a thunderstorm’ (24) is linked to an obvious contempt for women. This first glimpse of him prepares the way for some of Chaka’s later atrocities, such as the murder of Baleka, Mopo’s sister, whom he has made one of his wives and the slaughter, by his own hand, of his mother. From the first, too, there is a contrast between Mopo’s relative sensitivity and capacity for sympathy and Chaka’s scornful rejection of the feminine. Our forebodings are aroused from the start.

11 Myth and Prophecy in Nada the Lily

36The novel’s first episode demonstrates this feature of its narrative style which is bound to influence the reader’s response. Mopo’s gift, later remembered by Chaka, of the gourd of water, is the chance that saves his life, an example of the small thing done right, on which enormous consequences hang, so common in folk-tales of various cultures. Mythic modes of perception are in fact, pervasive in Nada the Lily. Chaka’s murder of his sons, as soon as they are born, so that they can never threaten him, recalls Chronos. The brotherhood of Umslopagaas and Galazi, the outlaw chief of the wolves recalls male bonding in tales from Gilgamesh and Enkidu onwards and the recurring dream, in many myths, of communion with the animal world. Much of the description of Chaka’s cruelties in Nada the Lily reads as if one of the ogres of childhood fable had come to life. We are in a world in which rational political understanding and calculations (even those of the highly intelligent Mopo) have, at best, very slight and sporadic chance of success. As Chaka has organised it, Zulu power is not a polity but a nightmarish legend reanimated, from which one cannot awaken.

37The novel’s first episode contains another feature, repeated in the later narrative and helping to shape its meaning. Nada the Lily is full of forebodings and prophecies which are later fulfilled. Of these, the first is the most crucial. Chaka declares that though he is ‘little today’ and his ‘people are a small people’ he will grow so big that his ‘head will be lost in the clouds’ and his face will blind others. Growing with him, his tribe will ‘eat up the whole world’ (26). After Chaka has struck her the blow which shortly afterwards leads to her death, Mopo’s mother adds a coda to his prophecy. (The modification of a prophecy or a curse, like the change to the malediction in ‘Sleeping Beauty’, is common in myth and folk-tale). After Chaka has prophesised the Zulus’ coming glory, Mopo’s mother foresees their downfall and the death of their king at her son’s hands. Her foretelling of the future encourages us to see the narrative which follows as a pattern, a historical movement to which individual choice and action contribute, but which absorbs the contributions of individuals into its own larger purpose. More significantly, it suggests that Chaka’s dominion, existing as yet only in his own mind, in the very form he imagines it contains the seeds of its own downfall. Mopo shapes his tale as a historical problem rather than a mere chronicle.

12 Mopo as a Narrator

38As a narrator, Mopo is interesting for several reasons. He stands at an odd angle to the society in which he has been born. He shows more sensitivity, especially towards women, than others about him. After his mother has died, he ‘only remembered her, nobody else did’ (28) (It is a reminder of the place women occupy in tribal society). His brothers ‘do not love him’ and turn his father against Mopo since he is ‘much cleverer’ than they. Baleka, his sister, becomes his closest emotional support since they are both ‘so lonely’ (28). His early experiences deflect him from the values of the warrior culture in which he grows up. Mopo realises that ‘to be wise is to be strong, for though he who holds the assegai kills, yet he whose mind directs the battle is greater than he who kills’ (28). The choice to become a medicine man rather than (primarily) a warrior is one Mopo makes as a means to power but also as a way of acquiring knowledge and understanding (‘there is wisdom in our magic as well as lies’ (29)).

39Becoming the apprentice of the Langeni tribe’s chief medicine man Noma, Mopo (in folk-tale fashion) surpasses his master whose jealousy he excites: ‘He had planted me by him like a tree, but he meant to keep me clipped like a bush’ (31). The significant notes of the culture to which we are introduced, here and elsewhere, are a quest for dominance and a ruthlessness towards rivals. In Chaka’s realm, what Mopo encounters is a version, often exaggerated to the point of grotesque horror, of attitudes he has already met with in his own family. Even Chaka’s habit of killing his baby sons only takes a step further the determination of Mopo’s father to have him slaughtered. (After the boy has killed Noma in self-defence, Mopo’s father orders out ‘all the men of the tribe to hunt [him] on the morrow and to kill [him] wherever they found [him]’ (35)). Their father’s betrothing of Mopo’s sister to the chief of a nearby tribe against her wish displays a brutality towards women which Chaka takes several stages further in repeated murders. (It is interesting that in the culture the Langeni share with the Zulus, men show more tenderness and respect to their sisters than they do to their wives. Mopo’s relationship with his sister Baleka is closer than that with his wife Macropha. More significantly, it is the fact that Umslopagaas and Nada have been brought up as brother and sister rather than as cousins that allows their love to deepen into a unique, spiritual bond.) There are, clearly, earlier precedents for Zulu attitudes and behaviour.

