Guest Post by J. Comer: The World’s Desire, by H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang

The history of fantasy and adventure stories is a rich one, and Cirsova can barely scratch the surface of it  in reviews.  Nevertheless, no survey of fantasy novels and adventure tales is complete without mentioning H. Rider Haggard[1].  Best known for She and King Solomon’s Mines, the author actually wrote ten volumes of nonfiction, hundreds of newspaper articles and forty-six novels.  While his attitudes toward race and imperialism are badly dated, his works are still read and enjoyed today, and several have been adapted for movies and television.  His colleague and friend Andrew Lang is remembered primarily as a folklorist, having written hundreds of volumes about the legends and traditions of Scotland and other lands.  Lang was also a novelist, and in 1890 he and Haggard collaborated on a blockbuster adventure tale later reprinted by Lin Carter as part of Carter’s effort to bring older authors back into print. The story, titled The World’s Desire, is now available online at Gutenberg.

Lang helped with the first four chapters, while most of the rest of the book was Haggard’s work.  The story begins with Odysseus returning to Ithaca, after a voyage, and finding his family dead of plague.  He sees a vision of Helen of Troy and goes off in search of her.  Caught by wicked Phoenicians, he escapes and ends up in the Egypt of Merneptah.  What happens next may spoil the book, but it’s been out for a while.

The plot depends on two literary and historical conceits. One is that Helen was in Egypt, as Herodotus and Euripides both mention they had heard, and that Patroclus and Hector died for a phantom.  The other is that Merneptah was the Pharaoh of the Exodus (of the Hebrews, in the Bible).  The daring of this is breathtaking, whether the reader is religious or not.  I am perfectly aware that the historicity of the Exodus and of the Trojan War is dubious, but this story is too much fun.

The crazy daring of this plot, which mixes Homer, the Bible, real Egyptian history (the Sea Peoples!), sorcery, sex, and good old-fashioned swordplay, is a rip-roaring hoot.  While I consider the Bible to be true, I found nothing in this wild romp to which I could object.  Odysseus meets and befriends the wicked queen, the Hebrews flee the Nile Valley in the midst of chaos, arrows fly, and a ‘strange Hathor’ draws men to their doom….  The novel ends in sadness but not in tragedy, to quote Sandra Miesel, and in entire accordance with Greco-Roman mythology.  Note that the Egyptians of the novel are neither white people nor African blacks, but the reddish-brown folk depicted in the art of the Pharaonic period, and that Odysseus, a Bronze-Age Greek, regards their civilization as far more advanced than his own (as it indeed was).

I recommend The World’s Desire to lovers of ancient history, the Bible, Greek mythology and adventure.

[1] He was knighted as Sir Henry Rider Haggard in 1912, but never wrote using the honorific

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