The Mahatma and the Hare was first published in book form in 1911, and is one of H. Rider Haggard‘s rarer titles. The idea for this short novel came to Haggard, he states in the book’s preface, after he had read a newspaper account of a hare that had swum out to sea to avoid being captured by pursuing hounds. In Haggard’s story, the self-called mahatma — a spiritual man who is able, when asleep, to view “The Great White Road” on which the souls of those recently departed enter heaven — encounters the hare of the title after that animal’s death. The hare tells the mahatma of the hardships and cruelties of his recent life: of how his entire family had been hunted to extinction; of his narrow escapes from hunters, greyhounds, and other hunting dogs; and, finally, of how he met his end. The hare also gets to debate the issue of animal rights with his chief hunter/enemy, near the book’s end. This hunter is given time to plead his case, but Haggard’s sympathies (and the reader’s) are certainly with the poor, oppressed hare. This is a book that animal-rights activists will just adore, not to mention those readers who loved Richard Adams‘ Watership Down. It is simply but beautifully written by Mr. Haggard; his only piece of fiction from the period 1910-11. Haggard, who himself had been an ardent hunter all his life, supposedly gave up the sport after writing this book. But strangely, despite Rider’s future abstinence from hunting after this time, he continued to write of this sport in his future novels, especially those dealing with Allan Quatermain. But then again, Quatermain’s profession WAS big-game hunting.
The Mahatma and the Hare is short enough to be easily read in one or two sittings and, with its fablelike quality, is even suitable for the kiddies. Although it shares many of the concerns found in other Haggard novels (spiritualism, afterlife, game hunting), the presentation here is quite different. The author is decidedly trying to alter readers’ outlooks and morals with this book, but somehow, the light, simple tone prevents things from getting too preachy.
This may be a harder Haggard title to find in its original form, but the copy that I recently read, from Ayer Publishers, is a reprint edition that came out in 2000. It is a facsimile copy of the original Longmans, Green edition, and includes a dozen beautiful illustrations by W.T. Horton and H.M. Brock. For those not willing to shell out major bucks for a first edition, the Ayer volume is a great deal. The book is a real charmer, and I do recommend it.
Editor’s note: A free Kindle version is available.