Tuesday, September 7, 2010

H. Rider Haggard and the Venerable Bede

Yesterday I was feeling torpid and decided to actually read some of the free books I downloaded a few weeks ago, last time I was feeling ill.

I read King Solomon's Mines by (Sir) H(enry) Rider Haggard. I'd always assumed I'd read it before. (I read a bunch of his books as a child. My favourite, easily, was She--though I don't remember it--we're talking forty years ago--apart from the power and glory that was Ayesha. Yum. Echoes, for the child me, of Jadis of Charn, aka the White Witch.)

Anyway, I'm reading along, not recognising anything--apart from the tropes. After all, Haggard pretty much invented the Lost World genre. It's all here, the full-bore colonial overkill: adventure, wild riches, characters who are More Than They Seem, manifest destiny, etc. Jolly good fun if you can cope with the wholesale extermination of game, women as chattel, and adult Africans as either cruel or naïve. (It displays the full panoply of -isms, with the exception of homophobia. Haggard seems touchingly innocent the admiration of manly men. Or maybe he was having fun. He was clearly having fun in other ways.) After about fifty pages I adjusted, and settled in for the happy slaughter.

Once I relaxed, I began to recognise chunks of prose. Haggard was obviously delighting in ripping off the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare, and a whole host of other vaguely recognisable Classics. (I think I spotted some Famous Romans in there, too.)

One passage that struck me particularly was a scene wherein the intrepid explorers debate whether to undertake a risky journey across the desert to find the fabled diamond mines. One of their number, Umbopa, asks the leader of the expedition, Sir Henry (a naming coincidence? I think not) Curtis, "What is life? [T]ell me, white men, the secret of our life--whither it goes and whence it comes!" Then he answers his own question:

"You cannot answer me; you know not. Listen, I will answer. Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go. Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of the Nowhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! we are gone again into the Nowhere."

Now look at this passage from the Venerable Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), in which one of Edwin's thegns is arguing in support of a conversion to Christianity, on the grounds that Christ knows what's what, and we, as puny human beings, do not:

"The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad ; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm ; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant."
(HE II.13)

Haggard adds some Africa-specific stuff to Umbopa's speech: "Life is nothing. Life is all. It is the Hand with which we hold off Death. It is the glow-worm that shines in the night-time and is black in the morning; it is the white breath of the oxen in winter; it is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself at sunset." But it's Bede in essence.

I love the notion that something written in eighth century (concerning events in the seventh) is here being applied to the nineteenth century. It's yet another indication of the influence of Hild's time (and Bede's work) on the present day.

Speaking of which, Hild is calling. Time to get back to her.

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