13 Zulu Heroic Culture

40However, in spite of their affinities with previous attitudes and practices in southern Africa, the novel makes it clear that the Zulus are something new. Under Chaka, warrior culture has reached a level of ruthlessness previously unknown. Remembering Chaka’s childhood promise to protect him, in exchange for his gift of water, Mopo and Baleka seek refuge in Zulu territory. When they reach the edge of Chaka’s realm they cross a frontier in more senses than one. Signs of indiscriminate slaughter are everywhere, sometimes taking grotesque forms. The ‘body of a very old man’ in some mealie gardens, for example, is ‘as full of assegai wounds as a porcupine with quills’ (39). The young pair are bemused at the spectacle: ‘We wondered at this. . . Afterwards we grew accustomed to such sights’ (39).

  • 17 Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Millenium (1995 repr. London: Black Swan, 1996) 409-410.
  • 18 Basil Davidson, Africa in History, (1966 repr. Frogmore: Paladin, 1974) 247.

41In the preface and in a footnote to the text, Haggard insists on the scale of Chaka’s atrocities: ‘One of the greatest geniuses and most wicked men who ever lived’, Chaka ‘slaughtered more than a million human beings’ (21). Inventing a new weapon the assegai and new tactics of mass charges to envelop the enemy, Chaka (in the words of a recent writer) ‘dominated the emulous militarised world of south east Africa’ with his horde of ‘celibate, man-destroying gladiators.’17 The result was a bloodbath which, as a standard account puts it, ‘spread before advancing Europeans a scene of carnage and chaos which they hastened to assume had long been natural to this land.’18 Haggard’s descriptions of horrors and his estimate of the scale of massacre in Nada the Lily cannot be faulted as records of historical fact. Unpalatable as it may be, this is equally true of his insistence that genocide was not the result of a colonial invasion. White settlers were hardly known in Zulu territory when Chaka was assassinated (1828). Is Haggard, then, exploiting Chaka’s existence to lend moral support to white conquest? There are features of Nada the Lily which make against such a view. The novel makes it clear that Zulu killing frenzies are untypical of African tribal society in general. More to the purpose, what little we see of white intruders does not suggest that they represent a higher breed, destined to replace existing cultures. The white missionary who tries to convert Dingaan brings a message which means little to the Zulus (‘No luck went with his teaching, which was hard to understand’ (256)). In any case, he lacks the courage and persistence to make any impact on an alien culture (‘The praying man went from the Kraal saying he would teach no more among the Zulus, and afterwards he left the land’ (252)). Mopo finds little to respect in the first Boers he encounters and whom he describes as sanctimonious thieves who ‘pray, also they steal or used to steal’ (221). In his representation of the Zulus, it is easier to infer that Haggard intended, as he did with the Icelanders of Eric Brighteyes, to explore how a particular heroic society worked, without extraneous factors.

  • 19 Henry James, A Life in Letters, Ed. Philip Horne (London: The Penguin Press, 1999) 191.

42In this investigation, one of the most intransigent facts with which Haggard confronts the reader is the Zulus’ delight in battle. Even as an old man, Mopo remembers with relish the savage hand-to-hand fighting of Chaka’s era (‘Ah! The battle!—the battle! In those days we knew how to fight’ (51)). In the encounter with the army of Zwide, the plumes of the Zulu warriors bend ‘like a plain of seeding grass, the plumes of soldiers ripe for the assegai’. The image makes bloody death seem as natural and nourishing as a harvest. The warriors laugh ‘in the joy of the waking of battle. . . Was it not well to die on the spear’ (51). The intoxication of battle ends in the loss of individual consciousness (‘I know no more. Everything grows red’ (53)). When Haggard’s novels first appeared it was on such passages as this that hostile reviewers fastened. They expressed openly and vocally misgivings Henry James confided to Stevenson in a letter of 1887. For James, Haggard’s writing in She was ‘vulgarly brutal. . . I am struck with the beastly bloodiness of it . . . Such perpetual killing and such perpetual ugliness!’19

43For Haggard, however much one might deplore it, joy in violent aggression was simply a universal fact of human experience. Without taking account of the capacity for delight in killing and being killed, war remained inexplicable. If the novelist did not try to embody the sexual frenzy into which battle threw Chaka’s celibate army (‘Death was the arms of victory. Victory should be their bride that night, and oh! her breast is fair’ (51–52)) the Zulus would remain incomprehensible.

