Jared's Reviews > The People of the Mist

The People of the Mist by H. Rider Haggard
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Dec 30, 2011

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Read from December 30, 2011 to February 16, 2012

"King Solomon's Mines" was a childhood favorite of mine, an all-out action/adventure spectacular that I enjoyed unreservedly long before I had an awareness of postcolonial or feminist theories. No doubt about it, H. Rider Haggard and his virtuous (and fictional) white supermen are a firm product of their time. Awareness of historical context is important, but I'm not one to get hung up on the shortcomings of previous generations. Every era has its blind spots, but good writing is good writing, and an author's work doesn't last over a century for no reason.

Nevertheless, those blind spots are certainly well in view of the modern reader of "The People of the Mist," another novel of high adventure in which the white male protagonist (WMP) pursues a fantastic treasure across the "Dark Continent" and finds a lost tribe. The following sentence, though wrenched from context, should give some idea of a few of the author's prejudices and assumptions: "Over her stood her lord and master, [her husband], his left hand twisted in her long hair, while with his right, in which he grasped a leather thong, despite her screams and entreaties, he administered to her one of the soundest and, be it added, best deserved thrashings that ever fell to the lot of erring woman."

The surprising thing about "The People of the Mist," however, is that this sort of overt misogyny is not necessarily typical of the book as a whole. Though obviously, to some extent, a sexist text, and far more a racist text, I was consistently surprised, particularly during the first half, by how the other characters consistently undercut the apparent supremacy of the story's WMP, Leonard Outram. Outram, through no fault of his own, is turned out of his ancient family manor in England and journeys to Africa hoping to either find a fortune that will restore his home and honor, or die trying. After kicking around the continent for awhile, opportunity knocks in the form of an old crone named Soa, who offers him a high-quality ruby to attempt to free her mistress, Juanna, from slavers, and many more should he succeed.

Naturally he does, though the adventure of taking on a secret fort full of slavers almost single-handed is not so much a subplot as a major portion of the action and adventure the novel has to offer. That accomplished, Soa undertakes to guide him to the land of her birth, where a fantastic tribe of lost people use a kingly treasure of rubies and sapphires in the worship of their terrible deity. Accompanying them are Juanna (for the will-they or won't-they romantic tension), and Francisco, a Catholic priest who was also rescued from the slavers. And I haven't even mentioned the most important character of all: Otter, Outram's African servant, who is described as a very ugly dwarf, but who acts as a superman in the story.

Outram has got to be the most passive protagonist I've ever encountered in an adventure story. He never acts, but is only acted upon, over and over from beginning to end. As a white man, he is the de facto leader of the ragged band, but Soa is the mastermind, Otter accomplishes every unbelievable feat of physical prowess, and even Juanna has an integral role to play in the plan. Surely even readers 118 years ago must have noticed that Outram does little more than wander dazedly through the plot and profit immeasurably from the skill of his friends and some disbelief-stretching good luck.

It's hard to believe that Haggard is being deliberately subversive, though I'm not sure how else to explain the incredible blandness of his main character (perhaps his lack of personality makes him a more successful surrogate for the reader). Still readers of "King Solomon's Mines" will recognize the stock nature of the Soa character, and Haggard appears to believe that, despite his obvious superiority in every way, Otter's best qualities are his unwavering loyalty and total subservience to his white master (his devotion has him on the brink of suicide multiple times).

This is certainly a lesser work, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't either a Haggard fan, or interested in the British colonial literature of the 1890s, but within either of those subgroups, there is much here that is interesting and worthwhile.
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