Editor’s note: The Kindle version of Queen Sheba’s Ring is free!
I am not an author myself, and probably never will be (big sigh), so I can only imagine what a thrill it must be for a writer to see his or her hard work finally appear in print before the public. But can anyone imagine what it must feel like to have three novels released simultaneously?!?! Well, such was the lot for the great H. Rider Haggard, who, facing diminishing fortunes and increased familial responsibilities, was working at a frantic pace toward the end of the first decade of the 20th century. Haggard wrote (or, to be strictly accurate, dictated) no less than five novels from 1908 – ’09, and by November ’09, three of them – Queen Sheba’s Ring, the Egyptian fantasy Morning Star, and the historical fiction The Lady of Blossholme – were being serialized in various British magazines of the day. The novel in question, Queen Sheba’s Ring, originally appeared in Nash’s Magazine from April till November 1909, and in book form in September 1910 – the author’s 36th novel, out of an eventual 58 – garnering its author a cool 750 pounds. As its title might suggest, the book has several similarities to Haggard’s first megasuccess, 1885’s King Solomon’s Mines (one might recall that the Biblical Queen of Sheba did visit Solomon, as detailed in the Old Testament’s Books of Kings), including a band of hardy Brits looking for treasure in Africa, a hazardous desert crossing, and a civil war amongst a “lost race”; Haggard, of course, is the Grandfather of the Lost Race Novel. The book, not surprisingly, is hardly on a par with that earlier success, is not as likable as the 13 other Allan Quatermain novels, and does not grip the imagination as much as his four Ayesha lost-race tales: She (1887) and its sequel and prequels. And, I might add, it is not as successful a lost-race tale as his 1894 masterpiece The People of the Mist. Still, even middle-tier Haggard is more entertaining, I have found, than the best works of many others, and this one certainly DOES manage to please a lot more than the author’s 1909 lost-race novel, The Yellow God.
Queen Sheba’s Ring is narrated by 65-year-old Dr. Richard Adams, a widower whose young son had been kidnapped in “the Dark Continent” many years before the events detailed in his book. After a decade of search, Adams had found his son a prisoner of a tribe called the Fung, who worship a lion-headed sphinx in the heart of North Central Africa. He had been unable to rescue his son, unfortunately, and had been taken in by the nearby Abati people, the hereditary enemies of the Fung, who reside in a fortresslike plateau city called Mur, ruled over by their queen, the Walda Nagasta (Child of Kings). This queen, whose real name is Maqueda, and who is a descendant of the original Queen of Sheba, promises Adams that she and her cowardly Abati will assist in rescuing Adams’ son from the Fung, but only if he can destroy their sacred sphinx idol first. And so, Adams returns to England to enlist help, and returns with the book’s other heroes: Professor Ptolemy Higgs, a rotund, red-bearded expert on archaeology; ex-Army Captain Oliver Orme, an engineer and an expert in explosives; and Orme’s old friend, Sgt. Samuel Quick, easily the toughest and shrewdest of the lot, despite his mature years. The quartet travels to Africa, facing off against a remarkable number of perils in their trek to Mur. And once there, the group’s troubles are only just beginning, as a taboo love affair that develops between Orme and the Walda Nagasta quickly precipitates the plateau nation into a violent civil war…
Haggard throws a great deal into Queen Sheba’s Ring to keep the reader entertained. Thus, there is a lion hunt; the mother of all sandstorms; a literally explosive fight against the Fung in their walled city; TWO dastardly villains – the scar-faced Abati guide Shadrach and the Prince Joshua, Maqueda’s uncle, to whom she is engaged (don’t ask!); an underground treasure tomb; the rescue of Higgs from a lion’s den; fights atop that humongous sphinx; the suspense-laden demolition of the sphinx; the aforementioned civil war dramatics; a grueling starvation during the resultant siege; fights with swords, spears and flaming arrows; a sweet romance; and many humorous incidents, most of them courtesy of the single-minded professor, whose dedication to his antiquities is practically absolute. Haggard’s book is fast moving and colorful, and his characters are either likable or hissable, although it must be stated that Maqueda, impressive as she is, is certainly not in the same league as Ayesha (but then again, Ayesha was a few thousand years older than her!), although she does come off better than The Yellow God’s queen, the Asika. My main problem with Queen Sheba’s Ring, however, is that some of Haggard’s descriptions are almost impossible to visualize, forcing the reader’s imagination to work overtime (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). For example, during the fight that our quartet has in the Fung city, they are trapped between gates under arches of a tower near a courtyard … oh, forget it; I can’t even describe it, as I could never properly picture it to myself. Likewise hard to visualize are the river and lake that surround Fung and the Mur plateau, as well as the entire Mur underground complex that enables our heroes to get atop the sphinx and into the lion’s den. I did my best, but whether or not my mental pictures are what the author had in mind, I cannot say.
Haggard has been accused of both racism and anti-Semitism in several of his books …unfairly, I’ve always maintained. It has seemed to me that he has consistently treated his African peoples with the utmost respect, while that anti-Semitism charge, I’ve long held, is probably due solely to the insane Jewish villain, Jacob Meyer, in 1906’s Benita (aka The Spirit of Bambatse). Sadly, the novel in question only gives fresh fuel to Haggard’s accusers. The Abati themselves, diluted descendants of Hebrews, are shown to be craven, lazy and stingy, while Quick utters this unfortunate line regarding Maqueda:
…this lady, although she is half a Jew and I never could abide Jews, is the sweetest and the loveliest and the best and the bravest little woman that ever walked God’s earth.
And then there is the “n word,” which pops out of Quick’s mouth on more than one occasion. Still, somehow, Quick remains a hugely sympathetic and heroic character, and in his very next book, Red Eve, Haggard goes out of his way to paint the Jewish people in a favorable light. (I’m Jewish myself, and Haggard remains my favorite author; this was, incidentally, the 44th book that I’ve read of his.) So, really, other than some fuzzy descriptions and some ouch-worthy offhand comments, Queen Sheba’s Ring proved a wonderful entertainment for this reader. The fact that it was just one of three books that the author created in 1908 makes the accomplishment even more impressive. Still, I cannot help but feel that with a little more time expended, Haggard might have fine-tuned and polished up some of its rough edges, and come up with another top-grade creation, rather than one of his hugely entertaining but middling affairs. Still, I promise you this: You will NOT be bored!