44It is obviously one thing to describe blood-lust and another to endorse it. The battle scenes in Nada the Lily should be set within the novel’s wider context. They are part of a pattern of mass emotional intoxication. Scenes of slaughter or self-immolation such as the slaying of the fraudulent witch-doctors (80–82), the (historically well-founded) account of Chaka’s mass murder to commemorate the mother he has made away with (163–166) or the description of a regiment of Dingaan’s warriors going joyfully to their deaths in a giant bonfire at his command (251–252), have a cumulative effect. They make the reader question the heroic culture which produces them. Even judged only as a warrior band or a war-machine, the Zulu tribe is dysfunctional. Its culture encourages contempt for the less aggressive and cooperative behaviour needed for the management of life’s ordinary concerns. Chaka’s brother and eventual successor, Panda, for example, was a ‘man of gentle heart who did not love war, and therefore, it was thought he was half-witted’ (199).

45Clearly, Zulu power is bound to be undermined by Chaka’s habit of killing his baby sons (‘The whelps of lions are best drowned’ (62)). Putting his own fear of possible rivals above the welfare of his people, he ignores the danger of disputed succession and civil war. More immediately, he outrages the feelings and rights of the wives whose sons he murders. It is here, through its effect on women, that the heroic ethic of Nada the Lily, like that of Eric Brighteyes is most clearly judged. The treatment of Mopo’s sister Baleka, and his reaction to it is the moral hinge on which Nada the Lily turns. When she bears his son, Baleka knows that, according to his custom, the King will have the baby strangled. Desperately, she turns for help to her brother. Mopo’s decision to save her child marks his rejection of Chaka’s ethos and the beginning of his intrigues against the King. It is not a choice that Mopo makes easily. His first instinct is to follow the prudential attitude which hitherto, has preserved his life. (‘Better that an infant should die than that we should become food for jackals’ (56)). Mopo is won over to deceiving Chaka by several factors. He loves and pities his sister. He respects the ‘Great Chieftainess’, Chaka’s mother who takes Baleka’s part. He fears, that in her desperation, his sister will accuse him of plots against the King. Throughout the scene, the resolution the women take against Chaka is crucial. Baleka claims back her own and her baby’s rights. To Mopo’s declaration that ‘It is the King’s word woman’ she replies ‘And what is the King’s word? Have I naught to say in this matter?’ (56). Remembering that even in his infancy her son bit her breast and tore her hair Chaka’s mother declares that ‘as the man is so was the babe’. It would have been better if Chaka had been slain at birth then ‘had many another man lived to look upon the sun who is now dead’ (57). ‘Moved to tears’ at Baleka’s plea to ‘save my child or slay me with my child’, Chaka’s mother forces Mopo to substitute another child for the baby her son intends to kill. Mopo’s child, Nada’s twin is born dead and Mopo makes the change by which for some years Chaka is deceived. This revolt of women against an extreme and murderous variant of the warrior ethic changes the novel’s scope and meaning. No more than Eric Brighteyes can Nada the Lily be read as a simple tale of adventure, celebrating male bravery or exploits in battle.

14 Similarities Between Umslopagaas and Eric Brighteyes

46Its meaning becomes clearer if one looks at the career of Umslopagaas, the son of Chaka, whom Mopo brings up as his own. There are striking similarities between the life of the Zulu hero and that of Eric Brighteyes. The way in which Haggard repeats it suggests that the heroic pattern has, for him a moral and psychological probability; that it exposes some inherent flaw in the life devoted to warrior-exploits. Like Eric’s, Umslopagaas’ earliest feats are selfless acts of courage, saving the life of his beloved. When they are both children, lost in the forest, he carries the fainting Nada home on his back (66–67). A little later, he rescues his ‘sister’ from a ‘child-slayer’ (68), a woman driven crazy by Chaka’s slaughter of her family. With the reputation acquired by these early feats, comes a need, such as Eric feels, to surpass previous exploits in acts of increasing rashness. After Chaka has discovered Umslopagaas’ true identity, Mopo flees with his family. During their journey, in response to Nada’s casually expressed wish for a lion-cub she has seen playing, Umslopagaas steals one for her. The enraged lions thereupon attack the little party: ‘He did not think of the danger he would bring upon himself and all of us’ (86). This incident, in which Umslopagaas, carried off by one of the lions, and supposedly killed, leads to his and Nada’s separation and all their subsequent misfortunes.

