Tag Archives: H. Rider Haggard

Sin, Sexism, and Gothic Wanderers: Haggard and Lang’s The World’s Desire

The World’s Desire (1890) is one of the most interesting, strange, possibly sexist, and only partially satisfying novels I have ever read. This collaboration between H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang deserves to be far better known simply because it is a collaboration between two of the great Victorian writers of adventure novels, or male romance, but more so, because of its fascinating Gothic wanderer figures—Odysseus, Helen, and Meriamun.

The 1890 first edition of The World’s Desire

The World’s Desire will not appeal to all readers—it’s definitely a novel written for men rather than women, but it is also a book deserving of attention. Written as a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, literary critics have praised Lang for his ability to recreate Homer’s style and diction. That said, I feel the hand of Haggard more firmly in it. The novel is in his style and tone largely and reads like a strange sort of dream that reminds me especially of one of my favorite of his works, The Ghost Kings, as well as the Conan stories of Robert Howard. The atmosphere is very Gothic, and the theme is Gothic, without the typical Gothic trappings of castles. The supernatural is prevalent throughout the novel, though more in the form of Greek goddesses and biblical plagues than typical ghosts.

The story begins with Odysseus returning home from a second voyage he made after his initial return to Ithaca at the end of The Odyssey. He reaches Ithaca only to find that plague has killed everyone there, including his wife. He goes to the temple of Aphrodite to pray and ask for direction and she tells him he has always followed Athena, not her, but now it is time for him to follow her and truly have a great love. He is to seek Helen of Troy, to learn what became of her, and with her he shall know true passion. Unsure how to find her, Odysseus prepares for the search by putting on the armor of Paris that he received as a gift from Menelaus. Then the island is invaded by slavers who kidnap him. They take him to Egypt, where he manages to escape from them by slaughtering them.

Once in Egypt, Odysseus (who throughout most of the novel is referred to as “the Wanderer”) hears stories of terrible plagues that are happening. (These are the Biblical plagues of Exodus.) He is told that some blame the plagues on the Apiru (Hebrews) who wish to be set free from being Pharaoh’s slaves, but others blame the goddess Hathor or the one who poses as her. The most beautiful woman in the world is living in Hathor’s temple, claiming to be her, and some believe the true goddess is punishing Egypt in anger over the impostor.

Eventually, Odysseus makes his way to the Pharaoh’s presence. All this while he wears Paris’ armor and does not give his true name to anyone. Pharaoh is married to his half-sister, Meriamun. She only agreed to marry him in exchange for equal power with him. She is also a sorceress, and she comes to recognize Odysseus’ true identity and love him. Odysseus, however, is not interested in Meriamun and instead believes Hathor may be Helen, so he goes to the temple to see her, even though he is warned that all the men who have dared look upon her have died, struck down by some ghostly spirits that guard her. Of course, Odysseus survives. Helen is surprised to see him, fearing he is Paris’ ghost at first. Once he reveals his true identity to her, they swear their love for each other.

However, Meriamun is furious. She hates Helen for being the only woman in the world more beautiful than her, and now, she hates her for having Odysseus’ love. Through sorcery, she makes a Faustian pact with the Snake, also known as Sin (the biblical Garden of Eden snake clearly); she must always carry him about her like a girdle, and in exchange, she is able to change her image to be that of Helen. Of course, she seduces Odysseus, and while they sleep, the Snake curls itself about them.

When Odysseus learns he has been tricked, he is devastated, and it doesn’t help that Meriamun accuses him of raping her and has him throne in prison. Her goal now is to kill both Odysseus and Helen. Meanwhile, Pharaoh has been off pursuing the Apiru at the Red Sea and has lost his army. He returns and has a terrible dream (created by Meriamun’s sorcery) that convinces him, since his army is gone, he must send Odysseus to fight his other enemies coming from over the sea to attack Egypt, so off Odysseus goes to serve Pharaoh. Aphrodite tells Odysseus the only way he can be purged of his sin from being with Meriamun is to do so.

Meriamun now poisons Pharaoh and places the blames for his death on Hathor, who is still blamed even though the plagues have ended with the Apiru’s departure because so many men have died from looking at her. Meriamun gets the Egyptian women to attack the temple where Helen lives but Helen escapes.

H. Rider Haggard is today best known for King Solomon’s Mines, but his bestselling novel She introduced a powerful Gothic supernatural woman that would fascinate readers for centuries. Meriamun of The World’s Desire is very much written in her shadow.

