Sunday, June 4, 2017

H. Rider Haggard's "The Mahatma and the Hare"

A Mahatma, as H. Rider Haggard explains in the first pages of this story, means “Great Souled,” and is a person with a sort of sixth sense or at least an ability to transcend the usual human’s sense of reality.

A hare, on the other hand, is a sort of rabbit.

The narrator starts by talking about Mahatmas and also some passing acquaintance known as Jorsen. The narrator then U-turns into another topic, of how his wife and daughter died and the shock and heartbreak drove him to drink himself into a stupor and contemplate jumping into the river.

Enter Jorsen, who appears at the narrator’s side and knows the entire tragic tale. Jorsen mentions in passing that he knew the narrator in a past life. The narrator’s friendship of Jorsen brings him back from the edge of despair, followed by his studying of a pseudo-Eastern mysticism and a bunch of talk about Pharoahs and kas. At last is introduced a sort of limbo-world called the Great White Road, upon which ghosts must travel on their way to the afterlife. In a dream or stupor or some deep meditation, the narrator accesses this Great White Road and sees his dead child. Attempts to repeat this meeting are in vain, although the narrator meets many other spirits in subsequent visits to the Road.


“Not many people know even who or what a Mahatma is. The majority of those who change to have heard the title are apt to confuse it with another, that of Mad Hatter.”

There a few references to Hatters throughout the book. This quotation is from the beginning of the story.  At the end the titular Hare mishears the narrator and commits this very mistake, calling him Mr. Hatter. And one of the narrator’s odd jobs that he takes on as he rebuilds his life under Jorsen’s guidance is “editing a trade journal that has to do with haberdashery.” Now anyone who’s gotten their hands on an annotated Alice in Wonderland may remember that the phrase “mad as a hatter” may be linked to mercury poisoning that haberdashers were subjected to in the pursuit of their trade. Since Alice was written almost 50 years before Mahatma, it may not be a coincidence that Haggard makes the connection with Mahatma sounding like Mad Hatter, or that the other major character in the story is a Hare (perhaps along the lines of the March Hare).

So much for the Mahatma. “Now comes the odd part of the story.” (Because the previous section was as realistic as a Dali painting.) Whilst in one of his visits to the Great White Road, the narrator encounters the ghost of a hare. It sounds like the beginning of some dumb joke: “Why did the hare cross the Great White Road?”

The Hare, ascertaining that the narrator is a live person and not a fellow specter, decides that this is his chance to convey a message back to the land of the living, and to the human population in particular. What follows is a long and depressing and gruesome tale of how the hare’s family was systematically hunted down by humans for sport. The Hare himself spent much of his life dodging dogs and bullets and even became known as a sort of Moby-Dick of country huntsmen after escaping their clutches several times.

As the Hare concludes his tale, the villain of his story, the Red-Faced Man (the lord of the country estate that the Hare had lived on) arrives, having accidentally died in the same final hullabaloo that had led the Hare to his death. The Hare goes into a rage at the sight of the Man, and the Man in turn reacts with surprise at the sentient animal. What follows is a long dialog about whether the Man had any right to hunt and kill the Hare, whether animals have feelings or souls, whether a Man’s birth into a certain social gives him certain privileges, and whether ignorance of cruelty is an excuse.

Drawn to this book because it reminded me of the comic Archy and Mehitabel, I read the entire story while waiting in the airport. This book started off as a sort of exploration into the spiritualism that was in vogue during the Victorian/Edwardian era, with such eminent figures as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exploring the possibility of communicating beyond the grave or the existence of fairies. The whole Great White Road segment reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which also explores the possibilities of afterlife and shows that no matter what one’s status in life, death makes equals of everyone. As for the Hare’s story, it meanders around between Watership Down and The Tale of Peter Rabbit in its dramatic presentation of the life of a prey animal, and also presents some Black Beauty-quality arguments against animal cruelty.


Whether the reader understands Haggard’s emphasis to be on the metaphysical Mahatma section or as an early PETA cry for animal rights in the Hare section, this was certainly an interesting, if psychedelic, way to wait for an airplane.

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