A Curious Coincidence of Victorian Imposters

FATED to occupy myself in a computerless wasteland for many hours over the last two days, I resorted to the dead trees of King Solomon’s Mines  (H. Rider Haggard, 1885), and The Wood beyond the World  (William Morris, 1895). A full novel per diem, though both  were rather short and I tend to skim at times. No conscious pattern governed my choice of these books I did but snatch them off the shelf on my way out of my house. Neither one had I read before, and I had only the vaguest idea of their stories. However, it came to pass that I discovered certain striking commonalities between them. Both were written by Englishmen in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, both feature mortal adventurers from the Civilized West convincing gullible pagan natives to honour their visitors as more than human, and both times the adventurers use their unlikely authority to abolish barbaric bloodshed.

In King Solomon’s Mines, our heroic imperialists are searching for the titular treasure trove in the wilds of Africa when they are accosted by a host of armed men from the hidden kingdom of  Kukuanaland, whose inhabitants speak an archaic dialect of Zulu conveniently understandable by the narrator.  The white men seem sure to die, until the chief  Kukuana notice one of them with false teeth, a glass eye, and partially-shaven cheeks:

“I see that ye are spirits,” he said falteringly; “did ever man born of woman have hair on one side of his face and not on the other, or a round and transparent eye, or teeth which moved and melted away and grew again? Pardon us, O my lords.”

Here was luck indeed, and, needless to say, I jumped at the chance.

“It is granted,” I said with an imperial smile. “Nay, ye shall know the truth. We come from another world, though we are men such as ye; we come,” I went on, “from the biggest star that shines at night.”

“Oh! oh!” groaned the chorus of astonished aborigines.

The sight of firearms makes the Kukuanas yet more astonished, and when the visitors use their almanac to predict a solar eclipse, few are able to deny their status as star-men.

As the main action of King Solomon’s Mines takes place in the real continent of Africa yet in a most fictional Kukuanaland, so does The Wood beyond the World appear to lie in our own universe (the creeds of Christ and “Mahound” compete for souls) yet in mysterious realms not corresponding to any spot on maps we know. One such realm is “the Land of the Bear-folk,” a country fond of sacrificing trespassers to its god. Protagonist Walter and his unnamed-yet-beloved “Maid” forestall such an end by the Maid posing as the god himself. But her claim to divinity is supported by more than mere technology or exotic appearance; she is a minor sorceress.

Then said the Maid: “Now, then, is the day of your gladness come; for the old body is dead, and I am the new body of your God, come amongst you for your welfare.”

Then fell a great silence on the Mote, till the old man spake and said… “Therefore I say, show to us a token; and if thou be the God, this shall be easy to thee; and if thou show it not, then is thy falsehood manifest…”

Lo then! as she spake, the faded flowers that hung about her gathered life and grew fresh again; the woodbine round her neck and her sleek shoulders knit itself together and embraced her freshly, and cast its scent about her face. The lilies that girded her loins lifted up their heads, and the gold of their tassels fell upon her; the eyebright grew clean blue again upon her smock; the eglantine found its blooms again, and then began to shed the leaves thereof upon her feet; the meadow-sweet wreathed amongst it made clear the sweetness of her legs, and the mouse-ear studded her raiment as with gems. There she stood amidst of the blossoms, like a great orient pearl against the fretwork of the goldsmiths, and the breeze that came up the valley from behind bore the sweetness of her fragrance all over the Man-mote.

Then, indeed, the Bears stood up, and shouted and cried, and smote on their shields, and tossed their spears aloft. Then the elder rose from his seat, and came up humbly to where she stood, and prayed her to say what she would have done…

Once established as extraterrestrials, the treasure-hunters of King Solomon’s Mines become involved in a Kukuana civil war, and when their preferred candidate ascends the throne he carries out the promise he made as the price of their assistance:

“This: that if ever you come to be king of this people you will do away with the smelling out of wizards such as we saw last night; and that the killing of men without trial shall no longer take place in the land.”

Ignosi thought for a moment after I had translated this request, and then answered—

“The ways of black people are not as the ways of white men, Incubu, nor do we value life so highly. Yet I will promise. If it be in my power to hold them back, the witch-finders shall hunt no more, nor shall any man die the death without trial or judgment.”