Odysseus is now fighting the men from over the sea, including “Wolf, the Son of Signy, Son of the were-wolf” who is a “wanderer from an evil race that of old had smitten his [Odysseus’s] ships and devoured his men.” He is a giant man so one assumes he might be kin to the Cyclops. But Odysseus manages to kill him. Helen now arrives at the battle to come to Odysseus’ aid, but it is too late. Telegonus, the son of Circe and Odysseus, thinking Odysseus is Paris, shoots him with an arrow that kills him. Odysseus does not die, however, before revealing his identity to his son. Telegonus says he has been seeking his father all this time but now he has slain him. Odysseus dies on Helen’s breast with the promise that they have been together in past lives and will be together in future ones. They will meet again and then “our sin be purged and peace be won, and the veil be drawn from the face of Truth.”

Meriamun is present at the funeral when Odysseus is burnt on a pyre. In her agony over Odysseus’ death, she tears from her the snake she must wear as a girdle according to her Faustian pact. She casts it into the fire, but the priest Rei (the narrator of the book) tells her that because of her vow, she must go where the snake goes. She is then drawn to the fire and casts herself onto Odysseus’s body. The snake then wraps itself around both of them and laughs. (The reader is left with the impression that Sin rather than Love has conquered.)

The novel ends with Helen wandering into the night and into the desert, and we are told she will wander until the Wanderer comes again.

A strange novel. Critics have suggested that Odysseus is an imperial Gothic hero, one not a part of empire but one who fights for empire. Clearly, he is supposed to be the hero of the novel and the one the male reader is to admire, but this reader personally thinks all the characters are rather flat and not fully fleshed out. It is a romance and not a realistic novel, of course, but only Meriamun feels like a fully developed character. Many critics have discussed the sexism of the novel. Critics claim Lang and Haggard did not like women, did not like having a female queen, and were seeking to create lands where men could have control again. Meriamun is a version of Eve with her Snake who brings about destruction, but what a wonderful villainess she is. The depictions of her making her pact with the Snake are fabulous. I’ll just quote the scene when she first awakes the Snake before he tells her his terms:

For awhile she gazed upon it, shuddering, as one in doubt.

“Minded I am to let thee sleep, thou Horror,” she murmured. “Twice have I looked on thee, and I would look no more. Nay, I will dare it, thou gift of the old wisdom, thou frozen fire, thou sleeping Sin, thou living Death of the ancient city, for thou alone hast wisdom.” Thereon she unclasped the bosom of her robe and laid the gleaming toy, that seemed a snake of stone, upon her ivory breast, though she trembled at its icy touch, for it was more cold than death. With both her hands she clasped a pillar of the chamber, and so stood, and she was shaken with throes like the pangs of childbirth. Thus she endured awhile till that which was a-cold grew warm, watching its brightness that shone through her silken dress as the flame of a lamp shines through an alabaster vase. So she stood for an hour, then swiftly put off all her robes and ornaments of gold, and loosing the dark masses of her hair let it fall round her like a veil. Now she bent her head down to her breast, and breathed on that which lay upon her breast, for the Ancient Evil can live only in the breath of human kind. Thrice she breathed upon it, thrice she whispered, “Awake! Awake! Awake!”

And the first time that she breathed the Thing stirred and sparkled. The second time that she breathed it undid its shining folds and reared its head to hers. The third time that she breathed it slid from her bosom to the floor, then coiled itself about her feet and slowly grew as grows the magician’s magic tree.

Greater it grew and greater yet, and as it grew it shone like a torch in a tomb, and wound itself about the body of Meriamun, wrapping her in its fiery folds till it reached her middle. Then it reared its head on high, and from its eyes there flowed a light like the light of a flame, and lo! its face was the face of a fair woman—it was the face of Meriamun!

Now face looked on face, and eyes glared into eyes. Still as a white statue of the Gods stood Meriamun the Queen, and all about her form and in and out of her dark hair twined the flaming snake.

At length the Evil spoke—spoke with a human voice, with the voice of Meriamun, but in the dead speech of a dead people:

“Tell me my name,” it said.

“Sin is thy name,” answered Meriamun the Queen.

“Tell me whence I come,” it said again.

“From the evil that is in me,” answered Meriamun.

“Tell me whither I go.”

“Where I go there thou goest, for I have warmed thee in my breast and thou art twined about my heart.”

Then the Snake lifted up its human head and laughed horribly.

Today Andrew Lang is best known for writing the fairy books, each named for a different color, but he was also fascinated with curses, as is clear in The World’s Desire and his writing another novel, The Mark of Cain.

