Those who have been reading this blog for a while know that I’ve become a really big fan of Bertram Mitford (1855-1914). His novels, written in the late 1800s, are on the surface adventure novels which draw on his experiences living and working in South Africa. Valancourt Books has been valiantly reprinting many of Mitford’s novels, and I’ve discussed three of them here: The Weird of Deadly Hollow, Renshaw Fanning’s Quest, and The Sign of the Spider. All are excellent novels which possess much more depth of character and meaning than one would expect. The Sign of the Spider, with its anti-hero protagonist and descent into darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is now one of my favorite novels.
Already some time ago, I picked up the first book in Mitford’s tetralogy of Zulu novels, The King’s Assegai, also published by Valancourt:
Curiously, I waited a long time before actually reading it, unlike Mitford’s other books. I suspect I had a little dread about reading a Westerner’s fictional interpretation of “African savages”, or perhaps I simply didn’t think I could get into a novel about African warriors. (I had a discussion to this effect on an earlier Mitford thread.) In any case, I shouldn’t have been worried — though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did Mitford’s other work, The King’s Assegai is an excellent adventure story which gives a very human (and not stereotypical) view of tribal Africa.
The novel tells the tale of a young Zulu warrior named Untúswa, who has fallen in love with a woman Nangeza. He earns the King’s favor and becomes the royal messenger, and boldly asks for the right to marry, traditionally only given to warriors who have proven themselves in battle. The King, somewhat mockingly, offers Untúswa not only this right, but also his prize assegai (spear), but only if Untúswa performs a deed braver and bolder than any he has heard of.
Perhaps the best way to view this story is as a sort of Africanized novel of the fantasy genre, as it shares many of the characteristics of classic fantasy, such as the tale of King Arthur. The hero is an inexperienced young warrior (Arthur) who, after experiencing horrible dangers and performing deeds of bravery, rises in his fortunes and eventually becomes a wise and powerful champion (King). This young warrior is advised by a wise and mysterious wizard (witch-doctor), Masuka (or Merlin), who seems to know far more about the fate of Untúswa than is possible. There are many battles, including a siege of a fortified city, and even “monsters”, in the form of a tribe of darkness-dwelling cave cannibals.
The most difficult thing to get used to in reading the novel is the rather harsh view of morality the Zulu tribe takes. In seeking out a new homeland, Untúswa’s tribe is willing to massacre and drive out the indigenous people occupying it. Crimes as trivial as being overpowered on watch duty can be met with a painful death. I tend to interpret this harshness as a fact of life in tribal Africa — resources are scarce, and sharing would be considered an unacceptable agreement by either side of a conflict. It is worth noting that Mitford is not being particularly unfair of his depiction of the Zulus, as every amoral act performed has its counterpart in the acts of a Westerner in his other novels: murder (The Weird of Deadly Hollow), slavery (The Sign of the Spider), betrayal (Renshaw Fanning’s Quest).
One of the interesting things about the novel is its depiction of tribal politics. Those who might think that a simpler way of life comes with a simpler human interactions should read Mitford’s depiction of the lies, scheming and betrayal in the Zulu tribes.
In the end, I found ‘Assegai a fun, easy, and fascinating read, as well as a fast one: I read it in the two hours before an airplane flight. I’ll be curious to see how the story develops in Mitford’s later Zulu novels, The White Shield and The Induna’s Wife.
One thing I wonder about: Bertram Mitford seems to have a very negative view of marriage and relationships, and this view percolates out in all of his books. Things are no different in The King’s Assegai, where Untúswa, narrating his tale, describes his difficulty in getting permission to marry:
Meanwhile, my permission to tunga [marry] seemed as far off as ever, and long before it came Nangeza might be out of my reach. There were plenty of other girls, certainly, but I was young then, Nkose, and a fool, and had not yet found out that one girl is just as soon tired of as another. But I have had sixteen wives since those days, and I have found it out now — yeh-bo! I have found it out now.
Valancourt’s reprints of Mitford’s Zulu novels apparently haven’t sold very well, likely for the same incorrect assumptions which made me was hesitant to read them. It’s a shame, because The King’s Assegai is a nice novel which unfolds a classic heroic tale in a relatively unexplored culture.
Mitford’s contemporary competitor, H. Rider Haggard, also published a Zulu novel, Nada the Lily, also published by Valancourt. I’ve got it on my shelf and will have to take a look at it in the near future.