The Novelists and the Ancient Wisdom

Philip Harris

Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia—September 1999

Copyright © Philip Harris 1999

Ask people if they have heard of Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) and most will look quite blank. Mention King Solomon’s Mines and comprehension will dawn. That novel was written in 1885 and has remained in print ever since. It was first filmed in 1917; the first talkie was made in 1937 with an outstanding cast consisting of Paul Robeson, Cedric Hardwick, Roland Young, John Loder and Anna Lee. The gratuitous introduction of Robeson’s song was a pity, but otherwise the film was a very good version of the novel. It was remade in 1950 with Deborah Kerr and Stewart Grainger; this version won an Oscar for Cinematography and Editing. The latest remake was in 1985 starring Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone, but the attempt to update the story resulted in total disaster.

It is not King Solomon’s Mines that interests us here however, but Haggard’s next novel entitled She which was published two years later.

This was about an immortal woman called Ayesha who killed her lover in a fit of jealous rage and then waited two thousand years for him to be reincarnated. This was probably the first novel by a bestselling author to deal with rebirth and the novel introduced, in a painless fashion, more people to the concept of reincarnation than the Theosophical Society has done in its one hundred and twenty years of existence; a sequel appeared twenty-eight years later called Ayesha. Haggard admitted that his character Ayesha was an attempt to personify nature as a living dynamic whole, perhaps foreshadowing the concept of Gaia, and Ayesha’s philosophy, as revealed in the first two stories about her, gives us quite a clear idea of Haggard’s beliefs about the subtle nature of the human psyche. Not only do we encounter reincarnation, but the hidden side of nature implying a knowledge of the devic kingdom. She was also filmed many times, first in 1917, then 1926, 1935 and 1965. The 1935 version was the best attempt, but none of the films of Haggard’s novels have kept sufficiently close to the spirit of them to earn unqualified approval.

Haggard wrote nearly sixty novels, but his most successful ones were those set in Africa where he spent his youthful years. Naturally, he tended to exhibit a slightly patronising attitude toward the indigenous people of Africa; he was, after all, a product of the colonial era, but all his African stories showed a deep understanding of the native people, particularly the Zulu nation, and a compassionate attitude that was rare at the time.

It is not possible, within the confines of a short article, to cite all relevant philosophies occurring in Haggard’s books, but a few examples will serve to illustrate our theme, that Haggard would have been quite at home in the Theosophical Society. One of Haggard’s outstanding characters was a Zulu ‘witch-doctor’ called Zicali who was known to his tribe by the name ‘Opener of Roads’. Zicali frequently shows outstanding psychic powers — predicting the future, remote viewing, and many similar abilities. In the novel Allan Quatermain there is a graphic description of rain-making by a witch-doctor which is so detailed that one is forced to the conclusion that Haggard did witness such an event.

In Haggard’s novel Allan and the Holy Flower (1915), there occurs a passage that is pure Theosophy:

… I believe that the individual, or rather the identity that animates him, came from the Source of all life, a long while, perhaps hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, and when his career is finished, perhaps hundreds of thousands or millions of years hence, or perhaps tomorrow, will return perfected, but still as an individual, to dwell in or with that Source of Life. I believe also that his various existences, here or elsewhere, are fore-known and fore-ordained, although in a sense he may shape them by the action of his free will, and nothing which he can do will lengthen or shorten one of them by a single hour.

Haggard was a close friend of Rudyard Kipling and Haggard’s diaries reveal that both men had similar beliefs. On May 23 1918 they had a discussion which Haggard recorded:

… we discussed the possibility (and probability) of reincarnation and agreed that every year that passes draws back a curtain, as it were, and shows us to ourselves in yet complete nakedness.

Of particular interest to theosophists is the Novel Zanoni (1842), by Bulwer Lytton (1803-73). Although Lytton’s novels have not stood the test of time and are not read now, in his day he was immensely popular. Zanoni’s central character of the same name was an occultist in the sense that theosophists use the term and there was a tendency in some quarters to identify him with the Masters of the Wisdom; a careful reading of the novel will discredit this theory however. Lytton described his character Zanoni as an Idealist. Zanoni was followed in 1862 by another tale of the occult called A Strange Story.

