Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Nada the Lily by Rider Haggard

Rider Haggard, who surely possessed one of the best names ever given to a child, was a man who could always be relied upon to produce a fun read. His books are either fabulous epic adventures, or fluffy trifles. Everyone's heard of the epics, like King Solomon's Mines or She. And practically nobody's heard of the silly ones, like Pearl Maiden, which I thought was one long hoot from start to finish.

Nada the Lily, you will be happy to hear, is one of his better efforts. Set in South Africa, it features only African characters—all of whom behave like barbarians, but barbarians like Conan or Achilles: never less than great. What ensues is a fantastic tale of passion, savagery, and war. Modern writers make up elaborate fantasy worlds with barbaric and gaudy cultures, and then set them to fight to the death. A hundred years ago, the world was bigger and stranger and Haggard got the same effect using peoples from distant lands untouched by civilisation...

Nada the Lily revolves around the life and death of Shaka, king of the Zulus (spelled Chaka in the book). I thought Haggard painted a pretty gaudy picture of Chaka, but he estimates that he caused 'over a million' deaths, while Wikipedia puts it at double that, so...perhaps not. At any rate, the narrator is a wily witch-doctor, Nada's father. Having gained Chaka's favour by an act of kindness done in his childhood, he must take care not to make a false step, unless like many others Chaka kills him—for hearing too much, misreading the king's mood, or crossing him in any way. Unfortunately for the witch-doctor, that fasle step is forced upon him when his sister—one of Chaka's wives—gives birth to a son and begs him to take the boy to safety. Chaka has decreed that all his sons, who might be a threat to his throne, shall be strangled at birth. With the rescue of tiny Umslopogaas, our narrator sets the first stones rolling of an avalanche that will sweep away Chaka's empire.

I shan't spoil the rest of the story. There is never a dull moment in this historical-cum-fantasy novel. Here, mighty warriors do great deeds, dare uncounted odds, tame wolves, win magical weapons, and win crowns by the force of their arm: storytelling simply doesn't get any better than this. There's detail, colour, and emotion. And Haggard makes a real effort to tell a story about real Zulus, not darkish people with European morals and sensibilities. All the male characters have multiple wives, put the weakest people in the front line to be slaughtered, and don't have a big problem with assassination or mass murder, as long as it's in a good cause. Unpraiseworthy as such behaviour is, it adds verisimilitude to the story.

All is well, in fact, until the eponymous heroine appears. Haggard was certainly capable of writing heroines with spines of chilled steel. This one is a bit of a milksop. Read the book for the rip-roaring adventure instead.

It's probable you've never heard of Nada the Lily before, but interestingly enough it has had a lasting impact on English literature: Rudyard Kipling read it and was so struck with the idea of a boy living among wolves that he ended up writing a whole series of stories about it, the collection we now know as The Jungle Book!

To conclude, what I liked most about this book was the writing style. Haggard writes with poetic ease and grace, in that distinctive nineteenth-century style. This book isn't a masterpiece, but it's an excellent example of everything I love about vintage novels.

Gutenberg etext

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