Monday, October 22, 2012

The Brethren by H Rider Haggard (original edition)

Seven or eight years ago I borrowed a book from some friends: Rider Haggard’s The Brethren, edited (though I didn’t realise it at the time) by Christian Liberty Press. It immediately became my favourite Haggard book, and you can read my review of that edition here. Unfortunately, when a friend of mine was persuaded by my review to read the original, her reaction was somewhat less enthusiastic than mine. I realised that there must be differences.

It has taken me all these years to get my own copy of this thrilling book, and I finally ordered the cheapest version I could find, a reprint from Aegypan Press. The quality of the book is so-so; the print is sometimes a little dim, though I was able to read it with no trouble.

This I have just finished reading. Although I was unable to compare it with the CLP edition, I assume that that one has had the archaic speech modernised. I also assume that the one or two things I disliked about the book this time had been removed from the CLP edition.

I have mixed feelings about this trend of publishing neatened-up versions of vintage novels. On the one hand, finding silly things in an otherwise brilliant novel is disappointing, like not knowing when you’re going to find a caterpillar in your otherwise sumptuous caesar salad. On the other hand, I dislike reading a book that’s been de-archaised for younger audiences, and I like to know what an author really thought. The caterpillars were probably an intrinsic part of his artistic vision.

That said, let’s get on with the review.

The Brethren, a smashing book, is set during the Second Crusade and the terrible fall of the Crusader kingdom of Outremer. Salah-eh-din, Sultan of Damascus, has a dream which convinces him to send his men to England to bring back Rosamund, the daughter of his sister who (according to Haggard!) eloped with an English knight. This maid, Saladin is sure, will somehow prevent a terrible disaster and give him a bloodless victory.

Godwin and Wulf, Rosamund’s twin cousins, manage to rescue her from the first kidnapping attempt. In the aftermath, they realise that they both love Rosamund desperately. Appalled by the thought that they might become rivals and enemies for Rosamund’s hand, the two decide to let her choose between them. And when Rosamund is successfully snatched from her home by Saladin’s men, both brethren follow to rescue her or die in the attempt. Acting upon their dead uncle’s instructions, the brethren determine to seek help from the ominous and wicked Old Man of the Mountain—even against the warnings of the widow Masouda, the mysterious and beautiful innkeeper of Beirut, who spies for the Assassins. With Masouda’s help, the brethren find Rosamund again and save her from the villainous traitor Lozelle. But Saladin’s arm is long, and soon the brother knights discover that until Rosamund has fulfilled the purpose for which he brought her to the Holy Land, he will never let her go.

Again, this was a fantastic read. Mixing history, legend, far-fetched invention, and gallons of melodrama (from a single combat on a parapetless bridge “three paces” wide, to those wonderful chapters in which one of our four heroes must lose his or her head, and the four of them go round and round trying to save each other by sacrificing him or herself) The Brethren has just about everything needed by epic and sensational stories of heroism and adventure in that epic and heroic place and time that was Outremer. Haggard’s characterization here is particularly enjoyable: Godwin, who is conscientious, wise, and honourable; Wulf, who is more rash and thoughtless but who rises into selflessness by the end; Rosamund, whose pluck and self-sacrifice carry her through many terrors; and Masouda, still my favourite Haggard character of all time, who is intrepid and resourceful and always has an escape plan up her sleeve.

Again, the most enjoyable theme of the book was that of self-sacrifice, which was woven into the gripping adventure of the story. Each of the four main characters is ready to lay down his or her life for the others throughout the book, but as the danger grows and the stakes rise higher, death becomes more and more certain. Just like last time, this was my favourite aspect of the book.

Another aspect of the book that I missed last time was the history. This book does a magnificent job of depicting the fall of Outremer, as the last segment of it deals with the disastrous battle of Hattin and the resulting siege of Jerusalem under Balian of Ibelin. Earlier this year I read Knight Crusader, which also dealt with Hattin, so it was interesting to compare the two (fictional) accounts of that battle. Both accounts are harrowing, depicting really bad tactical decisions, a terrible slaughter, and mass beheadings of Christian prisoners after the battle.

But now for the caterpillars in this scrumptious salad of a book. I have mentioned before the distressing proclivity of vintage-novel heroines to stab themselves at the drop of a hat, and although early on in this book Rosamund’s father forbids her, she seems to spend most of the book on the verge of doing so, and the nuns in Jerusalem during the siege discuss it at such length and to so little purpose that I became tired of the subject.

Worse, however, was the narrator’s general attitude towards the Christian-Muslim conflict, which vaguely niggled at me for the whole book until I reached this line:
"Judge not. No god whom men worship with a pure and single heart is wholly false. Many be the ladders that lead to heaven. Judge not, you Christian knight." 
Oh, Haggard, you should know better. Paul says, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” And Christ Himself said, “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

However, despite the way Haggard's views affect his depiction of the two sides in this war, he mostly allows the characters to act consistently with their respective religions.

Like all Christian authors since the 1170s when Saladin rose to prominence as a chivalrous and worthy foe of Christendom whom they considered it an honour to have fought, Haggard depicts the sultan as enlightened, honourable, and faithful to his word—possibly more so than the man actually deserved. The conflict between Saladin’s reputation and his deeds is shown in the slaughter of Templars and Hospitallers after Hattin—apparently many “secular” knights, in protest of the massacre, also claimed to belong to one of these orders and died alongside them. But most of all the disconnect is shown in the Rosamund plotline. Saladin insists on having her with him because, he believes, she will bring peace to the Holy Land and being enlightened and honourable he wants peace. However, as he spends the second half of the book besieging and slaughtering his way around Palestine, I can’t help pointing out that there was a very easy way for him to have peace, had he wanted it: he could have gone back to Damascus.

Re-reading The Brethren, this time in its unedited edition, was an alloyed pleasure, marred by the usual tiresomeness of the vintage heroine and occasional bad theology. That aside, this book still stands among my very favourite Rider Haggard novels and was great fun to read, especially now that I know a little more about Hattin and Outremer.

Gutenberg etext

2 comments:

Lady Bibliophile said...

So do you think you'll stick with the CLP or the original after this?

Suzannah said...

O, the original, of course. Many reasons, but one which is worth mentioning is that in the original, the bad theology is clearly lurking throughout the whole book; it has one or two visible outcroppings, but all along I was getting a sense that this was Haggard's position. Removing the visible outcroppings disguises this position but doesn't remove it and I would read the CLP version knowing what it meant.

This is the book Haggard wrote. It's still a great read despite the blemishes, and as for any possible children of mine, I want them to be able to identify and refute bad worldview in the books they read, because it's such a brilliant way of learning how worldviews affect everyday life.

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