For his 37th work of fiction, H. Rider Haggard, the so-called “father of the lost-race novel” and an expert at writing historical adventure tales as well, decided to go back to the Dark Ages. Red Eve, which Haggard wrote in a six-month period from 1908-1909, was ultimately published in 1911, and turns out to be yet another winner from this wonderful storyteller.
In it, we meet Hugh de Cressi, a merchant’s son who is in love with “Red Eve” Clavering, a high-born cousin of his, in the year 1346. Eve is in love with him, too, but is being wooed by the traitorous knight Sir Edmund Acour. When Acour realizes that he can’t win the affections of his intended in the traditional manner, he slips her a love philtre and weds her while she is doped up. It will now take an act of papal intervention to annul this marriage, and before that can happen, Hugh and his squire, the death-faced Gray Dick, get called by King Edward III to perform many acts of service. Thus, they travel around Europe and, like a pair of medieval Forrest Gumps, are witness to some of the key historical events of the 14th century. They are present at the Battle of Crecy, arrive in Venice just in time for the great earthquake of 1347, witness firsthand the ravages of the Black Death, and go to the papal city of Avignon to seek an audience with Pope Clement.
But this isn’t just an historical adventure novel. Haggard loved injecting otherworldly fantasy elements into even his most realistic fictions, and in Red Eve, the plague, and death itself, are personified in a character named Murgh, who we first meet in Cathay and later in Venice, just as the Black Death commences. A quite imposing personage, Murgh delivers some very interesting disquisitions on the nature of death and dying, which could be boiled down to the Blue Oyster Cult mantra “don’t fear the reaper.” But Red Eve features some other very interesting characters as well, most notably Gray Dick, another in a long line of fascinating Haggardian sidekicks, this one having almost supernatural abilities with the longbow; and Sir Andrew Arnold, Hugh’s godfather and one of the original Knights Templar, deadly with a blade and yet almost saintlike in demeanor.
Besides the historical tableaux that Haggard leads us through, we are also treated to an archery contest, a jousting match, numerous duels to the death, some tender love scenes and at least two huge battles. Haggard has been accused (unfairly, I feel) of occasional anti-Semitic references in his works (most notably the characterization of Jacob Meyer in The Spirit of Bambatse), but in Red Eve, not only are the Jews of Avignon shown in an heroic light, but Gray Dick delivers some telling commentary on the foolishness of holding all Jews to blame for a crime that was committed over a thousand years ago that brought about “the salvation of mankind.”
Red Eve is not a perfect book — some words are spoken that weren’t in use in 1346; “angel coins” are seen trading hands, although they didn’t come into being until 1465 — but it is still a remarkably entertaining page turner. Those readers seeking a red-blooded historical adventure with a dash of the otherworldly thrown in will not find a book much better than this one. And the Hodder & Stoughton edition that I just read, dating back at least 80 years or so, has several full-color plates that only add to the pleasure.