The Brethren by H. Rider Haggard
In January 1900, British author H. Rider Haggard and his family ventured forth on a nice long vacation. As revealed in D.S. Higgins’ 1981 biography, the first part of this holiday was beset by bad weather, sickness and delays, as the Haggards made their way from London and on to Italy and Cyprus. But once the family reached the Holy Land, apparently, conditions improved significantly, and the world-famous author was so taken by the many historic sights that he saw there that the experience inspired him to write no fewer than three books: A Winter Pilgrimage (1901), a nonfiction travelogue of his journey; Pearl-Maiden (1903), which dealt with the fall of Jerusalem following the crucifixion of Christ; and the novel in question, The Brethren.
This last offering was particularly inspired, Haggard tells us in his Author’s Note, by his visit to the Hill of Hattin, near the Sea of Galilee, from which Christ supposedly delivered his Sermon on the Mount, and near which the Saracen army under Saladin delivered a stunning defeat to the Crusaders in the year 1187. Haggard wrote The Brethren, his 27th novel (out of an eventual 58), during 1903. It initially appeared as a serial in Cassell’s Magazine (his first association with Cassell’s since King Solomon’s Mines back in 1885) starting in December ’03, and in book form in September ’04. The volume that I was fortunate enough to pick up is the A.L. Burt Co. hardcover from October ’04, a beautiful edition from this old NYC publisher that I hated even bringing out to read on the NYC subway. (I was very gentle with it!) An epic and thrilling adventure that transpires right around that historic year of 1187, right before the commencement of the Third Crusade (of nine!), The Brethren reveals itself to be a moving, top-notch entertainment from H. Rider Haggard.
In the book, the reader encounters three close-knit kinfolk, who live near England’s Essex shoreline. Godwin and Wulf D’Arcy are fraternal twin brothers. As their names might suggest, Godwin is the more thoughtful and spiritually inclined, and a brunette. Wulf is the larger physically and a fiercer fighter, and blonde. The two, however, are both enamored of their first cousin, Rosamund. The lives of the three are given a sudden upset when Saladin, the Sovereign of the East and “Commander of the Faithful,” has a series of dreams about his niece Rosamund, whom he has never met, and gets it into his head that the maiden must be brought to the Holy Land to help prevent a bloody conflict. When the half British/half Eastern lass refuses his generous invitations, Saladin resorts to kidnapping by force. And so, having recently been made knights after a feat of valor, the two brothers vow to journey to Saladin’s palace in Damascus and rescue their beloved cousin.
But before all is said and done, the two wind up prisoners at the castle of Al-je-bal, the demonic leader of the cult of the Assassins (coincidentally enough, in the book that I had read right before this one, Robert E. Howard’s Three-Bladed Doom, a modern-day fanatic in Afghanistan tries to resurrect the centuries-old Assassins brotherhood!); get caught up in that historic Battle of Hattin; and are present at Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem, during which he recaptured the holy city after it had been in the hands of the Crusaders for 90 years. And these are just three incidents in a 400+-page whopper of a page-turner filled with many…
As mentioned in Higgins’ biography, Haggard himself was very pleased with how The Brethren turned out, writing in his diary, “if it is not a good romance of the poetical variety, I don’t know what is!” And the author had every right to be proud. His book is just marvelous, with three extremely likable main characters and a raft of memorable lesser ones, such as Sir Andrew, Rosamund’s elderly but still formidable father; Al-je-bal, a truly repellent and hissable villain; Saladin, who Haggard surprisingly portrays in a rather dignified and noble light; the minor villains Sir Hugh Lozelle (a turncoat knight who is also hopelessly enamored of Rosamund, and who must be added to Haggard’s pantheon of lovesick, detestable wretches) and his weasely assistant Nicholas; Masouda, a half Arab/half French widow who falls in love fairly quickly with Godwin and who sacrifices much for that love (as would so many of the author’s other female characters); the emir Hassan, who is instrumental in Rosamund’s abduction and yet proves to be a highly admirable and decent man withal; and two of the most courageous and valiant Arabian horses in literature, Smoke and Flame, without whom the brethren might certainly never have made it very far into their perilous quest.
