Andrew Lang, Comparative Anthropology and the Classics in the African Romances of Rider Haggard

By Hilton, J. L. | Akroterion, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Andrew Lang, Comparative Anthropology and the Classics in the African Romances of Rider Haggard


Hilton, J. L., Akroterion


The long-standing friendship between Andrew Lang (1844-1912) (1) and Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) (2) is surely one of the most intriguing literary relationships of the Victorian era. (3) Lang was a pre-eminent literary critic and his support for Haggard's earliest popular romances, such as King Solomon's mines (1885) and She (1887), helped to establish them as leading models of the new genre of imperial adventure fiction. (4) Lang and Haggard co-authored The world's desire (1890) (5) and the ideas of Lang, who was also a brilliant Classics scholar, can be seen in many of Haggard's works. There are some significant similarities between the two men: both were approximate contemporaries who lived through the most aggressive phase of British imperialism, both were highly successfully writers who earned their living by their pens, both wrote prolifically and fluently on a wide range of subjects, (6_ both were largely self-educated, both were interested in the supernatural, both had had unhappy experiences in love at first but later maintained long-lasting marriages, and both were men with powerful faculties of imagination. There are, of course, significant differences also: Lang was a gifted intellectual who had won a fellowship at Oxford, a Homeric scholar, a poet with a gift for irony and humour, and one of the earliest exponents of the new science of anthropological mythology; Haggard was less well educated and more serious-minded, he preferred action to ideas, was personally involved in the extension of British rule in Southern Africa, (7) and had a close experience of African tribal life. This article sets out to investigate the relationship between these two men, and to assess the extent to which Lang's classical and anthropological thinking shaped the narratives of Haggard, especially those set in his imperialistic fantasy of the African continent.

What may have attracted Lang's interest in Haggard, in addition to the phenomenal popularity of the early romances, especially King Solomon's mines (1885), may well have been passages such as the description of the 'paean of victory' by Ignosi, the 'King of the Kukuanas' (KSM pp. 206f.), as described by a hunter Evans to the narrator in this romance, Alan Quatermain:

   Ignosi bound the diadem on his brows, and then advancing placed his
   foot upon the broad chest of his headless foe and broke out into a
   chant, or rather a paean of victory, so beautiful, and yet so
   utterly savage, that I despair of being able to give an adequate
   idea of it. I once heard a scholar with a fine voice read aloud
   from the Greek poet Homer, and I remember that the sound of the
   rolling lines seemed to make my blood stand still. Ignosi's chant,
   uttered as it was in a language as beautiful and sonorous as the
   old Greek, produced exactly the same effect on me, although I was
   exhausted with toil and many emotions.

Haggard's African battles do not shy away from graphic descriptions of cruel death and bloodshed. The battles in King Solomon's mines, and indeed in Haggard generally, are in this regard truly Homeric in their gruesome depictions of violence (compare the duel between Twala and Sir Henry in King Solomon's mines pp. 204-206, for example, with the combat between Achilles and Hector in Homer Iliad 22.273-374. (8)

Lang is best known to Classicists as a Homeric scholar. In addition to his long and critically acclaimed original poem Helen of Troy (1882) and his highly influential translations of the Iliad (co-translated in 1882 with Walter Leaf [Books 1-9] and Ernest Myers [Books 7-24]) and the Odyssey (mostly Lang corrected by S H Butcher, 1898), Lang published three books on these poems. (9) On the Homeric Question, Lang was a convinced Unitarian; in Homer and the epic (1893) he argued, through an analysis of the alleged discrepancies in the poems, that the Iliad and Odyssey were composed by a single poet. This argument was continued in Homer and his age (1906), in which the poems are shown to present a coherent worldview as a result of their composition at a single point of time after the establishment of writing in Greece (p.

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