Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard

A tale of Zululand…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the tale of Umslopogaas, unacknowledged son of Chaka, a great Zulu king. Chaka’s rule was that he should have no living sons to challenge him on their coming to manhood, so when any of his many wives gave birth, the baby was put to death. But Umslopogaas’ mother begged her brother Mopo to save her­ child, and Mopo therefore adopted the boy and brought him up as his own son, alongside his daughter, the beautiful Nada. As Umslopogaas nears manhood, he falls out of favour and is forced to flee, subsequently forming an alliance with Galazi the Wolf and becoming a chieftain in his own right. But he never forgets his love for his sister and dreams that one day they will be together again…

This can be a difficult read for a modern reader, given its portrayal of the brutal savagery of the Zulus. But if you can look past that, it’s well worth reading. It’s written entirely from the perspective of Mopo, Umslopogaas’ uncle, and white men play no active part in it at all, although there is mention of the increasing threat they represent to the Zulus. Chaka’s reign was a time of extreme cruelty and brutality – it is said, for example, that following his mother’s death he had 7000 of his followers killed for not showing enough grief. So Haggard’s portrayal has a firm foundation in history and apparently also in the legend and folklore of the Zulu people. What I found so surprising about it is that Haggard offers the story to his British readers non-judgementally – he presents this society as it is (in his mind, at least – I have no way to gauge its accuracy) and the characters judge each other by their own standards, not by ours. I imagine this must have been a unique experience for contemporary readers back in 1892, when it was first published, used as they would have been to seeing Africa and Africans via patronising colonial eyes. I must say, it’s still pretty unique now, in that Haggard has managed to create an entirely believable picture without projecting white people or their attitudes or values onto a story about Africa.

Chaka was a real person and many of the events in the book are real also. Umpslopogaas, Galazi and Nada are fictional, but Mopo is also based on a real man who was close to the centre of power in Chaka’s kingdom. In the book, Mopo is a witchdoctor, and there are some supernatural elements that we would now call superstition or even fakery, but which are accepted internally in the story as true. There is every kind of violence and brutality you could name – mass killings, infanticide, gory battles, ravening wolf packs and so on. Women, of course, are property and Haggard shows clearly their complete subjugation within society, but again without overt judgement. Nonetheless, a few women play an active role in the story, both for good and evil, and Haggard shows how they may have had no hard power but they could exercise some influence over their men, though in a limited way. This is a country where men die young, in battle or killed by their leader to prevent them becoming a threat, and where – as a result, I assume – polygamy is the norm. Again, no British judgement here – despite the central love story, Haggard never suggests that Umslopogaas will or should have only one wife. But he does show how tensions could arise amongst the women, as older wives found themselves pushed aside in favour of younger favourites.

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The story itself is told by a very old Mopo looking back, and he often foreshadows the future for the characters, so that the reader knows from early on that many of the characters came to a tragic end. As a tragic love story, in truth, it didn’t do much for me – Nada isn’t in it enough for me to have grown to care deeply about her, and Umslopogaas is too honest a portrayal for me to have found him truly heroic. I was actually fonder of Galazi the Wolf, who seems less personally ambitious and with a core of loyalty that’s in short supply in this society. Haggard has him loving Umslopogaas like a brother, but my twenty-first century eyes couldn’t help seeing his love as more intimate than that, and I’d love to know if that was Haggard’s intention. A Google search confirms I’m by no means the only person to have read it that way. Certainly, and this is a feature of Victorian British culture which I could easily believe would be part of African culture too, the relationships between the men is considered to be much more important than any relationship between man and woman, except perhaps the relationship of mothers and sons.

H Rider Haggard

Lastly, I must mention the quality of the writing. Narrated by Mopo, Haggard maintains his voice throughout superbly, never allowing “white” attitudes or expressions to slip in. The violence and unvarnished brutality might put some readers off, but I found it a fascinating and ultimately credible depiction of the Zulus of Chaka’s time. This society is very different from our own modern Western one, but it has its own internal structure, rules and traditions, and the characters behave honourably or dishonourably within their own moral standards, not ours. If you can put aside your post-colonial prejudices, then there is much here to admire and enjoy – one of our more difficult classics in our current condition of hyper-sensitivity over questions of race, perhaps, but a true classic nevertheless.

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37 thoughts on “Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard

  1. Sounds like the author has done an excellent job. It must have taken huge amounts of research for him to be able to master and maintain the mindset.

    • I believe he spent many years in Africa at roughly that period – many of his books are set there. He always seems to me like one of the few colonials who were actually interested in the culture of the Africans, and even admired many aspects of it, which is why I still found his books so readable.

  2. This sounds fascinating, FictionFan. I’m especially intrigued by the fact that this seems to give a non-biased, clear-eyed view of the Zulu world. As you point out, it’s not easy to find that, even today. And there’s nothing like a really find writing style to keep a person turning pages. I can see how you found this one so interesting.

    • I always feel as if Haggard was genuinely interested in the culture of the Africans and even admired it, which is why I find his books more readable than some of the other colonial writers of the period. And he has that easy flow that seemed to come so naturally to the Victorian writers – a great storyteller!

    • Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. 😀 Everything I know comes from reading Haggard’s books, but I think he tried hard to get it right. And he seems to admire the culture rather than dismissing it as savagery the way so many colonial authors did.