47Like Eric’s, Umslopagaas’ later adventures became darker and bloodier. Partly, this is because of his blood-brotherhood with Galazi, the King of the Wolves. The nature and effects of this relationship parallel those of Eric’s bond with Skallagrim. After the death by poison at the hands of one of his wives of Galazi’s father, the chief of the Halikazi tribe, Galazi is forced to flee. The intrigues, rivalries and sibling jealousy he experiences are sufficiently like those in Mopo’s life to make it possible, from them, to generalise about the wider culture. Most tellingly, the prevalence of jealousy within the heroic world makes it impossible for the injured warrior to obtain redress. An old man who had known his father advises Galazi not to take his tale of wrongs to Chaka. The Zulu king does not ‘love to welcome shoots from royal stock’ (114) and would probably kill him. In any case, generally, ‘he who cries to kings for justice sometimes finds death’ (114). This casual remark suggests the flawed nature of governance within a society which values individual prestige above equity.

48First Galazi, and then, emulating his new friend, Umslopagaas, achieves possession of an outstanding weapon. (This, of course, echoes a common mythic theme of which Arthur’s gaining of Excalibur is only the best known example). After killing and taking the place of its owner Chief Jikiza, Umslopagaas gains the axe ‘Groan-Maker’. However, it is Galazi’s earlier winning of the club ‘Watcher of the Ford’ which has the greater resonance. Going into a cave to obtain the club’s price, the bones of a man left there, Galazi encounters one of the novel’s strangest scenes. What is described, like the ruins of Kor, becomes an image which extends beyond the immediate scene to some general comment on life.

49In the caves’ darkness, the ghost-wolves leap continually at a skeleton they cannot quite reach. When in their efforts, one of them is hurt the others turn on and devour it. The scene is played out again and again (122–124): ‘It is the nature of these ghosts that, though they fight continually, they cannot kill each other’ (124). Perhaps drawing on post-Darwin fears about Nature, the scene more obviously comments on the violently aggressive and competitive heroic societies to which the novel has introduced us. Even more than horror, the impression is one of futility.

50Like Skallagrim, Galazi rejects the female: ‘Nor at any time did Galazi turn to women’ and ‘hated Zinita, Umslopagaas’ wife ‘most of them all’ (161). For the King of the wolves, Umslopagaas’ love for Nada can only be explained by the fact that ‘she had bewitched him’ (284). When, discovering Nada is his cousin, his friend takes her as one of his wives Galazi finds Umslopagaas ‘changed by a woman’s kiss’. Although Chaka was evil, in Galazi’s view, the Zulu leader ‘showed his greatness when he forbade marriage to his warriors’ (292). Without Umslopagaas, Galazi feels that he ‘would wither, who loved but one man and certain wolves’ (249). The parallels between this emotional bond and Skallagrim’s feelings about Eric are obvious.

51There is a more sinister similarity between the two examples of male-bonding. In both cases, relationship with a warrior-brother leads the hero into more and more bloodshed. Like Skallagrim in Iceland, Galazi represents an extreme variant of a prevailing cultural bloodthirstiness. Under his influence, ‘the desire of this wolf-life entered into the heart of Umslopagaas’ (138). When Mopo suggests a war with the Halikazi tribe to win a fair maid (who unknown to him and Umslopagaas is Nada in disguise) as a peace offering for Dingaan it is Galazi who turns a diplomatic manœuvre into a pretext for genocide. ‘Year by year and month by month’, he has ‘lain alone’, dreaming of revenge for his father’s death. He will not rest until he has ‘stamped out the Halikazi, and slain their men and brought their women to the houses of strangers and their children to bonds’ (219). The war he encourages will be so frightful in scale that it may cost the existence of the tribe over which Umslopagaas now rules: ‘Perhaps before it is done the people of the Axe will be no more’ (220). It is a matter of indifference to him compared with the possibility of a bloody revenge. The final tragedy of the novel, Umslopagaaas’ loss of Nada, after a brief marriage, is precipitated by the fact that the People of the Axe, weakened by the War Galazi urged, are vulnerable to Zulu attack.

