Monday, June 13, 2011

Queen Sheba's Ring by H Rider Haggard


I always find myself somewhat surprised by a Rider Haggard novel. Some are very good; others are very silly. Some are tragic epics; some are pleasant and funny adventure stories. This one is the latter.
Four men travel into the Sahara in search of the lost kingdom of Mur: an old doctor looking for his lost son, a professor in search of learning, and a young man in search of adventure with his old sergeant. The inhabitants of Mur, the Abati—one of the lost tribes of Israel, now in the decline of their civilisation fallen into effete cowardice and lethargy. Their queen—Maqueda, the Child of Kings, descended from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, one of the few Abati that still shows courage and enterprise. Their enemies—the warlike and vigorous Fung, who worship the gigantic lion-headed sphinx Harmac.
The mission: blow up the mountainous sphinx, thus demoralising and dispersing the Fung and rescuing the Abati people from extinction. Rescue the doctor's son from the Fung. Escape death by lion. And do it all without falling foul of the villainous Joshua, Prince of the Abati, and without falling in love with the spirited Maqueda, for which the penalty is death. More easily said than done...
Do I even need to tell you that this is a thrilling adventure story with not a dull moment? As usual with Rider Haggard novels, there's a lost civilisation in the last stages of decay. There's an epic romance between the queen and one of the adventurers that threatens to bring disaster not only to them, but also to the whole fragile nation. There's oodles of drama, underground tombs stuffed with gold, hungry lions, scheming viziers, kidnappings, rescues, pith helmets, camel chases, &c.
Unlike many Haggard books, this one takes a somewhat light tone. It seems to me like a retread of his other 'lost civilisation/African adventure' books, especially She and Heart of the World; but it is a good deal less gloomy than either of those.
“Well, if you want the truth,” I said, “I didn't notice very much myself, for my sight isn't as good as it used to be. But the Sergeant, who has extraordinary sharp eyes, thought that he saw you kissing Maqueda, a supposition that your relative attitudes seemed to confirm, which explains, moreover, some of the curious sounds we heard before he lit the torches.”
One of the best characters in the book is Barung, Sultan of the Fung. The whole Fung – Abati rivalry in the book is pretty complex, actually. On one hand, the Fung sacrifice people alive to their lion gods, while the Abati don't; and in fact have a somewhat diluted form of the Old Covenant worship of God. Hooray for the Abati! But the Abati's religion is largely formalism, and they are cowardly, backstabbing, greedy folks, while the Fung as represented in the person of Barung are both brave and generous. On the other hand, Barung's daughter comes off as something out of the Book of Revelation, while Maqueda, who retains the ancient virtues of her own race, is regarded as an epitome of womanly excellence, even by her enemies.
Namely, Barung. While black-hearted villains are always fun to read about, it's just as much fun when the enemy leader is cast as a Worthy Foe. Singlehandedly defying, and successfully repelling, his whole army will not raise any such ungenerous emotion as hatred in Barung's heart. Instead he will tell you how much he admires you and offer you a high position in his own army.
No; if there's a black-hearted villain in this book, it is Maqueda's wicked uncle, Prince Joshua. As a perfectly loathsome, over-the-top villain, Joshua is a success; but he was one element of the book I just didn't care for. After all, only heroes should be named Joshua. And remember, we're talking about a vaguely Hebraic people. While I tend to think the best of Haggard, I can't help wondering if some anti-semitism has crept into his characterisation of the villain (and the other Abati). It was a little discomfiting.
On the other hand, the depiction of the unimposing Abati was a trenchant satire on civilisations that have outlived their vigour.
Really, conquerors returning from some desperate adventure could not have been more warmly greeted. As we entered the suburbs of the town, women, some of them very handsome, ran out and embraced their lords or lovers, holding up babies for them to kiss, and a little farther on children appeared, throwing roses and pomegranate flowers before their triumphant feet. And all this because these gallant men had ridden to the bottom of a pass and back again!
I was painfully reminded by this passage of one of the many ridiculous episodes in my own country's recent history: while bored and playing the fool in his barracks, an Australian soldier in Iraq or somewhere shot himself in the head and was subsequently transported home and given a hero's funeral, with the flag over his coffin and a guard of honour and the PM attending. Oh, there are still many brave men in the Australian military, don't get me wrong, but what folly, to treat such a fool as a hero. If things like this make you wince, then this book is going to make you wince too. We—and I mean most of the Western countries—have become just as effete as Haggard's Abati.
I have just one more thing to mention. On the whole, this was an excellent book, but I simply must point out the distressing proclivity of vintage-novel-heroines to decide to commit suicide at the drop of a pin. Far too many of these girls, when facing a fate worse than death, dive for the dagger or the poison. Far too many heroes save one last bullet for the lady, so that she should be spared torture or insult. Of course, they do it for dramatic purposes—there's no way out! We're all doomed! How could there possibly be a happy ending now? As a matter of fact, Maqueda is better than most:
“Say, what were you about to do, O Child of Kings? Take the fat Joshua to your breast?”
“Nay, Barung, I was about to take this husband to my breast,” and I showed him the knife that was hidden in my marriage robe.
“No,” he said, smiling, “I think the knife was for Joshua first.”
At least she would have tried self-defence before self-murder. Far too few vintage heroines have the wits to go for the villain instead of themselves.
Clearly most vintage novelists had not read St Augustine. Far better to wait on the mercy of God than to go to meet Him with your own blood on your hands.
Apart from that, Queen Sheba's Ring is a fun and uplifting read, not very long, and full of adventure. I recommend it.