    • I do enjoy Haggard’s writing, even though I have to make some allowances for the time of writing. But at least Haggard seemed to respect the African culture, which is more than can be said for a lot of colonial-era authors…

  3. Great review, FF… this sounds like a challenging book to read with our modern sensibilities. I admit I’m not great at putting those away sometimes when reading a classic. Sounds too brutal for me but I am glad to know about this book!

    • Thank you! 😀 All these colonial-era books require you to make allowances, but I’ve always felt as if Haggard actually respected the African culture unlike a lot of the other authors of the time, and that makes them a bit easier for us modern readers. This one is particularly brutal, though most of the books of his that I’ve read have at least one gory battle scene! Books for boys… 😉

  4. Haggard actually lived in southern Africa not that long after the events described in the book. Umslopogaas became a trusted friend of Haggard’s iconic character, Allan Quatermain. The two meet in SHE AND ALLAN.

    • I haven’t read Allan Quatermain since childhood – long, long ago! I think I read She back then too, if it’s the one about Ayesha, but I don’t remember it so well. I have a tendency to get Umslopogaas confused with Umbopo from King Solomon’s Mines, so it’s really about time I re-read them all and updated my memory banks! I also as a child used to confuse Haggard with Quatermain – a tribute to his storytelling abilities… 😀 Thanks for commenting!

  5. I think this sounds like it would be fascinating. When I hear “Zulu”, I always think of the 1964 Michael Caine film by the same name. (it’s very good!) I do remember watching a TV mini-series years ago titled “Shaka Zulu”. I assume that’s the same character as your Chaka here.

    • Yes, Shaka and Chaka seem to be alternative spellings for the same man, and a lot of the background events in this book seem to have really happened. I haven’t seen Zulu – it’s one of those films I always seem to miss! I do like Haggard’s writing – he’s one of the great Victorian adventure story writers if you can cope with the colonialism.

    • I read quite a few of his books as a child when they were still pretty popular over here, before colonial attitudes went out of style, although I never read this one. His King Solomon’s Mines is one of my favourite adventure books of all time – it’s not as brutal as this one, though it has its moments!

  6. Absolutely amazing review, FF, but more than that a researched scholastic debate. I see you worked very hard on that and also stayed in a neutral position willing to see and accept both sides of the argument. Excellent! As for the brutality, I would guess that was no more or less than the Aztecs and Incas as could be further argued the norm then and of the ancients.

    • Thank you! 😀 That’s why I like Haggard more than a lot of the colonial-era writers – he accepted that other societies have different rules and tried to show them without judgement. Plus he tells good stories!

    • Thank you. 😀 I do enjoy Haggard – he’s one of the best of the colonial-era storytellers, I think, and I always find his picture of the African cultures of those times believable.

  7. I haven’t made myself familiar with HRH’s work and I started reading your review with the assumed certainty this wouldn’t be a book for me. However, as I read on, your thoughtful comments did engage my interest so I have added this to my list. It’s sounds like an interesting historical perspective as well as a good story.

  8. Didn’t the Zulu tribe eventually become Christians due to missionary worker influence? Also, I believe there is a movie with Sean Connery and Michael Caine about a true Zulu battle. A fascinating culture.

    • I don’t know for sure, but I think most of the African tribes did during the colonial era. Yes, I haven’t seen the movie but I think it’s generally reckoned to be a classic too. I love stories about Africa of that period – they can sometimes be uncomfortable now because of the colonial attitudes of the authors, but Haggard is one of the best, I think…

  9. Great post! Thanks for putting a spotlight on a classic novel by one of my favorite authors, H.R. Haggard. As you point out, he’s a great storyteller but too many people have forgotten or never even heard of him. Too many people seem to think that if an author is old, he can’t be any good; that isn’t true of Haggard. While his books aren’t for everyone (those battle scenes you mention) and he’s considered a pro-colonial writer, many of his novels end up with the native Africans as the hero.

    If anyone is interested in reading more of Haggard’s work, I agree with King Solomon’s Mines as the first or next step, it is one of the great adventure novels of the English language.

    So: Post – Great!, Book – Great, Blog – very nice, Life – meh, Chocolate – YES!

    • Thank you, and thanks for commenting. It’s great to meet another Haggard fan – we seem to be a small but select band these days! 😉 Yes, I think he’s one of the best storytellers of all time but our mid-century guilt over colonialism seems to have made him fade away from the public consciousness a bit. I’m hoping that maybe as more time passes we’ll be able to read all these colonial-era books as representative of their own time, without our modern values getting in the way of our being able to appreciate them. I always thought Haggard especially showed a lot of respect for the Africans and their customs, unlike some of the other colonial-era authors, so I think he’s still very approachable. Must re-read Allan Quatermain soon…

      Hahaha! Thanks! Agreed! Thanks! Agreed! And hurrah!! 😂

  10. “…one of the best storytellers of all time…”

    I must agree with you. Haggard’s influence on other writers of fantasy and adventure is both immense and far-reaching. I look forward to reading any other reviews of his work that you have done or will do in the future.

    Now, where did I put that copy of Allan Quatermain…?

    • I love a lot of the adventure and sci-fi writers of that era – there’s something so flowing and easy to read about their style, without it ever coming over as simplistic or shallow. I’ve only reviewed King Solomon to date, and I see you found it… 😀

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