Fun facts about the life and work of Henry Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines and She
1. He is the author of one of the biggest-selling books of all time. H. Rider Haggard’s She (Oxford World’s Classics) (1887) is reckoned to be one of the bestselling novels ever published: by 1965 it had sold some 83 million copies. Ayesha, the ‘she’ of the title, is a powerful and mysterious white queen who rules the African Amahagger people. Ayesha has magic powers and is immortal, making She a fantasy adventure novel, precursor to the fiction of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and countless other writers of the twentieth century. The novel is also the origin of the phrase ‘she who must be obeyed’ – which, curiously, originated in a ‘hideous’ rag-doll owned by Haggard as a child. (The phrase would be given a new lease of life in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey series.) She has been filmed numerous times and was even one of the first novels adapted for (silent) cinema, when Georges Méliès filmed it in 1899 as La Colonne de feu. It remains one of Haggard’s most popular novels, along with…
2. H. Rider Haggard wrote his first successful novel because he wasn’t impressed with Treasure Island. When Rider Haggard read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, he felt he could write a better adventure story and so set about doing so, betting his brother that he could do a better job. He dashed off a novel in six weeks and it was published in 1885 as King Solomon’s Mines (Oxford World’s Classics), his most enduringly popular novel along with She. A quest romance about the search for the giant diamond mines of the titular King Solomon, the novel introduced readers to Haggard’s character Allan Quatermain (recently played by Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). The book’s success was no doubt helped along by no fewer than 20 anonymous glowing reviews which appeared in newspapers – all of them written by Haggard’s friend, Andrew Lang.
3. The influence of King Solomon’s Mines can be glimpsed in the Indiana Jones films. In many ways, the Indiana Jones series is the obvious heir to Rider Haggard’s tales of exotic quests and adventure in far-flung parts of the globe (though usually Africa) featuring his intrepid hunter-explorer, Allan Quatermain. Indiana Jones’s signature move – narrowly escaping a room filled with danger, only to reach his hand back to retrieve his hat – even appears in King Solomon’s Mines. It might even be suggested that the climax to that novel, involving a cave filled with giant diamonds (in the ‘mines’ of the book’s title), and a door that is rapidly closing and cannot be reopened, appears to have had a hand in inspiring the famous opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, providing a neat sense of lineage between the two franchises.
4. One of his characters was so popular that Haggard was obliged to bring him back from the dead. Like Conan Doyle, who was pressed by fans and publishers to bring back Sherlock Holmes, Rider Haggard was forced to resurrect his most famous creation, Allan Quatermain, hero of King Solomon’s Mines. Haggard had killed off the character at the end of the eponymous 1887 novel Allan Quatermain (Oxford World’s Classics), but so loud was the public outcry that two years later, Quatermain was back in Allan’s Wife. Indeed, the similarities with Conan Doyle don’t stop there: both men were knighted (but not for their fiction), both wrote influential non-fiction about the Boer Wars, and Rider Haggard effectively invented the ‘Lost World’ sub-genre of fiction – involving the search for some fabled land that is separate from the ‘real’ world – with his novel King Solomon’s Mines, and it would be Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World that would give the sub-genre its name.
5. He was President Theodore Roosevelt’s favourite author. Rider Haggard continues to be popular with readers and is one of several important late nineteenth-century authors who triggered a renaissance in storytelling and adventure tales (the others being Kipling, Stevenson, and Conan Doyle). Despite his sometimes stereotypical depictions of African people and his gung-ho treatment of the British Empire (not always as nuanced as in that university favourite, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), Haggard continues to find a readership, though his reputation now rests upon three novels (She, King Solomon’s Mines, and Allan Quatermain are the only ones which remain in print with the leading publishers of classics, which is a shame), though he wrote dozens more. The RAF supposedly took its motto, Per ardua ad astra, from Haggard’s novel People of the Mist. A railway point in British Columbia was named Rider, in his honour. And, of course, he helped to inspire Indiana Jones. As he lay dying he was supposedly asked what he would like his epitaph to be. ‘He did his best,’ was his modest reply. His best was pretty good.
If you enjoyed these facts about Rider Haggard, check out our interesting facts about Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
Image: H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), author and date unknown, Wikimedia Commons.