Likewise, as the Maid and her paramour depart from the Bears, she leaves them this admonition:

Now this last word I give you, that times are changed since I wore the last shape of God that ye have seen, wherefore a change I command you. If so be aliens come amongst you, I will not that ye send them to me by the flint and the fire; rather, unless they be baleful unto you, and worthy of an evil death, ye shall suffer them to abide with you…

 ♦  ♦  ♦

The two tales diverge, however, when it comes to adventurers instituting  reforms less judicial and more theological. The Wood beyond the World, despite all its dabbling in magic and heathenism, ends on a very Christian note. Upon leaving the Bears, Walter and the Maid chance upon a new people whose customs decree that when the king dies without an heir by blood, he is succeeded by a stranger to the country. Walter and the Maid are accordingly crowned, and since I am on the record as being fond of coronations I cannot resist quoting the account in full:

The King was unarmed, and dight most gloriously, but still he bore the Sword of the King’s Slaying: and sithence were the King and the Queen brought into the great hall of the palace, and they met on the dais, and kissed before the lords and other folk that thronged the hall. There they ate a morsel and drank a cup together while all beheld them; and then they were brought forth, and a white horse of the goodliest, well bedight, brought for each of them, and thereon they mounted and went their ways together, by the lane which the huge throng made for them, to the great church, for the hallowing and the crowning; and they were led by one squire alone, and he unarmed; for such was the custom of Stark-wall when a new king should be hallowed: so came they to the great church (for that folk was not miscreant, so to say), and they entered it, they two alone, and went into the choir: and when they had stood there a little while wondering at their lot, they heard how the bells fell a-ringing tunefully over their heads; and then drew near the sound of many trumpets blowing together, and thereafter the voices of many folk singing; and then were the great doors thrown open, and the bishop and his priests came into the church with singing and minstrelsy, and thereafter came the whole throng of the folk, and presently the nave of the church was filled by it, as when the water follows the cutting of the dam, and fills up the dyke. Thereafter came the bishop and his mates into the choir, and came up to the King, and gave him and the Queen the kiss of peace. This was mass sung gloriously; and thereafter was the King anointed and crowned, and great joy was made throughout the church. Afterwards they went back afoot to the palace, they two alone together, with none but the esquire going before to show them the way. And as they went, they passed close beside those two neighbours, whose talk has been told of afore, and the first one, he who had praised the King’s war-array, spake and said: “Truly, neighbour, thou art in the right of it; and now the Queen has been dight duly, and hath a crown on her head, and is clad in white samite done all over with pearls, I see her to be of exceeding goodliness; as goodly, maybe, as the Lord King.”

Quoth the other: “Unto me she seemeth as she did e’en now; she is clad in white, as then she was, and it is by reason of the pure and sweet flesh of her that the pearls shine out and glow, and by the holiness of her body is her rich attire hallowed; but, forsooth, it seemed to me as she went past as though paradise had come anigh to our city, and that all the air breathed of it. So I say, praise be to God and His Hallows who hath suffered her to dwell amongst us!”

Said the first man: “Forsooth, it is well; but knowest thou at all whence she cometh, and of what lineage she may be?”

“Nay,” said the other, “I wot not whence she is; but this I wot full surely, that when she goeth away, they whom she leadeth with her shall be well bestead. Again, of her lineage nought know I; but this I know, that they that come of her, to the twentieth generation, shall bless and praise the memory of her, and hallow her name little less than they hallow the name of the Mother of God.”

Perhaps influenced by so pious a ceremony, the Maid at length regretted her divine pretensions:

It misgave her that she had beguiled the Bear-folk to deem her their God; and she considered and thought how she might atone it. So the second year after they had come to Stark-wall, she… went down all bird-alone to the dwelling of those huge men, unguarded now by sorcery, and trusting in nought but her loveliness and kindness… So she came to the Bears, and they knew her at once, and worshipped and blessed her, and feared her. But she told them that she had a gift for them, and was come to give it; and therewith she told them of the art of tillage, and bade them learn it…

The Englishmen of King Solomon’s Mines, however, have no missionary spirit. This is well for them, for King Ignosi, despite his seemingly-self-abasing words on whites valuing life more than blacks, sees little value in white culture, including its religion.

No other white man shall cross the mountains, even if any man live to come so far. I will see no traders with their guns and gin. My people shall fight with the spear, and drink water, like their forefathers before them. I will have no praying-men to put a fear of death into men’s hearts, to stir them up against the law of the king, and make a path for the white folk who follow to run on.

Or in other words: “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” is not to be sung in Kukuanaland.

Another difference reveals itself in racial attitudes. While King Solomon’s Mine not only asserts but continually points out the separate skin colours of the white Englishmen and the “kaffir” Kukuanas, The Wood beyond the World  assures us that men of other colours are also liable to be overawed by Civilized People:

The Bear-folk, seeing them, stood all together, facing them, to abide their coming. Walter saw of them, that though they were very tall and bigly made, they were not so far above the stature of men as to be marvels. The carles were long-haired, and shaggy of beard, and their hair all red or tawny; their skins, where their naked flesh showed, were burned brown with sun and weather, but to a fair and pleasant brown, nought like to blackamoors.

Of course, this implies that the skin of “blackamoors” is unpleasant and un-fair… so perhaps it should not be praised overmuch.

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