Buzzed Books 89 by Mark Scroggins

H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang’s The World’s Desire (Ballantine 1977 edition)

The story behind this lurid paperback is fascinating, though not quite as fascinating as the book itself. In 1965, Ballantine Books issued a paperback edition of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which had been published in hardcover ten years before. The hardcover had done okay, but the paperback proved to be an outrageous bestseller. People had never read anything like it before, and were immediately clamoring for more “stuff like Tolkien.” Ballantine scrambled—in short order they published, in editions similar to LotR, early twentieth-century fantasies by E. R. Eddison, Mervyn Peake, and others, and new books by folks like Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn).

The World's Desire

Eventually, Ballantine commissioned the SF/fantasy author Lin Carter to edit a full-blown series, the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, which between 1969 and 1974 issued around 65 volumes, most of them reprints of “classic” but forgotten fantasy works from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shortly thereafter, entirely new large-scale fantasy series—Terry Brooks’s Shannara books and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books—began appearing. So a whole new genre—Fantasy Fiction—had sprung up, with folks like Donaldson, Brooks, Evangeline Walton, and Katherine Kurtz constituting its present, and the BAFS furnishing it with a past (or a “canon,” as the literary scholars say).

The World’s Desire, first published in 1890, was reprinted in the BAFS (with one of their trademark druggy, borderline surrealist covers) in 1972. This particular copy, with its lurid cover image of a naked Egyptian queen communing with a giant snake who has a miniature copy of her own head, was printed in 1977, when the BAFS had passed into history but the fantasy boom was going strong. The advertising pages at the end of the book make the cultural context crystal clear: a notice of the first printing of The Sword of Shannara; an order form for Walton’s and Kurtz’s books; an ad for the paperback novelization of Star Wars; an ad for no fewer than twelve volumes of Star Trek books; and two pages advertising Tolkien books and posters.

Let’s just say the book itself is every bit as nuts as its provocative cover (which, by the way, is a precise representation of a scene from the novel). When the book was published, H. Rider Haggard was already famous for King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887), adventures in unexplored “lost worlds” of Africa, while Andrew Lang was an all-round man of letters and classical scholar, best known for his translations of Homer (though he would later become famous for his collections of international folk tales). Haggard contributes the storytelling chops, and the themes (familiar from She) of the gorgeous and dangerous femme fataleand of reincarnation and the eternal quest for perfect love; Lang contributes a close eye to bronze-age Mediterannean cultural detail and a comprehensive knowledge of the Homeric storybook.

So yes, this is a sequel to the Odyssey—the new adventures of Odysseus, now unencumbered of Ithaca and Penelope, sailing off to Egypt on a quest for Helen of Troy, who he’s decided is his true love. (The notion of Odysseus’ further adventures appears in a number of ancient Greek texts, as does the idea of Helen being in Egypt rather than Troy during the whole Trojan war business.) In Egypt he gets tangled in a love triangle with Queen Meriamun, who’s as dark and evil as Helen is blonde and beautiful, but who’s also a powerful sorceress. Helen may be an incarnation of the goddess of love—the “world’s desire”—but Meriamun’s got her sidekick snake ornament, which enables her to do all sorts of shapeshifting and astral projection. At the same time, Egypt has to deal with a series of natural disasters brought upon them by the prophets of the enslaved Apura (Hebrews)—so Haggard and Lang are able to work in the narrative of the book of Exodus—and an invasion from the north by the seagoing Greeks.

It’s a wonderful, compulsively readable mess, told in a kind of fast-moving (Haggard) mock-Homeric (Lang) idiom, with some actually good poetry along the way. (I always skip the poems in Tolkien, but these are actually worth reading.) You can get this one for free at Project Gutenberg, but there’s lots of copies of this Ballantine edition for sale out there. You’ve gotta have that woman-headed snake, don’t you?


Mark Scroggins

Mark Scroggins lives in and  around New York City. He writes about poetry, art, and fashion. His latest book of poems is Pressure Dressing.