Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Queen Sheba's Ring
Today, I am pleased to present H. Rider Haggard's Queen Sheba's Ring. A novel of heroic risks, noble protagonists, savage rituals, and underground cities--sure to delight any Haggard fan, and one that very much delighted me in the reading of it.
Please note that today's review refers to the Christian Liberty Press edition with the above cover. Michael McHugh, with Christian Liberty Press, gently edited and cleaned up the original Haggards, and this, for me at least, enhanced the reading enjoyment. All that to say, I can't speak for the original Queen Sheba's Ring and any questionable content it might contain, but this edition I can recommend wholeheartedly.
At 40 years old Richard Adams lost his African wife, and a few years later, a native raiding party carried away his twelve-year-old son. Now Adams is 60, and rather old to be exploring Africa's deserts and jungles--but he's determined not to let age stop him. After the separation of years, he has located his son again, a captive of the fierce Fung tribe. Adams attempts to rescue his son and fails, being seriously wounded by lions in the process. His wounds are cared for by a neighboring tribe called the Abati, whose beautiful young ruler is descended from queen Sheba and Solomon himself. This young woman, sorry for Adams' plight, promises to help him if he in turn will help her destroy the Fung tribe and save her people. There is an ancient prophecy that if the huge Fung idol can be destroyed--a Sphinx-sized statue of a lion--then the Fung people will flee and never return. Since it's the size of a small mountain, the queen hopes that superior British technology (i.e. dynamite) will be able to carry the day.
Adams goes back to England and collects an old friend, Professor Higgs, a young engineer, Oliver Orme, and Orme's servant, Sergeant Quick. The only restriction on their work, he tells them, is that none of them must fall in love with beautiful Maqueda, for her blood must not be intermixed with that of a foreigner. Oliver Orme, the only one Adams is really concerned about, doesn't anticipate any of them doing so. *cue the sarcastic laughter*
But when they arrive, they find that their mission may not be as straightforward as it seems. One of Maqueda's servants, the scar-faced Shadrach, betrays Sergeant Quick into the hands of the Fung, and he will be sacrificed in the lion pit on the feast of the full moon. Maqueda's people, the Abati, look with suspicion on the Western foreigners, and their apathetic laziness raises obstacles again and again. Oliver, the only one who really knows how to blow up the Fung idol--and even he's not quite sure if he's capable--receives an injury in an explosion blast, leaving the rest of the company worried that his skull has been cracked. And Maqueda, queen of the Abati and descendant of Sheba, falls in love with Oliver, exposing her Western guests to the assassination attempts of her uncle Joshua.
Adams only hopes that he can rescue his son and get his companions back to England alive. But he'll have to overcome starvation, lions, superstition, and betrayal before he can hope to succeed.
I had the same study Bible for years, and tucked away in the notes under Solomon, the commentator referenced a legend--a legend that Queen Sheba came to Israel, not just to hear Solomon's wisdom and see his glory, but also to go home bearing a child of his. Haggard uses this legend as the foundation for Maqueda's existence. She is descended from the 'daughter' of Sheba and Solomon, and still wears an ornate sapphire ring given by that famous biblical monarch to his female visitor.
This legend doesn't come anywhere from Scripture, certainly; according to my researches it stems from an Ethiopian manuscript, the Kebra Nagast, which contains a story where Solomon invites Makeda (hence Maqueda in Haggard's book) to his kingdom to learn to worship the True God. Makeda does accept the worship of the True God, and Solomon tricks her into spending the night with him, giving her a ring before her departure so that her child can identify itself as Solomon's son.
While this is just a legend, and an eye-brow raising one at that, it doesn't figure much into Haggard's story, except to explain Maqueda's royalty--the novel is still worth enjoying, and very well done.
Queen Sheba's Ring reads like a Henty, only without real historical figures. There are older mentors, young men seeking to prove their worth, dire happenings with quick resolutions strung together one after another, and plenty of fights for all concerned with man and beast. It's not Haggard's most epic novel--there's just enough plausibility to keep you interested in the characters, but you won't be left paralyzed with trauma at the end of it. In other words, a pleasurable adventure story perfect to curl up with on a week's break.
At the same time, Haggard's fingerprints are most obviously all over the tale. In the midst of lion fights and ancient treasure, there's the darker thread of a civilization slowly bringing itself to an end; selfish individuals willing to shed blood for their advancement; and young men putting friends at risk because they are not willing to listen to wise counsel. Even the threat of starvation, and of being trapped underground, are not portrayed as a jolly good time. You can feel the hunger slowly eating away at the characters, and the claustrophobic fear as the oil lamps flicker out one by one. It won't scar you, but it keeps this book from being a frilly novel and turns it into a tale of pathos and waning majesty as well as laughter and bright hopes.
This book contains no language, to my recollection, but several instances of profanity, which was rather unfortunate. Also, bear in mind that Haggard is writing about two superstitious peoples, the Fung and the Abati, who have no knowledge of Christian doctrine. Therefore, superstition abounds. Haggard always had a penchant for including a vision or two in his books; but he uses discretion in the details he includes of pagan culture.
While superstition abounds on one side, a beautiful trust in God's sovereignty shows in the hearts and speech of the four Western men. Sergeant Quick, especially, is a man whose simple trust in the Lord gives him confidence in taking any necessary risks--because he knows that until his time comes to go, he's as safe in the midst of African lions as he is at home in England. While all of the men struggle at times with trust and courage in the face of impossible odds, the Lord's working hand is clearly shown.
And this review would not be complete without singing the praises of Maqueda. A cross between Miriam from Pearl Maiden, and Masouda from The Brethren, Maqueda has the happy combination of sweetness and spunk rare to find in many vintage heroines. She's smart and authoritative, yet not feministic; youthful and kind, without being naïve and weak. Not perfect by a long shot--but definitely worthy of acquaintance, and a wonderful central figure to Haggard's plot.
Check it out. You'll laugh--you'll grip the pages in suspense--you may even cry once or twice. I can't wait to read it again; and if you've never read Haggard before, Queen Sheba's Ring is an excellent book to start off with.