In 1916, as World War I raged, Henry Rider Haggard, then 60 years old, started to compose his 48th novel, out of an eventual 58. Originally called The Glittering Lady, the novel was ultimately released in 1919 under the title we know today, When the World Shook, and turned out to be still another wonderful book from this celebrated author, in which many of his old favorite themes (lost civilizations, reincarnation, love that survives beyond the grave) are revisited, but with a new spin.
As in his first success, King Solomon’s Mines (1885), we meet three intrepid Englishmen — Arbuthnot, Bastin and Bickley — and follow them on their amazing adventure. The three are quite a mixed trio, to put it mildly, Bastin being an upright, priggish, highly religious pastor; Bickley being a hardheaded materialist, a doctor and man of science (his constant debates with Bastin provide much of the book’s humor); and Arbuthnot… well, he is a millionaire dreamer, a spiritual seeker, of sorts. After the deaths of two of the trio’s wives, they (and Arbuthnot’s plucky cocker spaniel, Tommy) undertake an extended cruise on a private yacht, and, following a monstrous cyclone, wash up on a South Pacific island replete with fetish-worshipping cannibals. And it is here that Haggard’s tale really takes off, when our heroes explore a mysterious cave on the island and discover Oro and Yva, a father and daughter who have lain in suspended sleep for precisely 250,000 years! Apparently, these two were of a supercivilization that Oro had been forced to destroy way back when. Unfortunately, after taking a look around at our early 20th century, via his ability to send his ka, or spirit double, on such missions, Oro decides that this new world needs to be wiped out as well….
Pulpy in the extreme, simply written but at times offering up passages of great beauty and philosophical insight, action packed as can be and with lively and amusing characters, When the World Shook is surely proof positive that H. Rider Haggard still “had it” in his twilight years. As has been noted elsewhere, it IS strange to see MODERN warfare and airplanes (!) in one of his novels, but Haggard had some important points that he wanted to make in this book. Chapter 20, “Oro and Arbuthnot Travel by Night,” in which the pair’s spirits wander the Earth and see the horrors of modern-day warfare, is one of the most unusual passages in all the 40+ Haggard novels that I’ve read so far. H.G. Wells could not have done a better job at demonstrating mankind’s folly and showing us the waste that is war.
Strangely, Oro and Arbuthnot’s experiences in the U.S. are not written of in this book, the author attributing this to a gap in Arbuthnot’s manuscript; perhaps Haggard felt daunted by opening up such a gigantic can of worms there! After all the horrors that he witnesses, no wonder Oro feels compelled to sink half the world in a gigantic deluge, as he did so long ago, and the method that he tries to use is a fascinating one. The reader is thus treated to an extended section in the bowels of the world, and gets to see the traveling, 2,000-foot-high gyroscope of cold fire — the World Balance — that Oro attempts to displace in a tremendously exciting scene.
For those readers who are fans of Haggard’s enduring fantasy She (1887), there are some echoes of that seminal work, as well. In She, Ayesha acquires her immortality by bathing in the Flame of Life; here, Yva and Oro treat our heroes to their Lifewater, through which Oro has lived to be almost 1,000. And, as in She, in this novel, our hero, Arbuthnot, finds the spirit of his deceased mate residing in another’s body. (Death is no barrier to lovers in Haggard’s novels; in that, they are some of the most truly romantic works that I have ever read.) Arbuthnot, actually, must have been a character very close to Haggard’s heart. Both started out as lawyers, became authors, and were subsequently accused of plagiarism; both are deeply spiritual men with a love of travel and ancient civilizations. Arbuthnot’s side thoughts on the meaning of life and man’s place in the universe, and of what follows “death,” make this adventure story much more than a mere pulpy page-turner.
Though little read today, When the World Shook would certainly appeal to all lovers of fantasy, science fiction, adventure or romance. No, it’s not one of Haggard’s best, but it sure is darn good, and as entertaining as can be. Somebody, please break out $200 million, hire a screenwriter who will do justice to Haggard’s unique vision, and turn THIS into a summer blockbuster!