Thursday, October 16, 2014

The World's Desire by H Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang

There is an ancient story, a sort of tributary branch to the great story told by Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey, which suggests that the famous Helen never went to Troy at all. As the playwright Euripides told it, Paris brought Helen to Egypt on his way to Troy, but the gods fashioned an eidolon or image of Helen which Paris, being deceived, took to Troy while the true Helen remained in Egypt. According to Herodotus, who claimed to have gone to Egypt to interview the priests, there was no eidolon; instead the King of Egypt, horrified by the crime committed by Paris, sent him packing without her and maintained Helen as the goddess Aphrodite in Egypt until after the Trojan War, when Helen's husband Menelaus--who refused to believe that the Trojans did not have his wife in their city--returned to Egypt to claim her.

I heard this version of the story once long ago from a book which I have forgotten. Perhaps it was Herodotus himself. As a child, I thought it was an extremely happy twist on the story--hooray, Helen never ran off with that nasty Paris and she got to live happily ever after with Menelaus. Reacquainting myself with the roots of the myth for this review, I see an even more striking tragedy in the story: the Trojan War, all ten years of it, and the sack of Troy, for a phantom--or even worse, for something that was never there at all.

At any rate, it's a fascinating twist on the familiar story, and when I heard--years ago--that H Rider Haggard, the author of such thrilling and preposterous adventure stories as Nada the Lily, Heart of the World, She and King Solomon's Mines had collaborated with no less a luminary than Andrew Lang--the preeminent Victorian translator of Homer and the collector of many fairy tales, among other things--on The World's Desire, a novel based on the Helen-in-Egypt myth, I knew I just had to find and read it someday.

This, thanks to Project Gutenberg and my trusty e-reader, I have now done.

We find the Wanderer returning to his island home from a second, un-sung journey. This time, instead of clamouring suitors and faithful old retainers, Odysseus is greeted by death and destruction: a pestilence has taken from him his wife, his son, and all his people. Grieving in the temple of Aphrodite, he is given a vision of Helen, whom he loved for an hour in their youth. According to the goddess, the Wanderer will soon set out on another journey to find the ageless Helen and the love of his youth, whom he will find if he trusts to the sign of the star, and not to that of the snake.

Whereupon follows a tale of scheming villainesses, epic battles, purple prose, and high adventure.

According to Wikipedia, the collaboration between Haggard and Lang on this novel--the men had been friends for years--involved Lang writing all of the first four chapters and then advising, and making certain revisions, on the rest of the story. And to be perfectly honest, Lang's chapters were by far the best. I thought it was rather bad form for him to kill off poor Penelope to make way for an epic romance between Odysseus and Helen (had Helen not enough attention?--it was always one of the nicer things about the Odyssey that its heroine was the quiet and domestic Penelope), but Lang was a more restrained, more direct writer than Haggard and was familiar enough with Homer's originals to produce a wonderful suggestion of the original flavour. The return of the Wanderer to his abandoned kingdom, and the fight on the Sidonian ship, have a crisp vividness that Haggard's more melodramatic writing lacks.

Not that Haggard is anyone to patronise, but a lot of his usual offences do crop up. There is a powerful and passionate villainess who effortlessly outshines the meek heroine (at his best, Haggard combined the two characters into one, as in Heart of the World). The theme of the book, drawing as it does upon both the Christian myth of Eden and some Eastern mysticism about reincarnation, is the usual brand of Haggard romanticism. And the ending will not satisfy those who prefer happily-ever-afters (romances written by men so rarely do). Otherwise, the book is stocked to the rafters with melodrama. The closing battle is perfectly ripping. And Haggard almost gets away with using the Exodus of the children of Israel, with attendant plagues, as little more than window-dressing, almost  a subplot.

In the end I was a little disappointed by The World's Desire. If I had to summarise the thing, I would call it a second-rate Haggard novel with some excellent contributions from Lang. It wasn't bad, but it was nothing I hadn't seen already.

There is a rather obscure volume of unfinished and short stories by CS Lewis, sold under the title of The Dark Tower and Other Stories. The last of these stories, told from Menelaus's point of view, opens in the Trojan Horse on the night of the sack of Troy as the king of Sparta meditates on just what, if anything, he would do with his erring wife once she is recovered. He's horrified to discover that Helen has, in her ten years in Troy, mellowed into a plain middle-aged woman. But then in Egypt on the way home, he is confronted with an unspoiled, unaging Helen whom the King of Egypt swears is the real Helen, the original. There the fragment ends... I go back and read it every now and then. I still hope that when I read the New Jerusalem, Lewis will have finished it.

Unfortunately, The World's Desire was not that book. But ah, it was pretty fun.

Find The World's Desire on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.


Kate said...

Interesting sidenote: The Dark Tower and Other Stories may or may not actually have been written by Lewis. Some scholars think it was, but some think it wasn't. The authorship is definitely murkier than most of his work.

(Kate / bonny_kathryn)

Suzannah said...

This is quite true. I think that the authorship dispute is specifically over the DARK TOWER fragment, not the other things in the book?

It's been a while since I read the DARK TOWER fragment, but it's a fascinating question. I'm inclined to believe it was Lewis...he DID hint that the sequel to OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET would have to involve time travel, plus the story is pretty mind-bendingly creative. I guess one day we'll find out for sure :).

Kim Marsh said...

As I meant to say before being distracted after your last post. It's great to see you reviewing Vintage Novels again!

Suzannah said...

Kim, I'm sorry to have gotten so distracted! I'm trying to branch out a bit, but I definitely will keep up with the vintage reads ;).


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