Elissa and Black Heart and White Heart: Two classic tales of adventure

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsElissa and Black Heart and White Heart by H. Rider HaggardElissa & Black Heart and White Heart by H. Rider Haggard

Editor’s note: Because they are in the public domain, both Elissa and Black Heart and White Heart are available for free on Kindle. To find them, click on the Kindle covers in this review.

The H. Rider Haggard novels Elissa and Black Heart and White Heart are usually to be found (when they can be found at all) together in a single volume, and for good reason. They are both shorter works by this great author (indeed, at a mere 105 pages, Black Heart and White Heart must be considered more of a novella or longish short story), and both are tales of adventure in the African milieu that Haggard knew so well, although the tales take place in time periods roughly 3,000 years apart. Elissa carries an alternate title, The Doom of Zimbabwe, and, as this title suggests, finds Haggard attempting to give an explanation for the extinction of that vanished civilization. The discovery of the ruins of Zimbabwe in 1870 in southeast Rhodesia was big news, and at the time it was speculated that this town might possibly be the Biblical Ophir, home of the legendary mines of King Solomon. Thus, this archeological find not only inspired one of Haggard’s most famous books, King Solomon’s Mines, in 1885, but also Elissa, which Haggard wrote in 1897.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn this fast-moving novel, we meet Prince Aziel, grandson of Solomon himself, who goes to Zimbabwe (then called Zimboe) and chances to meet the soul mate of his life: Elissa, daughter of Sakon, the governor of the city. The two instantly develop what I suppose must be called the mutual irresistibles for each other, but there are major problems: Aziel is a Jew, while Elissa, being a Phoenician (popular wisdom in the late 19th century had it that an intricately constructed city such as Zimbabwe could not have been built by native Africans, but most probably was a Phoenician trading post … a belief since invalidated), worships Baal and Baaltis. To add to their ill-fated romance, Ithobal, the half-breed king of the native tribes, is threatening war if Elissa does not become his wife, and Issachar, a Levite prophet and Aziel’s spiritual guardian, is doing everything he can to prevent this blasphemous union. As Haggard would have us believe, it is this doomed love affair that brings destruction to Zimboe and its people; how, I’ll let you, the reader, discover for yourself. Haggard does pack in his usual quota of epic battles, religious portents and some (literally) cliff-hanging situations to keep things interesting. Aziel’s other guardian, Metem, a Phoenician merchant almost comically enamored of making shekels, is perhaps the shrewdest and best-drawn character in the book, although Aziel and Elissa — another of Haggard’s “soul mates through all eternity” couples — give the book its heart. This is a simply written book, perhaps inadequately fleshed out in the detail department, that one can knock off in a few days. Still, it is ultimately satisfying, and even though modern-day finds have indicated that Zimbabwe was erected much later than the 1000 B.C. era that Haggard posits, and that natives WERE most likely responsible for its erection, rendering Haggard’s tale another of his lost-world myths …well, it certainly is another of his highly entertaining and readable ones!

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJumping forward three millennia, Black Heart and White Heart, which was first published in The African Review in January 1896, takes place in modern-day southern Africa; that is to say, in 1878, at the outbreak of the Zulu War. In this tale we meet Philip Hadden, a “transport rider” who flees to the land of the Zulus to escape prosecution after injuring a storekeeper during a knife fight. While there, he enters into a love triangle between the maiden Nanea and the upright Zulu captain Nahoon. Through various tricks and machinations, Hadden attempts to steal Nanea from her man, and we soon realize, despite their skin colors, just who the “black heart” and “white heart” of the title really are. Haggard fills his novella with an exciting hunting scene, some Zulu mysticism (courtesy of the Bee, a Zulu witch doctoress similar to his great character Zikali, from the Allan Quatermain novels), and, ultimately, another extremely satisfying ending, in which all the characters get precisely what they deserve, and which takes place at the historic Battle of Isandhlwana. Though it is grounded in this historic context, Black Heart and White Heart almost reads like a fairy tale (“A Zulu Idyll,” as Haggard puts it); it too is simply written, but leaves a strong impression.

Taken together, Elissa and Black Heart and White Heart will surely provide most readers with some fun nights of African thrills, and, like all the other dozens of Haggard works that I’ve read, certainly deserve to be brought out of the publishing oblivion where they currently reside.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. Isaac and Issachar sound a little bit like Leo Vincey and Horace Holly.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Marion, if you mean AZIEL and Issachar, well then, yes, I guess there are definitely some parallels that might be drawn. I like the way you think….

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