Haggard peppers his epic with well-spaced action bursts and any number of exceptionally well-handled scenes, including the quay fight at Essex’s Death Creek, where the two brothers fight off a gaggle of Saladin’s men; the eventual kidnapping of Rosamund, at which Sir Andrew proves his aged mettle; the remarkable joust to the death between Wulf and Lozelle, high atop a very narrow bridge at the Assassins’ castle in Masyaf; the thrilling escape from Masyaf itself and the resultant horseback chase; the epochal and bloody Battle of Hattin, resulting in the loss of the “true Cross”; and the climactic siege of Jerusalem.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with the real-life events depicted in Haggard’s book, not to worry: The author is a terrific teacher and explainer as well, and his historical adventure novels are an ideal way to easily absorb a lesson in world history. What he did for the Great Trek in Swallow, the Battle of Crecy in Red Eve, the Pilgrimage of Grace in The Lady of Blossholme, and the Spanish Inquisition in Margaret, for example, he does for his historical settings here. Again, from Haggard’s diary:
…The trouble is to get the public to read historical stories from which they shy, being I think, afraid lest they should be learning something unawares — trapped into knowledge so to speak. Personally, however, I like all history and find it agreeable to absorb it in the form of a good novel…
And the novel here surely is all that! Don’t know what a “staithe,” “gambeson,” “palmer” or “dromond” is? You will, after finishing this book!
Unlike many of his other works, The Brethren is an adventure with only minimal fantasy elements. Thus, we have Saladin’s three dreams of the niece he’s never met, complete as to her precise features and the role she is to play in the Jerusalem conflict. And Godwin, too, it would seem, is something of a visionary, having dreams of angels communicating with him, prescience of the aftermath of the Hattin battle, and long-distance awareness of the passing of a dear one. (I hope that I am not offending anyone of a religious nature here by calling Godwin’s visions and such “fantasy elements”; some, indeed, may choose to view them as the saintlike Godwin’s actually being touched by God in a wholly credible manner.)
Typical for most Haggard books, the author gives his audience any number of lyrical passages and words of wisdom that are worth taking a highlighter to (not that I would ever dream of doing so to a 114-year-old hardcover!). Regarding religion, he tells us “…No god whom men worship with a pure and single heart is wholly false. Many be the ladders that lead to heaven. Judge not, you Christian knight…” Surely, words that it might be well to recall in this troubled age today! As for a man’s purpose here on Earth, Godwin reflects that it is “to strive to do his duty, to keep his hands clean, and await the end, whatever that might be….” I love it! And how about this wonderful bit of metaphor, an area in which Haggard excelled, as Masouda compares a person’s life to the bubbles on a river:
…Such are we … but the ocean is always yonder, and the river is always here, and of fresh bubbles there will always be a plenty. So dance on life’s water while you may, in the sunlight, in the moonlight, beneath the storm, beneath the stars, for ocean calls and bubbles burst…
A close reading will reveal that The Brethren, wonderful as it is, is not a perfect work. Some of the author’s descriptions of the Essex countryside are a bit difficult to visualize, for one thing, and several words are used in the book’s (otherwise finely written) dialogue passages that just did not exist in 1187 (such as “scurvy,” which Webster’s tells us was not in use until 1579). To continue the nitpicking, after the kidnapping scene, the drugged Wulf awakens on a tabletop, and Godwin from a dais; the only problem is, 12 pages earlier, it was Godwin who had collapsed on the tabletop, and Wulf on the dais! And then there is the matter of the “sherbet cooled with snow” that Godwin is said to be drinking during the Jerusalem siege, although where and how snow could be obtained in the summer desert there is beyond me.
But these are mere quibbles. The Brethren remains a significant achievement for this beloved author. “How strange is this story,” Rosamund declares halfway through; “A great story, truly,” Saladin himself exclaims, further on. And yes, I would heartily agree with both assessments. The Brethren was the 45th novel that I’ve read by H. Rider Haggard, and I am delighted to report that it is surely among his very best.
Not much point commenting on such an older review, but ‘snow’ used here is not the stuff falling from the sky, but flaked iced scraped from blocks of ice kept in underground ice-houses, which was a feature in many wealthy ME households for a very long period of time, until refrigeration become common. Ice was brought down from the mountains and kept underground, lasting remarkably well, until the end of the summer.