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- The World's Desire - 1/45 -

The World's Desire

by H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang




The period in which the story of /The World's Desire/ is cast, was a period when, as Miss Braddon remarks of the age of the Plantagenets, "anything might happen." Recent discoveries, mainly by Dr. Schliemann and Mr. Flinders Petrie, have shown that there really was much intercourse between Heroic Greece, the Greece of the Achaeans, and the Egypt of the Ramessids. This connection, rumoured of in Greek legends, is attested by Egyptian relics found in the graves of Mycenae, and by very ancient Levantine pottery, found in contemporary sites in Egypt. Homer himself shows us Odysseus telling a feigned, but obviously not improbable, tale of an Achaean raid on Egypt. Meanwhile the sojourn of the Israelites, with their Exodus from the land of bondage, though not yet found to be recorded on the Egyptian monuments, was probably part of the great contemporary stir among the peoples. These events, which are only known through Hebrew texts, must have worn a very different aspect in the eyes of Egyptians, and of pre-historic Achaean observers, hostile in faith to the Children of Israel. The topic has since been treated in fiction by Dr. Ebers, in his /Joshua/. In such a twilight age, fancy has free play, but it is a curious fact that, in this romance, modern fancy has accidentally coincided with that of ancient Greece.

Most of the novel was written, and the apparently "un-Greek" marvels attributed to Helen had been put on paper, when a part of Furtwängler's recent great lexicon of Mythology appeared, with the article on Helen. The authors of /The World's Desire/ read it with a feeling akin to amazement. Their wildest inventions about the Daughter of the Swan, it seemed, had parallels in the obscurer legends of Hellas. There actually is a tradition, preserved by Eustathius, that Paris beguiled Helen by magically putting on the aspect of Menelaus. There is a mediaeval parallel in the story of Uther and Ygerne, mother of Arthur, and the classical case of Zeus and Amphitryon is familiar. Again, the blood-dripping ruby of Helen, in the tale, is mentioned by Servius in his commentary on Virgil (it was pointed out to one of the authors by Mr. Mackail). But we did not know that the Star of the story was actually called the "Star-stone" in ancient Greek fable. The many voices of Helen are alluded to by Homer in the /Odyssey/: she was also named /Echo/, in old tradition. To add that she could assume the aspect of every man's first love was easy. Goethe introduces the same quality in the fair witch of his /Walpurgis Nacht/. A respectable portrait of Meriamun's secret counsellor exists, in pottery, in the British Museum, though, as it chances, it was not discovered by us until after the publication of this romance. The Laestrygonian of the Last Battle is introduced as a pre-historic Norseman. Mr. Gladstone, we think, was perhaps the first to point out that the Laestrygonians of the /Odyssey/, with their home on a fiord in the Land of the Midnight Sun, were probably derived from travellers' tales of the North, borne with the amber along the immemorial Sacred Way. The Magic of Meriamun is in accordance with Egyptian ideas; her resuscitation of the dead woman, Hataska, has a singular parallel in Reginald Scot's /Discovery of Witchcraft/ (1584), where the spell "by the silence of the Night" is not without poetry. The general conception of Helen as the World's Desire, Ideal Beauty, has been dealt with by M. Paul de St. Victor, and Mr. J. A. Symonds. For the rest, some details of battle, and of wounds, which must seem very "un-Greek" to critics ignorant of Greek literature, are borrowed from Homer.

H. R. H. A. L.


by H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang

Come with us, ye whose hearts are set On this, the Present to forget; Come read the things whereof ye know /They were not, and could not be so!/ The murmur of the fallen creeds, Like winds among wind-shaken reeds Along the banks of holy Nile, Shall echo in your ears the while; The fables of the North and South Shall mingle in a modern mouth; The fancies of the West and East Shall flock and flit about the feast Like doves that cooled, with waving wing, The banquets of the Cyprian king. Old shapes of song that do not die Shall haunt the halls of memory, And though the Bow shall prelude clear Shrill as the song of Gunnar's spear, There answer sobs from lute and lyre That murmured of The World's Desire.

* * * * *

There lives no man but he hath seen The World's Desire, the fairy queen. None but hath seen her to his cost, Not one but loves what he has lost. None is there but hath heard her sing Divinely through his wandering; Not one but he has followed far The portent of the Bleeding Star; Not one but he hath chanced to wake, Dreamed of the Star and found the Snake. Yet, through his dreams, a wandering fire, Still, still she flits, THE WORLD'S DESIRE!




Across the wide backs of the waves, beneath the mountains, and between the islands, a ship came stealing from the dark into the dusk, and from the dusk into the dawn. The ship had but one mast, one broad brown sail with a star embroidered on it in gold; her stem and stern were built high, and curved like a bird's beak; her prow was painted scarlet, and she was driven by oars as well as by the western wind.

A man stood alone on the half-deck at the bows, a man who looked always forward, through the night, and the twilight, and the clear morning. He was of no great stature, but broad-breasted and very wide- shouldered, with many signs of strength. He had blue eyes, and dark curled locks falling beneath a red cap such as sailors wear, and over a purple cloak, fastened with a brooch of gold. There were threads of silver in his curls, and his beard was flecked with white. His whole heart was following his eyes, watching first for the blaze of the island beacons out of the darkness, and, later, for the smoke rising from the far-off hills. But he watched in vain; there was neither light nor smoke on the grey peak that lay clear against a field of yellow sky.

There was no smoke, no fire, no sound of voices, nor cry of birds. The isle was deadly still.

As they neared the coast, and neither heard nor saw a sign of life, the man's face fell. The gladness went out of his eyes, his features grew older with anxiety and doubt, and with longing for tidings of his home.

No man ever loved his home more than he, for this was Odysseus, the son of Laertes--whom some call Ulysses--returned from his unsung second wandering. The whole world has heard the tale of his first voyage, how he was tossed for ten years on the sea after the taking of Troy, how he reached home at last, alone and disguised as a beggar; how he found violence in his house, how he slew his foes in his own hall, and won his wife again. But even in his own country he was not permitted to rest, for there was a curse upon him and a labour to be accomplished. He must wander again till he reached the land of men who had never tasted salt, nor ever heard of the salt sea. There he must sacrifice to the Sea-God, and then, at last, set his face homewards. Now he had endured that curse, he had fulfilled the prophecy, he had angered, by misadventure, the Goddess who was his friend, and after adventures that have never yet been told, he had arrived within a bowshot of Ithaca.

He came from strange countries, from the Gates of the Sun and from White Rock, from the Passing Place of Souls and the people of Dreams.

But he found his own isle more still and strange by far. The realm of Dreams was not so dumb, the Gates of the Sun were not so still, as the shores of the familiar island beneath the rising dawn.

This story, whereof the substance was set out long ago by Rei, the instructed Egyptian priest, tells what he found there, and the tale of the last adventures of Odysseus, Laertes' son.

The ship ran on and won the well-known haven, sheltered from wind by two headlands of sheer cliff. There she sailed straight in, till the leaves of the broad olive tree at the head of the inlet were tangled in her cordage. Then the Wanderer, without once looking back, or saying one word of farewell to his crew, caught a bough of the olive tree with his hand, and swung himself ashore. Here he kneeled, and kissed the earth, and, covering his head within his cloak, he prayed that he might find his house at peace, his wife dear and true, and his son worthy of him.

The World's Desire - 1/45

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