“Well art thou instructed,” it said. “So I love thee as thou lovest me,” and it bent itself and kissed her on the lips. “I am that Ancient Evil, that Life which endures out of the first death; I am that Death which abides in the living life. I am that which brought on thee the woe that is in division from the Heart’s Desire, and the name thereof is Hell. From Life to Life thou hast found me at thy hand, now in this shape, now in that. I taught thee the magic which thou knowest; I showed thee how to win the Throne! Now, what wilt thou of me, Meriamun, my Mother, my Sister, and my Child? From Life to Life I have been with thee: ever thou mightest have put me from thee, ever thou fliest to the wisdom which I have, and ever from thee I draw my strength, for though without me thou mightest live, without thee I must die. Say now, what is it?—tell me, and I will name my price. No more will I ask than must be, for—ah!—I am glad to wake and live again; glad to grip thy soul within these shining folds, to be fair with thy beauty!—to be foul with thy sin!” “Lay thy lips against my ear and thine ear against my lips,” said Meriamun the Queen, “and I will say what it is that I will of thee, thou Ancient Evil.” So the human-headed Evil laid its ear against the lips of Meriamun, and Meriamun laid her lips against its ear, and they whispered each to each. There in the darkness they whispered, while the witch-light glittered down the grey snake’s shining folds, beamed in its eyes, and shone through the Queen’s dark hair and on her snowy breast.

At length the tale was told, and the Snake lifted its woman’s head high in the air and again it laughed.

No doubt, a female villain in a male-written novel may well be sexist. That said, it is Meriamun who is remembered when the novel is closed. I am left not caring if Odysseus or Helen ever unite in a future life. I care only to see if Meriamun will return and continue her reign of sin. Some critics have argued that Meriamun is an embodiment of the New Woman that the authors are reacting against, and yet it is clear that they are most fascinated by her. Many a Gothic novel has been read as subversive to female gender roles, offering alternatives and pushing against accepted social boundaries while in the end having a conservative ending. However, here we have a subversive female villain who ultimately gets the upper hand by winning over, through fascination, the authors who seek to condemn her. Meriamun has managed to step outside the book and work her witchcraft on her creators and their readers. That in the end, she feels, if not guilt, despair over Odysseus’ death transforms her from a mere villain to a female Gothic wanderer—and she is one of the most memorable.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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The Legend of Tarzan and the Gothic Tradition

I just saw the new Tarzan film, The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård, and it is absolutely fantastic. In fact, I think Skarsgård may be the best Tarzan ever to hit the screen and the film also the best Tarzan movie ever made. Of course, Johnny Weissmuller is Tarzan for legions of movie fans, but as wonderful as he was, his depiction of Tarzan was not in keeping with author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vision—Burroughs’ Tarzan was highly educated and articulate, speaking in more than monosyllables. The other actors who have played Tarzan all had their good points, except perhaps Jock Mahoney—worst Tarzan ever. But no one now in my opinion holds a flame to Skarsgård.

Poster for The Legend of Tarzan

Poster for The Legend of Tarzan

Skarsgård is fabulous if for no other reason than his appearance. Not only is he appropriately tall, but he is muscular without being bulky, and has the lithe body Burroughs describes. He also has a fair number of scars on his body in the film, which is appropriate, including a noticeable scar on his forehead as he has in the books—a very Gothic element that scar—in the novels, it pulses and turns red when he grows angry—reminiscent of the mark of Cain and the Wandering Jew’s cross on the forehead—there is no Gothic or supernatural elements in this film, but nevertheless, it’s clear the screenplay writer knew the books. In addition, I thought Margot Robbie quite good as Jane also, and Christopher Waltz was an effective villain. I can’t say it was Samuel L. Jackson’s best role, but he did have a more minor part.

I also admit that the role of Opar in the film was rather disappointing—there was no stunning ancient city depicted and there was no priestess La, ready to try to seduce Tarzan. And yes, some of the vine-swinging was a bit far-fetched, but it was breathtaking regardless. The scene on the train is one of the best kickass action scenes ever filmed in my opinion. Overall, I was very impressed and will likely watch the film several more times—many of the Tarzan films are barely watchable once, by comparison. So overall, I give this film two thumbs up. I’m ready for a whole new Tarzan film franchise with ten sequels!

But why should we care about Tarzan here at the Gothic Wanderer blog? Because I believe Tarzan is the pivotal figure in the transition of the Gothic Wanderer figure into the modern day superhero.

Following is an excerpt from my book The Gothic Wanderer that describes why Tarzan is so important to the Gothic and superhero traditions.