Gutenberg etext

8 comments:

Reinhard said...

The mention of a Grand Vizier reminded me of this passage from Terry Pratchett's Pyramids:
It's a fact as immutable as the Third Law of Sod that there is no such thing as a good Grand Vizier. A predilection to cackle and plot is apparently part of the job spec.

Meggie said...

ooh, that sounds good. I really enjoy H Rider Haggard.

Yes, the whole kill yourself when theres no hope gets on my nerves as well. Its stupid to portray that as honourable and the 'only thing you could do' in such a situation.

Blessings,
Meggie

Suzannah said...

Reinhard--Pratchett was stating the obvious, then! The chap who fulfills the grand vizier's role in this story is not actually called a grand vizier, but that is unmistakeably what he is.

Galleddrim said...

Hey! My brother illustrated the cover for that book! Glad you enjoyed it.

Galleddrim said...

Have you checked out Haggard's Pearl Maiden? Try to get the one I edited. Unless you're a purist who wouldn't appreciate my revisions. In that case, read the original. ;c)

http://www.amazon.com/Pearl-Maiden-H-Rider-Haggard/dp/1930367899

Suzannah said...

Heavens to Betsy, it's true! "Revised and Edited by Christopher D Kou"! What are YOU doing hiding on my bookshelf? I noticed that my copy of Pearl Maiden had been edited but I never expected to find the editor among my acquaintance ;). I have read "Lysbeth", "Pearl Maiden", and "The Brethren" in the Christian Liberty Press revised editions, but I read the original "Queen Sheba's Ring" and picked your brother's nice work just because it was the best cover image I could find.

I tend to be a purist. Revisions frankly puzzle me. Can I really say I've read H Rider Haggard's "Pearl Maiden"? (though even after your ministrations, it still seemed like a very silly, though enjoyable, book). And why shouldn't I read the original? I begin to understand the whys and wherefores when I begin prescribing books for my little sisters, but I'd rather they got the books with all their flaws and learned how to sift through them than read nothing but tidied versions.

Only the knowledge that people I respect have conspired in certain revisions prevents me from dismissing them out of hand. Convince me ;)

Chris said...

"Convince me," she says! Oh dear me. Well, now. First, I should admit that I presented Pearl Maiden to CLPress as a good candidate for publication. I thought it was a very charming story in the original, and I'd been looking for a good auld novel about the Fall of Jerusalem for a while that might be good to reprint.

Now, this being CLPress, as a matter of course it was going to go through the revision regardless of who did it. Usually Michael McHugh would have handled that, but since I had a personal interest in this story and its characters, etc. I offered to do it myself.

I tried to keep true to the original in spirit and flavour, but modernization of the text was the order of the day, so . . . away I went. With some restraint. Also, the added scenes I thought served the story. So aside from purists, I think the revision a little more readable. But I would certainly not discourage anyone from reading the original.

Suzannah said...

...Please? ;)

That's very interesting! I would have done it too, if I had known it was going to happen anyway. But it's a pity that Christian Liberty Press don't leave the originals alone--I like Haggard's old-fashioned mode of expression very much indeed.

I should probably re-read The Brethren in the original. It may not be as good as I thought...

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