Sunday, May 1, 2011

Heart of the World by H Rider Haggard

I spend a lot of time in the car driving myself and my sister to band and music lessons an hour's drive away, so when I discovered I was thrilled. Finally, a way for a driver to read on long trips!

The first book I chose for the two of us to hear was this one--Heart of the World by H Rider Haggard, a tale of adventure, passion, and lost civilisations in the heart of Central America.

The narrator is Ignacio, the last descendant of Montezuma, who was the last Aztec emperor. From his father, murdered by Spaniards, Ignacio receives half of a heart-shaped emerald, which is the token of Aztec kingship. Ignacio's grand youthful plans to unite the Indians against Spanish rule, drive them out, and set up a great Indian nation from sea to sea, stronger now than ever before in the worship of the true God, are devastated when his wife betrays him to a Spaniard. Now Ignacio wanders his homeland with only the rags of lordship, bereft of the treasure he so carefully accumulated and without which he cannot hope to accomplish his goals.

In his wandering Ignacio makes the acquaintance of an Englishman, James Strickland. They save each other's lives and swear brotherhood, so when Strickland loses his job as mining-foreman and when Ignacio's foster brother Molas arrives with astonishing news, the three of them set out together in search of fortune and adventure.

For the news Molas brings is the news that he has found the other half of the emerald heart, of which it was said that when the two were joined together upon the altar of the lost city Heart-of-the-World, called El Dorado by the Spaniards, the Indian race would rise up in new vigour to rebuild their empire. The jewel is in the keeping of Zibalbay, an old Indian medicine man who claims to have come from that secret city, and of his daughter Maya, a girl of incredible beauty.

Ignacio, Molas, and Strickland face storm and outlaws on their quest to find the medicine man, the girl, and the jewel. But the real danger lies beyond the jungle, the desert, and the mountains, in the legendary city.

This book was absolutely thrilling--we loved every minute of it. Haggard is a great writer, and ratchets the suspense up with every chapter--he's particularly good at foreshadowing, and often tosses off a casual remark to the effect that in another few chapters, our heroes will face death in this very room, did they but know it!!! There are outlaws, duels, secret paths through mountains, assassination attempts, and more. The chapter describing the departure of Molas alone is worth the price of admission.

I'm going to go more in-depth into the plot here, in order to explain how this book is so satisfying, as well as exciting. It's not really a spoiler to give away the fact that the overriding theme of the book is the grand love affair between Strickland and the girl Maya, but you may like to stop here if you wish to avoid general spoilers.

Now Haggard was a great writer, but may have been, if I recall correctly, some early variety of feminist. At any rate his female character are often a mixed bag--they range from shrinking violets like the titular Nada the Lily to fire-breathing harridans like Miriam's nurse in Pearl Maiden or amoral queens like She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. At any rate women and womanly power form a heavy theme throughout Haggard's works, and this one is no different.

The main character, Ignacio, is very bitter towards women because of his wife, and he distrusts Maya deeply precisely for her beauty and headstrong disposition. You'd normally expect Ignacio to end up learning a heart-warming lesson about the evils of prejudice, but he has good reason to distrust Maya. She's a very ambiguous character: while the strength of her mind and character result in some very heroic actions, it soon becomes apparent that she is bad news. She disbelieves the faith of her father, considers him deluded, and affiances herself to Strickland without her father's knowledge and later, against his will. As the story progresses, it also becomes apparent that she speaks for both herself and her husband (who begins to appear somewhat weak by contrast), that she takes the rudder in their decisions, and that she is the one steering the story inexorably towards its grand-opera-tragic ending. This is remarkable for a character inhabiting such a traditionally heroic (heroine-ic?) position in the story.

By the end--which is just as hugely catastrophic as Haggard suggests from the very first chapter--all the characters had reaped the just rewards of their actions.

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to tell you that Ignacio, Strickland, and their friends do indeed eventually reach the lost city of the Indians, where they find intrigue, adventure, and danger in plenty. The problem afflicting this city is that of listlessness--pent up in a golden cage, the People of the Heart are slowly declining (shades of Tolkien's Numenor?). I love how Haggard argues that the main factor in this apathy is the city's communist economy!

One final very interesting element of the book concerns the religion of the People of the Heart. If you have read Don Richardson's book, Eternity in Their Hearts, you will be familiar with the many religions across the world--including Incan and Aztec--which contain elements of Truth; perhaps the True God worshipped ignorantly and fearfully, or perhaps mythopoeic legends of a saviour; something like the Unknown God in Athens when Paul visited Mars Hill. The People of the Heart worship a transcendant god, Heart-of-Heaven, who is above their other gods and is even Trinitarian in nature. Haggard never tells us, and indeed the character themselves never suggest or guess, that this Heart-of-Heaven is indeed the True God. But it is clear to the thoughtful audience, and this adds another layer of suspense to the story as the characters seek to thwart this Heart-of-Heaven's purpose, and suffer the consequences.

This was such a good story on all levels. The characters were fascinating, the themes were rich, and of course, this being Rider Haggard after all, the plot was non-stop thrills. It's a grand tragedy of sin and pursuing vengeance, and I thoroughly enjoyed it despite the ending.

The next audiobook we'll hear is Mary Johnstone's To Have and To Hold, of which I have the fondest memories, so stay tuned!

Librivox recording
Gutenberg Australia etext


Meggie said...

I love H Rider Haggard, as soon as I finished reading your review I went and downloaded it in ebook format!

Thanks for sharing!

Suzannah said...

Enjoy it, Meggie! Haggard is one of my favourites, but this one in particular struck me as particularly good.

FireBird said...

Project Gutenburg also has audio books, though I imagine there is a lot of overlap. Some are read by machine and others by human.


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