 

Tarzan: The Gothic Wanderer Turned Superhero

Surprisingly, it would be an American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who would combine theories of evolution, the Imperial Gothic, and the Gothic wanderer figure to create a superhero Gothic wanderer free of guilt.

I realize some readers will think my discussion of Tarzan of the Apes (1914) is a stretch in terms of my defining it as being within the Gothic novel tradition, but it definitely has Gothic elements. The novel is also a celebration of Darwin’s theory of evolution in many ways. No longer does evolution distance man from God—it makes him like a god—Burroughs is especially fond of calling Tarzan the “forest god” throughout the twenty-four novels in the Tarzan series.

The opening pages of the first book, Tarzan of the Apes, are very Gothic. Lord Greystoke and his wife are aboard a ship taken over by a mutinous crew; the Greystokes see the captain and his loyal men slaughtered, but rather than kill the Greystokes, the mutineers decide to set the husband and wife ashore on the coast of Africa where they are forced to fend for themselves amid the jungle’s horrors. Eventually, the terrifying apes kill the Greystokes, but not before Alice Greystoke gives birth to a son, Tarzan, who survives because Kala, a she-ape, has recently had her own child die, so she adopts Tarzan as her son. Tarzan grows up among the apes, quite the Gothic wanderer in his outcast role among the tribe for how he is different. He is weaker than the apes, although he soon realizes he is smarter.

Gothic elements come into play when the boy discovers his parents’ cabin. Like a ruined castle full of secrets, here Tarzan learns the truth about his origins—that he is human. He also learns to read—discovering his father’s journal—one of those Gothic manuscripts that reveal family secrets. Evolution theory is used in the novel to show that while Tarzan is not physically as strong as the jungle’s beasts, he is able to use his father’s knife to kill them, and over time, he uses his intelligence to create weapons and set traps and prove his superiority, not only over the apes, gorillas, and other beasts, but ultimately, over the black natives of Africa as well—the text is very racist in this respect, but the product of Burroughs’ time. It is no accident that Tarzan is descended from English nobility—had his parents been French peasants or blacks, he doubtless would not have been so successful since evolutionary theories also resulted in racist distinctions. Ultimately, Tarzan’s superiority allows him to kill the apes’ leader, Kerchak, so Tarzan can take his own place as “king” of the apes.

Later, when Professor Porter and his party are marooned in Africa, Tarzan encounters not only Jane but also his cousin, William Cecil Clayton, who has inherited Tarzan’s ancestral estate in England because it is assumed Tarzan’s parents died and no one knows of Tarzan’s birth or existence. Tarzan eventually befriends the party, saving Jane from numerous dangers in the jungle—which provides plenty of moments of Gothic horror for everyone except Tarzan who is himself a Gothic horror to the Americans and English in the party, and later, to anyone in the series who crosses Tarzan and feels his wrath.

Dustjacket cover of the first edition of Tarzan published in 1914 following its publication in All Story Magazine in 1912.

Dustjacket cover of the first edition of Tarzan published in 1914 following its publication in All Story Magazine in 1912.

Eventually, Tarzan, with the help of a friend, is able to prove his identity as Lord Greystoke. At first, he conceals and renounces his heritage because Jane is in love with his cousin, Clayton, but everything is worked out for him in the first sequel The Return of Tarzan (1915). Tarzan’s inheritance goes back to the Gothic emphasis upon primogeniture and concerns over who has the right to inherit property and titles. Tarzan’s desire to keep his identity secret is also Gothic in the sense that he possesses a forbidden secret, one he fears will upset the social order, and especially Jane’s happiness. Tarzan is himself not all that keen on revealing his identity and going to live in civilization, which is full of hypocrisy, thieves, and liars—truly a more evil and Gothic place than the jungle where animals are incapable of lying.

In the sequels, Tarzan and Jane spend their time between England and their large property in Africa. Tarzan frequently goes off on adventures in the jungle, including visiting the lost city of Opar (in keeping with the Lost City genre that H. Rider Haggard first invented) and rescuing the occasional white person lost in the jungle.

Burroughs admittedly focuses on evolution far more than the Gothic in the novels. The most horrible creatures in the novels are actually mutants. For example, the ape men of Opar are evolutionary freaks of nature—not at all supernatural. In other novels, Burroughs makes it clear that the natives are superstitious and their religions fake. There is not space in this work to go into detail about all the references to religion and evolution in the Tarzan novels, much less in Burroughs’ other works—notably the Caspak series where characters evolve within their own lifetimes.

