by H. Rider Haggard. Narrated by William Boyde.
Nada the Lily is Shakespeare-level epic tragedy. It consists primarily of prophecies of doom and long-winded monologues in the thou-form. These are interspersed with fantastic elements and frenetic moments of human carnage to great effect. I really really like this book although, for me, it peaked about three-fourths of the way through.
The titular Nada refers to the tragic love interest (and foster sibling!) of Umslopogaas, Allan Quatermain’s Zulu warrior friend from other Haggard novels. Ostensibly the book is Umslopogaas’ origin story, but this description is a little deceiving.
The bulk of the novel is about Umbopo, Umslopogaas’ fictional foster father, and his relationship to the historical Zulu king and nation-builder Shaka. Umbopo narrates, telling of his rise to become Shaka’s head witch doctor and of Shaka’s years of cruelty against him. Umbopo feigns servitude all this time, plotting revenge that comes when he organizes Shaka’s half-brothers to assassinate the king. (IRL Shaka actually was killed by his half-brothers). Umbopo strikes the killing blow with his own hand. (Pictured right in illustration by Charles H. Kerr). This is the apex of the book and the narrative after it is less compelling.
Nada and Umslopogaas’ diverging plot weaves in and out of the Umbopo/Shaka plot but becomes the main thread after Umbopo kills Shaka. There are great moments to the Umslopogaas/Nada plot– e.g., Umslopogaas becoming co-king of a pack of ghost wolves and also killing a lot of people with a giant axe while his co-king Galazi kills a lot of people with a giant club– but the tenor of the Umslopogaas/Nada plot is too misogynist for me to appreciate fully. Haggard is on the nose with the idea that loving women undoes strong fighting men who would otherwise have a good life. He has multiple characters say this explicitly to Umslopogaas and has the narrator drive it home in soliloquy. This part of the book tells you more about Victorian neuroses about women in the public sphere than it does about early 19th century Zululand.
It’s worth noting that it would be hard for the historical Shaka to have been as personally cruel as Haggard’s antagonist. The rise of the Zulu nation was certainly responsible for a lot of deaths, but some scholars have argued that early European accounts of Shakan times purposely exaggerated Shaka’s bloodthirstiness for pecuniary or political reasons. The friend of a contemporary author-adventurer suggested that he “make Shaka out to be as bloodthirsty as you can; it helps swell out the work and make it interesting.” The adventurer complied, writing in his account that Shaka had killed a million people. This number was made up. There was no social scientific way for him to have arrived at it. It’s unclear (at least to me) if Haggard’s Shaka was so cruel for art’s sake or if Haggard was just repeating distortions that had been repeated so many times that they became “common knowledge.”
Over all, Nada the Lily is on my short list of favorite fantasy novels. If you compare Tolkien to Haggard, the former looks like a total amateur. The craft of Haggard’s long thou-form monologues and grim depictions is intoxicating. For fans of Victorian romances, I would recommend this book.