A History of Adventure
by H. Rider Haggard
World's Popular Classics, Art-Type Edition
An interesting book indeed. This book, along with King Solomon's Mines, established the universe in which seemingly every subsequent adventure story would be set. Everything you need is here, the Victorian era, lost civilizations, gentlemen explorers, and mysteries that time should have forgotten. The climatic ending of the novel involves a harrowing underground adventure that would make for a good summer blockbuster. Every time you see Indiana Jones or Lara Croft leap across a bottomless pit, know that this is the source.
One hundred and twenty-five years on, style can be a potential roadblock. Like many popular Victorian novelists, Haggard can be damned slow sometimes. Stop apologizing that your pen is inadequate to describe the indescribable and get on with it! The book is not near as bad as Sir Walter Scott can be, since Haggard wrote after the invention of photography; he had no need to describe things in exhaustive detail for people who had never been more than 50 miles from home. The thing to know is you can just skip or skim parts that seem slow, and that will keep your interest up without harming the narrative.
However, for all that thick prose, you can see a different world through Haggard's works. Some of the things I enjoy about Victorian adventure novels are the places one can visit in the imagination, and the shift in perspective to see the world as the Victorians did. Here we have a work of popular literature with large sections of Greek and Latin, implying both the author had the capacity to compose it, and at least some of the readers to understand it. When our gentlemen adventurers meet the titular She, a great deal of time is spent in philosophical discourse. Since Ayesha has been roughing it for 2500 years, she is in dire need of intellectual stimulation. How different this feels than Robert E. Howard!
The lost civilization is located 10 days journey from the coast between Delagoa [Maputo] Bay and the Zambesi river, inside the rift valley volcanoes therein. Rift valleys always make for dramatic landscapes. Also, the history of Arab trade on the east coast of Africa becomes important to the story. I never knew there was a distinction between original Arabs, al-'Arab al-'Ariba, and the descendants of Ishmael, al-'Arab al-mostareba.
The dramatic action of the book is most moral. There are harrowing escapes and acts of derring-do, but the true conflict arises from the irresistible attraction our gentlemen explorers feel towards She. She is a creature of supernatural beauty and wisdom, but one who still shares the weaknesses of human nature. Both men love her, almost against their will. I say almost, because they are of divided minds. She is a wicked creature, but they are so smitten with her that they excuse her wrongs even against themselves. They know this, but cannot resist her charms. It is the characteristic sin of males, writ large upon a fantastic backdrop. How many powerful men have been ruined by a pretty face?
Ayesha herself is remarkably flawed. She has been given unnaturally long life and superior powers of reasoning, but her conscience has not grown to match. Like a Greek goddess, she is powerful, yet strangely petty. She can have anything she wants, the problem is what she wants. The wicked acts she commits are indeed small, the problem is that she has no sense of the responsibilities that go with great power, and that great things are expected of those who have been given much.
While I do like Haggard's work, I would be interested to see this same idea in another author's hands, Tim Powers for example. The cause of this whole expedition was Ayesha's murder of the remote ancestor of one of our gentlemen heroes. This remarkable man refused to abandon his wife for Ayesha in her glorified state, and in a rage she slew him. Twenty-three centuries later, his ancestor simply acquiesces. He is literally powerless against Ayesha. Why was his ancestor made of sterner stuff? There is a mystery here that goes unexplored.
While Robert E. Howard may not have philosophical discourses between his characters, Solomon Kane at least would find the grace to resist She.