Burroughs turns on their head, or even rejects, Gothic themes by the way he treats religion and superstition. He also was clearly aware of many of his contemporaries and predecessors in terms of Gothic and adventure/lost city works. To this day, perhaps the best book on Burroughs’ works is Richard A. Lupoff’s Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure (1965), which includes a thorough discussion of Tarzan’s literary ancestors and his descendants. Most notable among his literary ancestors is H. Rider Haggard’s Nada and the Lily (1892), in which the main character Galazi slays a wolf, wears its skin, and finds he can command the wolves (Lupoff 225-6). Lupoff notes that we do not know Burroughs’ sources or inspiration but he analyzes the most likely sources.

Despite Burroughs’ usual rejection of the supernatural, he made one significant exception that confirms for me Tarzan’s role as a Gothic wanderer figure transformed into a superhero. Tarzan already had the typical hero and Gothic wanderer origins, but he was lacking the trait of having an extended life until late in the series. As decades passed and the novels remained set in the present day, Tarzan obviously had to be aging so Burroughs may have felt he needed a way to keep Tarzan young since obviously a fifty year old man would be less likely to perform incredible feats of strength, including wrestling with crocodiles. Consequently, Burroughs gifted Tarzan with immortal life—and he did it twice.

In Tarzan’s Quest (1936), Burroughs tells the story of two whites who seek the secret to longevity. The secret is held by a bloodthirsty African tribe that creates longevity pills composed of various ingredients, including parts of young girls; consequently, to gain eternal life by swallowing the pills, one must perform an act of cannibalism—reminiscent of Catholic theology where the consumption of the bread and wine are the literal Body and Blood of Christ and by accepting them, one accepts Christ, thereby guaranteeing one’s eternal life. By the end of Tarzan’s Quest, Tarzan has stopped the tribe from performing its rituals, but he is left with several of the pills that he, Jane, and a couple of other characters, including Nkima, Tarzan’s monkey friend, swallow; Tarzan, thereby, becomes immortal. This form of immortality might be dismissed as a scientific concoction, but curiously, Burroughs did not settle for it.

Later in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion (1947), Burroughs has Tarzan explain that he has perpetual life because of a witch doctor he helped while in his youth and who had lived since the eighteenth century. The witch doctor bestowed extended life upon Tarzan in a lengthy ceremony. As a result, Tarzan looks like he’s still in his twenties (he would have been almost sixty by the time of the novel’s publication since he was born in 1888 in the novels. Tarzan states that he might still die by a bullet or from being killed by a wild animal, but he will not die of old age. This time, Tarzan’s immortality is the result of magic or the supernatural—what Burroughs commonly mocked as superstition in his novels, but here as Burroughs himself was aging—he would have been seventy-one when this twenty-second novel in the series was published, and he lived to complete only two more Tarzan books—he finally decided to let a little of the superstitious supernatural creep into the story to keep his character forever young.

Tarzan has now gone from having a typical Gothic origin to achieving Gothic immortality, but without the Gothic preconditions of committing a transgression that would make him cursed to wander and live forever. Instead, Tarzan chooses to extend his own life—just as he has always chosen to live life on his own terms.

I need not go into great detail about Tarzan being a type of superhero. He is really the first superhero character, the first one in the popular imagination, who would quickly become a staple of film and comic books and influence the creation of other superheroes. Not only does Tarzan have incredible strength and amazing athletic abilities, but he is highly intelligent (the literary Tarzan is a far cry from the grunting Johnny Weissmuller film version), and he creates his own form of justice in the jungle. He is the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s Superman, living by his own moral code and rejecting religious paradigms, long before the comic book Superman existed, and although Burroughs prefers terms like “forest god” for Tarzan—and the books are filled with hero worship type terms for him—in Tarzan and the Forbidden City (1938) he is even referred to as “this super-man” (115). Perhaps because Superman debuted as a comic strip in 1938, Burroughs felt he could not use that term but he liked it nevertheless and realized it could be applied to Tarzan so he hyphenated it. In fact, I would argue that Tarzan, because he is human unlike Superman with super powers and from another planet, is a superior creation as far as superheroes go.

In summary, Tarzan has little of the Gothic about him, yet he has Gothic origins in his lost family history, the manuscript he discovers, and his extended life. He has no guilt, and although he has nothing to transgress against, he would not live with guilt if he did commit a transgression. He is autonomous—what the nineteenth century Gothic wanderer had originally wished for but failed to achieve. He is man free of guilt and religion and able to live on his own terms.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is an expert on Gothic fiction and modern Arthurian fiction. He is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series which blends Gothic elements with Arthurian storylines. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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