The title of Thomas Kent Miller’s Allan Quatermain at the Dawn of Time (2013) might lead the reader to expect a Rider Haggard pastiche. And there would be nothing wrong with that – Rider Haggard’s strong storytelling qualities, ranging ideas and bold plots made him a perennial success in late Victorian and Edwardian times, on a par with Conan Doyle, Kipling and Bram Stoker.
But as Thomas Kent Miller explored in an essay for Wormwood (included in this book) there was rather more to Haggard – as there was to Kipling – than simply an imperial swashbuckler. His books show a sensitive man who was moved by close human relationships, whether of love or comradeship, respectful of the codes and customs of other peoples, and with doubts about aspects of colonialism.
However, this is not the only way in which Allan Quatermain at the Dawn of Time is more unusual than a conventional pastiche. For it is actually a highly postmodern creation, conveying its narrative through many different sources, each inflected with different shades of irony or doubt. The author has structured the work as in one sense an “epistolary novel” (perhaps “documentary novel” might be a better term, provided it does not connote anything too dry or factual). One outer document leads to another, and these to further, inner documents, so that the reader experiences the book as if going through a series of doors in a labyrinth of secret passages. This approach is supported by the pleasing design of the book, which gives each document a charming verisimilitude.
This approach is complex – the reader must keep their wits about them – and allusive. It asks for an alertness and constant curiosity. An impatient reader might be daunted by the layers of what appear to be preamble at the outset, but these are in fact essential to the way the book works.
This experimental approach is accompanied, however, by a thorough understanding of the enthralling themes found in the mysteries and romances of the Haggardian tradition: ancient secrets, hidden adepts, enigmatic heroes, strange sects, resonant spiritual symbols, a quest across time and space. They are all there, even if not always laid out plainly in a linear plot. Instead, we must regard the book as like a curious crystal, which reveals some new dimension as each facet is caught in the light of our understanding.
Dorothy Macardle (1889-1958)
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