On H. Rider Haggard's African Popularity
by Erik Grossman
from a letter to Violet Books
I was reading about Alan Moore's comic "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (featuring Allan Quatermain) on the Web when I came across a link to H. Rider Haggard. I'd never heard of Violet Books but your name is familiar from spines on my bookshelves. Wonderful entertaining site.
I was born in Africa in what used to be British Northern Rhodesia in 1951. A small town called Livingstone, near the Victoria Falls and the Zambesi River. Haggard was required reading at school. The school library stocked many of his books -- the titles in the bibliography stir ancient memories -- and the public library carried many of the more esoteric ones. It never occurred to me that Haggard had become a fringe taste by then. In retrospect, my interest in fantasy literature -- of all kinds -- began with Haggard and Burroughs.
Strangely enough, Haggard's Allan stories had (and presumably still have) a shivery otherwordly feel that no-one has been able to imitate, rather like fleeting shadows in the corner of your eye at noon. I know central southern Africa well. I've seen the Africa that Haggard must have seen. Outside of the towns it hadn't changed that much between 1860 and 1960. I understand the almost hypnotic lure of the next hill and the valley beyond -- the virtual certainty that people must live there, that there are mysteries and strangeness still to be found before nightfall. It was so easy to feel the existence of a lost race then. But Africa is never what it seems and the Allan stories somehow convey belonging and alienation and, most of all, the pain and loss so prevalent on this wonderful terrible continent.
These days, Haggard's works are not quite as important as they were even forty years ago. He is currently considered an exponent of racist colonial expansion and subjugation, as are most authors of the period who dealt with Africa. As you are probably aware, colonialism is a very dirty word now and it is just not the done thing to acknowledge or even mention any individual so tainted. Even if it were not for this, Haggard wrote "adventure" stories. It is not serious literature. It is outdated and does not carry. You can't argue against this. Typical college mentality. But I doubt if many people today are able to read at all. 24-hour television and mindless sitcoms. Haggard is read by those who remember his books from their youth. Others are incapable of recalling someone who is never mentioned any more. Africa is becoming a US shopping mall.
Yet the fact that Haggard and his "fantasies" could have been accepted for so long in Africa itself indicates how truly powerful these fantasies were. Africa breeds cynics who are secretly dreamers. Allan Quatermain's world is still psychically as real as it ever was, even if almost everything else has changed now. Maybe his lost races are symbolic of the wonders of Africa that were gradually disappearing even before the end of the old century. Maybe the pathos and unease found in the tales stem from Haggard's conscious or subconcious realisation that soon these wonders would be gone. I don't know. I doubt that Haggard was a racist, as is now so P.C. to maintain... Noble savages everywhere but Ayesha wasn't black now, was she? That he wrote for racist hypocrites is easier to understand.... The sun of Africa is still as hot as ever but there are always shadows at noon, like wasps.
Cape Town, South Africa
Copyright © 1999 by Erik Grossman
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