H. Rider Haggard was not really a pulp fiction author, having been a “respectable” author of Victorian literature whose first stories were published in literary magazines in the late 1870s. He was a lawyer but paid more attention to his writing, probably for the best as he was an excellent writer. So you may ask yourself why I’m talking about a Victorian author who was published in the slicks, whose work predates the height of pulp fiction as a trend. Like Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Allan Poe, it’s because his work had an outsized impact not only on pulp fiction, but fiction in general.
His most famous creation, the English explorer Allan Quatermain, was introduced in the 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines. While there are earlier examples of Lost World fiction, including Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, King Solomon’s Mines is considered the father of the style and tropes that came later. The exploration of “darkest Africa” was a particular focus of adventurers at the height of Victoria’s reign at the end of the British Colonial Empire, and the reading public had a thirst for stories of such as well.
In the very first Pulp Appeal article, I wrote about Solomon Kane and his friend N’Longa, whose relationship is clearly founded upon that of Quatermain and Umslopogaas. That friendship doesn’t appear in the first Quatermain book, but there is another cross-cultural friendship that develops between Umbopa/Ignosi and Quatermain. In this novel there is ample evidence that Quatermain is more enlightened racially than his peers. It’s still colonial British literature, so it’s certainly not progressive by modern standards, but the tribespeople Quatermain encounters have agency, take actions on their own for their own self-interest, and run the gamut of emotional, intellectual, and moral development. There is certainly some awful stereotyping in evidence, particularly in the portrayal of the witch Gagool and King Twala, but Umbopa/Ignosi runs counter to such stereotyping. In many ways, he serves as a model for the character of Umslopogaas.
Haggard wrote a lot of stories and books, but he was most famous for Quatermain and Ayesha, a nigh-immortal woman warrior who ruled as “She-who-must-be-obeyed.” While Quatermain’s adventures have some supernatural magic, the stories of Ayesha are full-on fantasy. And if King Solomon’s Mines set the stage for most of the Lost World stories to come, She solidified it. As well, the positive portrayal of strength in women was seen as pushing the bounds of decorum, but today it reads as more quaint and sexist than it would have at the time. Still, between the positive and sympathetic portrayals of African tribes and the exploration of women in leadership and power, Haggard, like Robert E. Howard 30 years later, was far more than the racist-sexist tar critics try to coat him in. This is not to excuse the colonial apologism of Victorian literature, but to condemn it all and throw the baby out with the bathwater is misguided at best.
There were other Victorian adventure authors of the time, like Kipling and Conan Doyle, but they owe a lot to the ground Haggard trod first. And that’s leaving out later authors who carried Haggard’s influence forward, people like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and Philip Jose Farmer, among others.
Last, but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Indiana Jones, who is as clear an analog for Quatermain as exists. There have been a few relatively recent attempts to bring Quatermain to film1, notably two films starring Richard Chamberlain (both attempting to parody Indiana Jones and both critical and commercial flops) and the recent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen2, but their less-than-stellar execution (particularly LXG) harmed the brand more than they extended it. Luckily, other interpretations exist, like the graphic novel version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen written by Alan Moore (and boy is he rightfully pissed at the film version), and the original books are all public domain as well as dozens of other books by Haggard.
1 There were several older ones in the middle part of the 20th Century, but they were about as faithful as the more modern ones and not much better in quality.
2 If you’d like to watch an excellent show that is pretty much LXG with the serial numbers filed off, go hit up Penny Dreadful (on Showtime in the US and Sky in the UK).