The Wizard, H. Rider Haggard’s 21st novel out of an eventual 58, was initially released as a serial in a publication called The African Review and then in its complete form in the October 29, 1896 Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual for Boys. It was the third of four African novels that Haggard wrote from 1895-97, the others being Black Heart and White Heart, Swallow and Elissa, all of which I can highly recommend, by the way, especially Swallow.
The Wizard tells the story of Thomas Owen, a British missionary who ventures into the wilds of south central Africa to bring the Good Word to a tribe called the Amasuka, or the Children of Fire. A previous missionary had been killed by the tribe for his failure to work Christ-like miracles, but Owen, who Haggard eventually refers to as a saint, is undaunted. His advent at the tribe precipitates all manner of problems, including a poisoning attempt on its king, Umsuka; the seemingly inevitable conflict with head medicine man Hokosa; and a civil war between the princes Nodwengo and Hafela.
I have yet to read a Haggard book (and I’ve read almost 40 at this point; the author can prove addictive!) that did not feature several action sequences, and The Wizard is no exception. Owen undergoes several trials by fire against the wizard guild — trials that resemble chicken runs with lightning — and the civil war that ultimately erupts in the land of the Amasuka features several exciting battle scenes and sieges. Haggard was a master at clearly describing these epic battle sequences to make them easily visualized by the reader, and his skill is in full flower here.
As in so many of Haggard’s other novels, fantastical elements come into play. Hokosa does indeed seem to be in command of some supernatural forces (he is able to commune with the spirits of the dead, for example), and Owen the saint is apparently capable himself of working miracles. He seems to be endowed with the power of far sight and the ability to deflect lightning, and like a true saint, sacrifices much over the course of the novel with a willing and forgiving heart. Like Haggard, he is a true Christian believer, whose faith he deems the only shield that is necessary.
Similar to Haggard’s 1920 short story “Little Flower,” The Wizard is basically concerned with the battle between two opposing theologies (in the short story, the Rev. Thomas Bull goes up against the Zulu wizard Menzi), and although both wizards are shown to be truly adept at the mystical arts, both are ultimately swayed by the Christian missionaries, although for very different reasons.
The Wizard also features still another of Haggard’s strong native female characters: Hokosa’s ambitious second wife, Noma. Though not nearly in the same league as Ayesha, from Haggard’s seminal fantasy She (1887), or even as well drawn as Nada (from Haggard’s superb 1892 novel Nada the Lily) or Mameena (from 1913’s Child of Storm), she is nevertheless a memorable creation, and is largely responsible for pushing the action along in the book’s second half.
The Wizard has been written in a simple, straightforward style by Haggard, and at less than 300 pages, is one of the author’s shorter novels. It is filled with Christian allegory but never becomes preachy or polemical. Still, adherents of the Christian faith may be inclined to give it an extra star, if only for the presence in it of apparent modern-day miracles that are scattered throughout. Though little read today, The Wizard is a wonder-filled entertainment, and still another feather in Haggard’s already crowded cap.