Here be Dragons. Or Lions. Take Your Pick
I have a reading habit that some people might find deplorable.
The end of the Victorian era and the years up to the First World War were rich in novels that formed a genre to themselves: imperialist adventure stories. They were tales about the big empty spaces on the world map, the unexplored centres of continents and vast countries (Africa, China, the Americas); the places that in mediaeval times would be marked with an admonitory ‘hic sunt leones’, a Latin phrase that later literary pundits evidently felt wasn’t exotic enough and passed into the lexicon as ‘hic sunt dracones’. Here be dragons. Dragons were obviously more frightening when it came to describing those places that were dangerous and unexplored, that called to the footloose adventurer (always a man, I’m afraid) seeking his fortune.
The books in this genre are the kind I’d call ‘old-fashioned ripping yarns’—free-wheeling adventures, with lantern-jawed heroes taking down malefactors and malcontents in the cause of right and, usually, imperial might. The hero faced evil, a test of his moral character as well as his physical form, was on some sort of quest or exploration, met exotic and exciting peoples not normally found in Epsom or Surbiton. He became the epitome of moral superiority bringing order to unformed, unBritish chaos in a Raffles sort of tale, or something penned by H. Rider Haggard or John Buchan. They’re summed up with ‘play up, play up, and play the game!’
Now the thing is that these novels are horrendously racist and sexist, with appalling views on colonialism, an unquestioned acceptance of both brutality and exploitation, a conventional and unthinking belief in inherent white superiority over all other races, elitist Christian mores, and a veneration for women as ‘the angels of our better selves’ while simultaneously keeping them socially, economically and politically subjugated. The books are a paean to colonialism, actually, and at the time were seen as pattern cards of heroism and patriotism. Every red-blooded English lad wanted to be Allan Quartermaine, have adventures and spread the Empire to the farthest corners of those unexplored blank spaces.
I’m not so dense I don’t see how uncomfortable a read these are. No one could read the books without that frisson of unease that comes from seeing some of the deepest, darkest prejudices—the sort that few would dream of admitting to, much less voicing, these days—treated with a casual acceptance that this was just the way the world was. A real check-your-privilege moment, because I suspect that if you’re a person of colour, these books aren’t just uncomfortable, they’re unreadable.
But unless we read books like this, and understand them, their influence on our current culture goes unnoticed. Because they did influence us. Big time
Where do you think Indiana Jones came from? Or Han Solo? The whole idea of being chosen by destiny to play a pivotal role? The exploration of new worlds and exotic, alien people? Yup. All of them were born out of the pages of King Solomon’s Mines, sired by Prester John. Haggard, Buchan and their ilk were there long before Hollywood, and their work has influenced almost every action film and TV show since. Every last swashbuckling adventure owes some of its tropes, themes and metaphorical, philosophical language to imperialist adventure tales.
And me. I admit it: they influenced me too.
Rafe Lancaster isn’t colonially-minded (at all!), being an iconoclast when it comes to the Britannic Imperium, but his adventures in Aegypt have pale echoes of those earlier stories. A white man having an adventure in the exotic deserts of Aegypt, battling what appears to be a mystical, mythological threat that’s rooted in native superstition (as Haggard, for example, might see it). Rafe is plunged into a country and society completely strange to him, the descendants of the romantic and exotic pyramid-builders. He faces down some bad ’uns out to disrupt Ned Winter’s archaeological dig and who threaten the lives of Ned, Ned’s son and Rafe himself. Rafe’s moral character is tested in the process, his preconceptions of who he is turned upside down… a Haggard adventurer without the colonial baggage.
What I’m trying to get at here is that knowing the genesis of the adventure hero, knowing some of his antecedents, allows us to look critically at the characters in the books we’re reading and writing, at the action hero on the screen, and test them for some of the unconscious privileges and prejudices of their imperial forebears. Not to mention, it allows us to test our own!
There is some comfort to be had. Take those imperialistic books as reflecting the values and the time and place in which they were written and see them not just as a quasi-historical record, but most of all, as a measure of how far we have come.
Because seriously, can you see a John Buchan or Rider Haggard hero successfully finishing off his adventures and then going home to his boyfriend?
There you are then. That square-jawed hero has moved on, he has grown and changed. When you measure how far he’s come, it’s quite a distance. Rafe will wind his arms around Ned Winter’s neck, kiss him senseless, and proudly bear witness to that.
Title: The Jackal’s House (Lancaster’s Luck #2)
Author: Anna Butler
Cover Art: Reese Dante
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Release Date: October 30, 2017
Page Count: 310
Something is stalking the Aegyptian night and endangering the archaeologists excavating the mysterious temple ruins in Abydos. But is it a vengeful ancient spirit or a very modern conspiracy….
Rafe Lancaster’s relationship with Gallowglass First Heir, Ned Winter, flourishes over the summer of 1900, and when Rafe’s House encourages him to join Ned’s next archaeological expedition, he sees a chance for it to deepen further. Since all the Houses of the Britannic Imperium, Rafe’s included, view assassination as a convenient solution to most problems, he packs his aether pistol—just in case.
Trouble finds them in Abydos. Rafe and Ned begin to wonder if they’re facing opposition to the Temple of Seti being disturbed. What begins as tricks and pranks escalates to attacks and death, while the figure of the Dog—the jackal-headed god, Anubis, ruler of death—casts a long shadow over the desert sands. Destruction follows in his wake as he returns to reclaim his place in Abydos. Can Rafe and Ned stand against both the god and House plots when the life of Ned’s son is on the line?
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About The Series
Lancaster’s Luck is set in a steampunk world where, at the turn of the 20th century, the eight powerful Convocation Houses are the de facto rulers of the Britannic Imperium. In this world of politics and assassins, a world powered by luminiferous aether and phlogiston and where aeroships fill the skies, Captain Rafe Lancaster, late of Her Majesty’s Imperial Aero Corps, buys a coffee house in one of the little streets near the Britannic Museum in Bloomsbury.
So begins the romantic steampunk adventures which have Rafe, a member of Minor House Stravaigor, scrambling over Londinium’s rooftops on a sultry summer night or facing dire peril in the pitch dark of an Aegyptian night. And all the while, sharing the danger is the man he loves: Ned Winter, First Heir of Convocation House Gallowglass, the most powerful House in the entire Imperium.
Lancaster’s Luck Series
Anna was a communications specialist for many years, working in various UK government departments on everything from marketing employment schemes to organizing conferences for 10,000 civil servants to running an internal TV service. These days, though, she is writing full time. She recently moved out of the ethnic and cultural melting pot of East London to the rather slower environs of a quiet village tucked deep in the Nottinghamshire countryside, where she lives with her husband and the Deputy Editor, aka Molly the cockerpoo.