Henry Rider Haggard was born in Norfolk, England on June 22, 1856. He was the eighth of ten children. His father, William Meybohm Rider Haggard, was a barrister and his mother, Ella Doventon, was an author and poet and a daughter of a merchant in the East India Trading Company.
H. Rider Haggard’s father sent him to what is now South Africa in 1875. He started work as an unpaid assistant to the secretary of the Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Natal and was eventually transferred to the staff of the Special Commissioner for the Transvaal. Haggard was present in Pretoria in April 1877 for the official British annexation of the Boer Republic of the Transvaal. H. Rider Haggard was the person who raised the British flag and he also read out much of the official proclamation after the Governor lost his voice. In 1878, Haggard became Registrar of the High Court in the Transvaal. Two years later he married a friend of his sister, Mariana Louisa Margitson. Haggard and his wife lived in Africa until the British were defeated in 1881 and the Transvaal was given back to the Dutch.
Back in Norfolk, England, the Haggards eventually had four children (one son and three daughters). H. Rider Haggard studied law and was called to the bar in 1884 but he had little interest in his practice and he began to concentrate on his writing. Haggard’s writing was greatly influenced by his time in Africa, the “larger-than-life adventurers he met in Colonial Africa (most notably Frederick Selous and Frederick Russell Burnham), the great mineral wealth discovered in Africa, and the ruins of great lost civilizations of the continent, such as Great Zimbabwe.”
Haggard’s writing career had its first real success with the publication, in 1885, of King Solomon’s Mines. This book featured one of Haggard’s greatest characters: Allan Quatermain. “The character Quatermain is an English-born professional big game hunter and occasional trader in southern Africa, who supports colonial efforts to spread civilization in the Dark Continent, though he also favours native Africans having a say in their affairs.” Haggard wrote many novels and stories chronicling Quatermain’s adventures as well as many other novels of adventure.
A number of his novels (including King Solomon’s Mines) are set in strange, long forgotten lands and Haggard is credited as being a founder of the “Lost World” genre. While H. Rider Haggard’s books “portray many of the stereotypes associated with colonialism, they are unusual for the degree of sympathy with which the native populations are portrayed. Africans often play heroic roles in the novels, although the protagonists are typically, though not invariably, European.”
The short story, A Tale of Three Lions, was originally published in a periodical in 1887. In 1889, A Tale of Three Lions and two other previously published short stories were published together in book form along with a brand new story titled Allan’s Wife. The new book took the same title as the new story.
A Tale of Three Lions features Haggard’s adventurous character Quatermain as well as Quatermain’s young son Harry. Chronologically, this short story is set in 1858 and occurs before the events of the more famous book King Solomon’s Mines, set in 1880. The first chapter of A Tale of Three Lions starts out with Quatermain and his son stuck in a mining camp, after the great hunter unwisely invests all his money in the search for gold. The last two chapters occur after Hunter Quatermain has returned to his best profession: hunting. Unfortunately for the hunter and his son and their two servants the hunting trip does not turn out very well.
H. Rider Haggard’s writing comes across as surprisingly modern. A Tale of Three Lions was written in 1887 and is set in 1858 Africa and the language of the characters often reflects that but at the same time the style of the writing, the rhythm of the adventure, is not dated at all. There are flowery odes to the wild places of Africa: “but to one who knows and loves it, the wilderness is not lonely, because the spirit of nature is ever there to keep the wanderer company.” And there are places where Haggard paints beautiful word pictures of the wide sky and untouched wilderness: “…who has watched the sun rise and set on the limitless deserted plains and seen the thunder chariots of the clouds roll in majesty across the depths of the unfathomable sky.” And in this description of the dawn: “I got up and watched its growth till it opened like a flower upon the eastern sky, and the sunbeams began to spring up in splendour from mountain-top to mountain-top.” There are also phrases that are decidedly unpleasant to modern readers: “The ox is the most exasperating animal in the world, a negro excepted.” Yet at the same time, Haggard is noted for his favorable and often heroic depictions of native peoples.
When it comes to portraying the action, Haggard seems most modern, with breathless exploits: “With a snarl and a growl, before I could do anything, before I could even cock my rifle, she (the lioness) had bounded right across the crystal pool, and vanished over the opposite bank. It was all done in an instant, as quick as thought.” And with unswooning illustrations of violence: “They gripped each other, they tore at each other’s throat, till their manes came out in handfuls, and the red blood streamed down their yellow hides. It was an awful and wonderful thing to see the great cats tearing at each other with all the fierce energy of their savage strength, and making the night hideous with their heart-shaking noise.”
Quatermain is not an all powerful character. He has doubts and regrets, he makes mistakes, and he can be startled and frozen in fear. He is not a very big man and he is not very attractive. He has a beard and hair that sticks up. But Quatermain is considered to be a marksman with no equal. Unfortunately, Quatermain “is aware that as a professional hunter, he has helped destroy his beloved wild free places of Africa. In old age he hunts without pleasure, having no other means of making a living.” The Quatermain books, written by H. Rider Haggard cover about fifty years in Allan Quatermain’s life. The last Quatermain book was Allan and the Ice-gods written in 1927.
So, overall, A Tale of Three Lions is a short, fast read. It was right up my alley and just the kind of book I enjoy. Lots of action like discovering hidden gold, deceiving a thief, hunting, setting a trap for a “great gaunt lioness,” scrambling to survive a deadly lion attack and its results, and savagely fighting lions. There’s also some beautifully written descriptions of the African landscapes. Add to the mix just enough of a glimpse into the life and times of colonial era southern Africa to prick your interest and A Tale of Three Lions is a great way to pass an evening.