I first stumbled onto this title while going through H. Rider Haggard’s “Allan Quatermain” series of books. Later, due to Mr. Kung’s endorsement of the book, I read it. Quatermain is not in this one, but it follows the general style of Haggard’s African adventures with Allan Quatermain.
I’ll tell you less about the plot and more what I think about who this book would be fore. This isn’t high literature, per se, but Haggard is capable of making some keen observations. In fact, the first half of this book, although interesting, is somewhat forgettable. Men set off in search of a treasure (of sorts) in an unexplored and mysterious part of Africa. They face hardships along the way. The find some cool stuff. Been there, done that.
Up until the midway point of this book, the description of these enterprising explorers is surely gripping enough. But it is little more than dime store pulp fiction up to this point. The real literary skills of Haggard begin to kick in at the halfway point, at the point in the story in which our intrepid group of four finally meet “She.” It is then that there is deep philosophy on display about man’s suffering place in the universe — including his needful and unsteady relationship with the fairer sex.
This next bit is right after Holly (the narrator of the story) becomes hopelessly smitten by “She.” All it took for him was but a look:
Curses on the fatal curiosity that is ever prompting man to draw the veil from woman, and curses on the natural impulse that begets it! It is the cause of half—ay, and more than half—of our misfortunes. Why cannot man be content to live alone and be happy, and let the women live alone and be happy too? But perhaps they would not be happy, and I am not sure that we should ether. Here is a nice state of affairs. I, at my age, to fall a victim to this modern Circe! But then she was not modern, at least she said not. She was almost as ancient as the original Circe.
This novel even delves into a wonderful sort of misogyny in the character of Holly who is ugly and eventually retires to a confirmed bachelorhood, having tired of the bitter realities of his ugliness in regards to ever gaining the fairer sex. But he’s purely philosophical about it, not actively hating anyone in particular. And this is why I tend to read these old books. They deal in old themes and do so honestly and with great wit.
Cultural Marxism (the bane of our time) has wrung all of the fun out of the arts. One must therefore, for now, reach back and find literature untainted by over-sensitive scolds and nitwits.
So, the first half of the book is a fine Johnny Quest-like adventure, although in adult form. And it breezes by and is interesting. But the second half takes “She” to another level. Staggered throughout this perilous and dangerous adventure, Haggard deals with major human themes; one is that love is the only thing worth living for. And he has some grand thoughts regarding God, the nature of truth, and man’s humble place in the universe:
Soon I gave up thinking about it, for the mind wearies easily when it strives to grapple with the Infinite, and to trace the footsteps of the Almighty as he strides from sphere to sphere, or deduce His purpose from His works. Such things are not for us to know. Knowledge is to the strong, and we are weak. Too much wisdom would perchance blind our imperfect sight, and too much strength would make us drunk, and over-weight our feeble reason till it fell and we were drowned in the depths of our own vanity. For what is the first result of man’s increased knowledge interpreted from Nature’s book by the persistent effort of his purblind observation? It is not but often to make him question the existence of his Maker, or indeed of any intelligent purpose beyond his own? The truth is veiled, because we could no more look upon her glory than we can upon the sun. It would destroy us. Full knowledge is not for man as man is here, for his capacities, which he is apt to think so great, are indeed but small. The vessel is soon filled, and, were one-thousandth part of the unutterable and silent wisdom that directs the rolling of those shining spheres, and the Force which makes them roll, pressed into it, it would be shattered into fragments. Perhaps in some other place and time it may be otherwise, who can tell? Here the lot of man born of the flesh is but to endure midst toil and tribulation, to catch at the bubbles blown by Fate, which he calls pleasure, thankful if before they burst they rest a moment in his hand, and when the tragedy is played out, and his hour comes to perish, to pass humbly whither he knows not.
Holly is a man of faith, as would suit an English gentleman and scholar. But faced with the sheer monstrosity and barbarity of what they find in Africa, it can make any man think, and question, and reassess. This is an interesting bit of introspection from Holly:
What is the purpose of our feeble crying in the awful silences of space? Can our dim intelligence read the secrets of that star-strewn sky Does any answer come out of it? Never any at all, nothing but echoes and fantastic visions! And yet we believe that there is an answer, and that upon a time a new Dawn will come blushing down the ways of our enduring night. We believe it, for its reflected beauty even now shines up continually in our hearts from beneath the horizon of the grave, and we call it Hope. Without Hope we should suffer moral death, and by the help of Hope we yet may climb to Heaven, or at worst, if she also prove but a kindly mockery given to hold us from despair, be gently lowered into the abysses of eternal sleep.
Suffice it to say, not all four of the explorers who go into and beyond the African swamp come out again. This book is a nice mixture of pure adventure and high philosophy. But never does Haggard’s philosophizing impose itself unduly and slow the book down. It fits well, especially in describing the shocked minds of our fellow travelers as they encounter things beyond the wondrous and the horrible, often in the very same hour.
My only major criticism of the book is that one of the central characters, Leo (the de facto stepson of Holly), is hardly fleshed out at all. Holly carries this story and we see deeply inside his head. But Leo might as well be a cardboard cutout. I’m not sure why Haggard didn’t invest more into his character.
Hopefully Mr. Kung, who read this novel just before I did, will offer a Part II to this review and give his take on it. • (3884 views)