The other day I came on an old exercise book dating from the early 1940s in which my brother, then aged nine, had embarked on one of his many unfinished novels.
The missionary looked out of the window of his little hut deep in the African jungle. ‘The savidges are attacking, Mary,’ he cried. ‘Quick, pass me the Martini Henry rifle and then the elephant gun. I will show them what happens when they attack the servant of the true God!’
Ever the muscular Christian, he then pumps the advancing hordes full of lead, but he and his wife are eventually slaughtered and their baby son taken to be raised by the ‘savidges’, whereupon the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs abruptly takes over from that of Rider Haggard
It was not only schoolboys who fell under the spell of this extraordinary storyteller. Haggard’s books have been loved by such disparate writers as Graham Greene, C. S. Lewis and Wilbur Smith, who wrote, ‘Rider Haggard was able to weave the magic carpet and I was swept along by it … there are echoes of King Solomon’s Mines in a lot of my own books.’ Yet Haggard fell into his career as a writer of tales of adventure almost by accident, as a result of a shilling bet with his brother, challenging him to write a story ‘half as good as Treasure Island’. King Solomon’s Mines was the result, written in six weeks and widely rejected before being spotted by Andrew Lang and published by Cassell. In his perceptive introduction to Hunter Quatermain’s Story, Peter Haining describes the moment at Cassells when Haggard first met his publisher and was offered the choice of £100 for the whole copyright or 10 per cent royalty on the sales. The young author was initially dazzled by the prospect of £100 in his pocket until a clerk in the corner whispered to him, ‘Mr Haggard, if I were you I would take the other agreement’ — advice which ultimately won Haggard a large fortune. Allan Quatermain and She followed in rapid succession and Rider Haggard’s name was made.
Later in life Haggard became a friend of Kipling, in fact they collaborated on Haggard’s last novel, Allan and the Ice Gods. There were noticeable similarities in their lives. Both were sent, while still in their teens, to work in distant and exotic lands, in Kipling’s case India, in Haggard’s South Africa, and the few years they spent there had a profound effect on their writing, and enabled each of them to open up a whole new world to English fiction. Both took an unfashionable interest in the native peoples, with a marked preference for the more warlike tribes. Kipling lost a much loved daughter and Haggard his only son in early childhood.
Their beginnings, however, were very different. Haggard was one of ten children of a fiery Norfolk squire and his gentle wife. At the age of ten, he was sent to Garsington in Oxfordshire to be tutored by the rector. He was happy there, unlike Kipling in the House of Desolation in Southsea. In Haggard’s books Garsington became Garsingham, birthplace of Allan Quatermain, whose surname Haggard took from a local Garsington farmer. Years later, when he was a household name, Haggard received a somewhat ill-informed letter from the rector’s aged widow: ‘I was told the other day that you had never been abroad yourself but had married a Zulu lady and got all your information from her.’ It is fair to say that, had Haggard taken an African bride, she certainly would have been a Zulu, a people whom he deeply admired. All his African heroes are Zulu or Swazi, most notably Umslopogaas with his great battle-axe, Inkesi-kaas, and the European characters, both real and fictional, delight in their Zulu nicknames. Allan Quatermain is Macumazatin — ‘he who is always awake’ — and Haggard himself answered to Indanda, ‘the tall one’.
This paperback collection brings together the shorter stories about Quatermain, the grizzled old hunter with his ‘shrivelled yellow face and large dark eyes, that were as keen as any hawk’s, and yet as soft as a buck’s’. Much the longest is Allan’s Wife, which will already be familiar to many Haggard enthusiasts. The others are short stories published over many years. They are of uneven quality but there are some wonderfully vivid moments, many centred on hunting or battle. Hunter Quatermain and his trackers drive a herd of elephant into a swamp where they get bogged down and are easily shot during the night.
The pan presented a curious sight when the sun rose. Owing to the support given by the soil, few of the dead elephants had fallen: there they stood as though they were asleep.
The canny old hunter had many useful tips when ‘the port wine had made him more communicative’. Some are culinary: ‘I know of no greater luxury than giraffe marrow-bones, unless it be elephant’s heart.’ Others hint at an attitude common in his generation: ‘I was in a very bad temper … and soothed myself by taking a rifle and going to kill something.’ Above all, Haggard was a master of scenes of violent action. No one is better at describing a battle, whether it be the fight with the baboons in Allan’s Wife or the last stand of the Grays in King Solomon’s Mines, or, most memorable of all, how Umslopogaas held the stair in Allan Quatermain.
Peter Haining has performed a useful service in bringing some of these lesser known stories together. They bear witness to Haggard’s ever fertile imagination and vivid descriptive powers, and for many of us they will bring back happy memories of a bloodthirsty childhood.