52Comparison of Haggard’s two treatments of the tragedy of heroism are useful for several reasons. It may, incidentally, dispel charges of racism. The similarity of themes, incidents and characters in Nada the Lily and Eric Brighteyes (which, presumably, nobody would see as a racist text attacking Vikings) suggest misgivings about the warrior ethic in whatever culture it appeared, rather than an imperialist mission to denigrate Zulus in particular.

  • 20 Cohen 130.
  • 21 Katz 144.

53However, it is worth making such a comparison for more substantial reasons. Approaching Haggard’s better fiction without too many preconceptions about what it contains, at the very least is likely to reveal greater interest and complexity than some critical prejudice and received opinion admits. It is true that critics have recognised the high quality of the two novels Haggard produced immediately before his son’s death took the heart out of him. Long ago, the seminal study of his work noted that Eric Brighteyes was ‘though one of his least read books. . . one of his best.’20 A more recent and determinedly hostile account of Haggard excepts Nada the Lily from its strictures. In this critic’s view several of its scenes ‘have tremendous power’ and ‘whole sections are impressively strange.’21 Part of the reason for the distinction the two novels achieve lies in a largely unexplored, moral acuteness. Rather than a peddler of ‘sheer uncomplicated sensation and adventure’, the author of Eric Brighteyes and Nada the Lily looks like a writer full of scruples and misgivings about the heroic life he celebrates. Thrilled by battle and adventure and sympathetic to male comradeship, at the same time he questions what attracts him, showing its cost and destructive potentialities. In both novels, women figure as the angry, articulate and rebellious victims of the prevailing warrior-ethic. In determining the reasons for Haggard’s survival, where his fellow adventure novelists have faded from view, we should not overlook the often neglected subtleties of his writing.

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1 Jonathan Keates, ‘Haggard, Sir Henry Rider 1856-1925’, Markers of Nineteenth Century Culture 1800-1914. Ed. Justin Wintle, (London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge, 1982) 270.

2 C. S. Lewis, ‘The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard’, (1960 repr in Of This and Other Worlds Ed. Walter Hooper, London: Collins, 1982) 128.

3 Wendy R. Katz, Rider Haggard and the Fiction of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) 154.

4 H. Rider Haggard, ‘About Fiction', Contemporary Review, (February, 1887) quoted by Tom Pocock, Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire (London: Nicholson, 1993) 74.

5 George Moore, Court and Society (March 30, 1887), quoted by Morton Cohen, Rider Haggard: His Life and Work (1960 repr, London: Macmillan, 1968) 125.

6 Cohen 187.

7 Cohen 188.

8 Cohen 187.

9 H. Rider Haggard, Eric Brighteyes (1891 repr London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1924) 282. Subsequent references in parenthesis are to this edition.

10 H. Rider Haggard, ‘Books which have Influenced Me’, British Weekly Extra (London, n.d), quoted by D. S. Higgins, Rider Haggard: The Great Storyteller, (London: Cassell, 1981) 20.

11 E. G. E. Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race (1871 repr. Dover, NH: Alan Sutton, 1995), 109.

12 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859 repr. London: The Folio Society, 1985), p. XV.

13 Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 157.

14 H. Rider Haggard, She, Ed. Andrew.M.Stauffer, (Peterboro, Ontario, Plymouth, Sidney: Broadview, 2006) 21-22.

15 H. Rider Haggard, The Heart of the World (1894 repr. London: Harrap, 1928) 13.

16 H. Rider Haggard, Nada the Lily (1892 repr. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914) 17. Subsequent references in parenthesis are to this edition.

17 Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Millenium (1995 repr. London: Black Swan, 1996) 409-410.

18 Basil Davidson, Africa in History, (1966 repr. Frogmore: Paladin, 1974) 247.

19 Henry James, A Life in Letters, Ed. Philip Horne (London: The Penguin Press, 1999) 191.

20 Cohen 130.

21 Katz 144.

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John Coates, « Haggard’s Questioning of the Heroic »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 69 | 2009, mis en ligne le 25 juin 2019, consulté le 07 août 2020. URL :; DOI:

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John Coates

University of Hull.
COATES, John (MA Cambridge, Ph.D Exeter), lecturer (retired) Department of English, University of Hull, has published books on Chesterton, Kipling, Elizabeth Bowen and Romantic prose, together with articles mainly on Victorian and early twentieth century literature.

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