There is no doubt that the dissemination of the Ancient Wisdom has been greatly helped, in the past, by some of the popular novelists. Not only Haggard, but Marie Corelli, whose real name was Mary Mackay, and Talbot Mundy, dealt with theosophical themes and were read by millions during the first half of this century. Mundy, by the way, was a member of the Theosophical Society at Pasadena. Among his many books his King of the Khyber Rifles is remembered by many elderly persons and OM — the Secret of Ahbor Valley, may still be found in many theosophical libraries. The latter work deals openly with Masters of the Wisdom. Less well known perhaps, but most significant is Mundy’s I Say Sunrise, which was published in 1947. Here we have an absolutely brilliant exposition of applied Theosophy, expressed in popular language, which deserves to be in the possession of, and read by, every theosophist. Oh, would that we had another Talbot Mundy with us today! We are sadly lacking in writers able to command large readership who can communicate the essentials of the Ancient Wisdom.

Algernon Henry Blackwood (1869-1951) was another member of the Theosophical Society who was the first secretary of the Toronto Theosophical Society in Canada. He was a very popular novelist during the first half of this century, specialising in tales of the supernatural and wrote a play entitled Karma: a Reincarnation Play (1919). When I first read one of his stories I was about fourteen and had not heard of Theosophy. I decided to read again his short story Secret Worship and now could relate to this passage in it with more understanding:

It is, alas, chiefly the evil emotions that are able to leave their photographs on surrounding scenes and objects and whoever heard of a place haunted by a noble deed, or of beautiful and lovely ghosts revisiting the glimpses of the moon? It is unfortunate. But the wicked passions of men’s hearts alone seem strong enough to leave pictures that persist; the good are ever too luke-warm. … And if thought and emotion can persist in this way so long after the brain that sent them forth has crumpled into dust, how vitally important it must be to control their very birth in the heart, and guard them with the keenest possible restraint.

Sound theosophical advice indeed!

We are not accustomed to thinking of A.P. Sinnett, early Vice-President of the TS and recipient of the Mahatma Letters, as a novelist, but he published two novels, Karma and United; he had a play, Married by Degrees, performed at the Court Theatre, London, in 1911.

Thornton Wilder, 1897-1975, the American novelist and playwright, studied Theosophy and was particularly keen on the works of Annie Besant. In his last novel, The Eighth Day (1967), one of his characters gives quite a lengthy dissertation on reincarnation, pointing out that we each live thousands of lives. Referring to the stages of spiritual progress he writes, ‘Some have ascended not just one step, but four: “Socrates or Mrs. Besant, or Tom Paine or Abraham Lincoln.” ’ Illustrious company indeed!

Sylvia Cranston, in her definitive biography of Blavatsky, draws attention to D.H. Lawrence’s interest in Theosophy. Lawrence’s biographer, William York Tindall considers his novel The Plumed Serpent to be his most theosophical work and goes further when he suggests that Apocalypse is a theosophical tract. In 1919 Lawrence wrote to a friend who was in spiritual distress recommending that he read Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine.

Quoting from Ireland’s Literary Renaissance, by Ernest Boyd, Sylvia Cranston draws attention to the following passage:

The theosophical movement provided a literary, artistic and intellectual centre from which radiated influences whose effect was felt even by those who did not belong to it. Further, it formed a rallying ground for all the keenest of the older and younger intellects, from John O’Leary and George Sigerson, to W.B. Yeats and Æ (George Russell). It brought into contact the most diverse personalities, and definitely widened the scope of the new literature, emphasising its marked advance on all previous national movements. … It was an intellectual melting pot from which the true and solid elements of nationality emerged strengthened while the dross was lost.

Thus the works of early theosophists, particularly those of Blavatsky, seem to have had a very great influence on many writers, who, in the main, coyly omitted to acknowledge their indebtedness.

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Philip Harris is a member of the TS in Perth and a former National Lecturer for the TS in Australia