H. Rider Haggard’s The People of the Mist

Leonard Outram and his older brother Tom should have inherited their family’s grand estate, with the hall lined with portraits of their ancestors. But their father, Sir Thomas Outram, was a drunk and a gambler. He went bankrupt and shot himself, leaving his two sons to sell off Outram Hall and all its possessions.

The eldest son, Tom, was sickly. Although he’d been set to inherit the estate due to the laws of primogeniture, it was expected that soon enough it would pass to Leonard. The younger son had already made his life plans. He was engaged to the parson’s daughter, Jane Beach, and her father had given his blessing for the marriage as soon as Leonard finished college.

Now that Leonard is penniless, Jane’s father calls off their engagement. He wants to marry his daughter off to Mr. Cohen, the rich young man who purchased Outram Hall. “The sins of the father are visited upon the children,” Leonard tells Jane. Though he has no money to continue college, Leonard promises Jane that he’ll make something of himself if only she’ll wait for him for a while.

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Tom and Leonard Outram swear to not return to England until they’ve made enough to buy back their family estate, “So help us, God.”

Tom convinces Leonard to break into their family home one last time. Over the ancient family Bible, they vow to earn enough money to buy back their family estate, and to not return to England until they can. They will forego their newer family motto, “For Heart, Home, and Honour.” Instead they will take on their ancient family motto Per ardua ad astra, “through struggle to the stars.” Leonard has one caveat: He’ll only leave if he doesn’t receive the expected letter from Jane saying she’ll wait for him. The two brothers soon head off to Africa to seek their fortune.

Here—and we’re only at chapter three—the novel switches from a typical tale of lost love and lost inheritances in Victorian England to a lost-world fantasy adventure set in Africa.

I started The People of the Mist on a Thursday night, stayed up late reading, then picked it back up again as soon as I was off work Friday, finishing late that night. I couldn’t put it down! All of this is to say, I highly recommend it. The People of the Mist was first published over eight months from 1893–1894 in Tit-Bits, and the first edition was published by Longmans in October 1894. If you do plan to read the book in any form, spoiler alerts below.

After digging for gold for seven years, Tom finally succumbs to the fever that’s been taking the lives of some of their servants. In his delirium just before death, Tom sits up and tells Leonard of a vision: Leonard must stay in that spot for a while. He will get the family estate back, with the help of a woman. Leonard confides the vision to Otter, a faithful Zulu dwarf who is both servant and friend. He confirms that visions just before death are to be taken seriously.

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Otter battles the crocodile.

Shortly after they meet a woman named Soa who tells them how her mistress, a young Portuguese woman named Juanna Rudd, has been captured and soon will be sold into slavery. Soa tells Leonard that if he helps save Juanna, Soa will help them capture the fortune of the People of the Mist. The first part of the novel describes how Juanna is rescued from the slavers, and the second part how they attempt to gain the vast hoard of rubies and sapphires of the People of the Mist. This involves an elaborate plot whereby Juanna and Otter pretend to be the white goddess and small, dark god who are prophesied in their religion to one day return. Meanwhile, they must be careful not to be found out, lest they become sacrifices to the giant crocodile to whom the People of the Mist feed human sacrifices. Haggard weaves the plot and the characters together beautifully.

When reading The People of the Mist I kept remembering how critical theory crept into the literature classes I took in college. For example, when we read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe the discussion by the students and professor was all about how horrible the protagonist was for the way he treated a native. Crusoe helped the man by giving him food and shelter, teaching him all he knows, and teaching him English. However, he tells the man to call him “master,” which apparently is the worst sin ever. If college students read The People of the Mist, no doubt they’d only care that the white people were trying to steal from the natives, even though the argument could be made that stealing someone’s discarded trash (as the natives did with their rubies) isn’t stealing at all.

The-People-of-the-Mist-H-Rider-HaggardIt was touching to see the relationship between Leonard and the Zulu dwarf Otter since there was mutual love and respect between the two. Although Otter was a servant, he was with Leonard by choice not force, and he was also a friend. Their devotion to each other was mutual, and it remained until the end. It made me sad that today our modern world seems so fragmented and individualistic that relationships like this, of people of any races, rarely develop. But to have this type of relationship requires that both parties admit to their strengths and weaknesses. Leonard submits to Otter’s wisdom regarding traversing the land. Otter submits to Leonard’s wisdom on matters of the intellect. Today such fealty seems rare, with everyone locked up in their own individual houses, glued to the TV or computer for companionship and wisdom, and unable to trust anyone. The cost of living is so high that everyone is engaged in working to make ends meet rather than sharing wisdom while relaxing from the day.

Another big difference in The People of the Mist to today was that of courtship. Leonard’s love interest when he was a college student was Jane Beach. He keeps the prayer book she gave him, and soon after Juanna meets him she sees the description to “dearest Leonard.” Knowing he once may have loved another sets Juanna completely against him and almost destroys any chance of romance between them. We can assume that Leonard and Jane never had sex, probably never kissed, and rarely met together outside of the watchful eyes of her parents. Yet the simple inscription in the prayer book nearly destroys Juanna’s feelings for Leonard. Today, jealousy of a former lover is seen as a mental issue, and a person experiencing such feelings would be referred to therapy to “get over it.” If a society is monogamous, such feelings seem to be not unhealthy, but perfectly normal and in keeping with the natural way. The West, however, appears to be abandoning monogamy in favor of something more like society in the Roman Republic—marriage not as a sacrament but simply a civil arrangement, to be discarded with little ado if it becomes inconvenient. In such a society—whether characterized by serial monogamy, polygamy, or just promiscuity—certainly jealousy over a former love seems out of place. I don’t know what the best system is, but in The People of the Mist it’s interesting to catch a glimpse into the perils of courtship in the late nineteenth century.

If you think The People of the Mist sounds intriguing, it’s free on Kindle. Once you read the first few chapters, my guess is you’ll be hooked. Like other books by Haggard, this would be a great read for boys in middle school or early high school.

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