Monday, 9 September 2013

Lord of Darkness, by Robert Silverberg


     The first 'adult' novel that I ever read (or more accurately, perhaps, attempted to read) was Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg. I recall that it was a borrowed library book that was lying around the house. Perhaps the cover, which I can remember very clearly, was what attracted me:
The cover of the original edition, which I remember well from the library copy at our house when I was a kid. The cover shows Andrew Battell and Dona Teresa, the Portuguese femme fatale who nurses him back to health in the colony
The edition that I currently own, published in 2013 by Nonstop Press
     I'm not sure how old I was when I tried to read it. Eight or nine years old, perhaps? When re-reading it years later, I was very surprised by some of the explicit content. I didn't remember it at all from the first time I had read the book. Maybe I had not understood it, or had not found those particular sections of the book interesting. What had remained with me was a mysterious tale of adventure taking place in faraway, exotic climes. Now that, to an eight or nine year old boy, was very interesting.


     Lord of Darkness is set during the late sixteenth century/early seventeenth centuries and is about an Elizabethan sailor, buccaneer and explorer named Andrew Battell. After setting off on a merchant voyage to seek his fortune, Battell is captured by pirates in South America and drawn into the imperialist expeditions and machinations of the Portuguese, now allies with the Spanish with whom Elizabethan England are at war. He is taken to West Africa, to the region which is now modern day Angola, and becomes a prisoner of the Portuguese colonisers. He tries to earn his freedom by acting as a pilot for their sailing explorations along the African coastline. The novel describes his various adventures, imprisonments, ill fortune, and numerous love affairs as he attempts to escape and find his way back to England. The novel considers the weighty themes of imperialism, colonisation, racism, slavery and racial/cultural/national identity while at the same time being a gripping adventure story. The strangest, weirdest section of the novel is toward the end of the book, and this eerie episode details Battell's experiences living with a flesh-eating tribe of warrior-cannibals deep in the Angolan jungle- the Jaqqa.


     The inspiration for Silverberg's novel came from his own discovery of a Walter de la Mare picaresque fantasy, "The Three Mulla-Mulgars". Mulgars are De la Mare's term for Monkeys in his own novel. This describes the adventures of three young Mulgars (monkeys) of royal blood who travel across Africa to reach the Arakkaboa Mountains where their dead father's brother Assassimon rules a Kingdom of Animals. Silverberg's imagination was, as he relates in the 2013 edition of Lord of Darkness which I own, caught by: "the strangeness of (De la Mare's) style and his three Mulgars' journey through nightmare forests and formidable mountain passes." (p.5, Nonstop Press edition, 2013)

     The three royal monkeys encounter a human during their journey- an "Oomgar" (Mulgar-talk for 'human'). This human, the only one in De la Mare's story, is Andrew Battle, who turns out to be a God-fearing English sailor. Silverberg initially thought that Battle was a fictional character. This was until later in life, when he researched Elizabethan explorers and voyagers, and came across a 61-page pamphlet published in 1901 by the Hakluyt Society of London (noted for publishing exploration narratives) entitled The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the Adjoining Regions. De la Mare had briefly used the character in his own story, but Silverberg decided that he wanted to tell Andrew Battell's real story- fleshing out the true historical details which were described in the pamphlet, which Walter de la Mare had obviously also used as a reference source for the character of Andrew Battle in "The Three Mulla-Mulgars". Silverberg himself states in his introduction that: "What could he have been like, this Englishman who spent two decades in the tropic heat of Angola, and dwelled for years amidst a flesh-eating tribe which seemed to him the next thing to devils? Would it be possible to re-invent such a man from the skimpy evidence at hand- to write his own memoir at full length, filling in all that this simple seaman had left unsaid, and much more that he would never have dreamed of saying?" (p.7, Nonstop Press edition, 2013) This re-invention of Battell's personal memoir forms the blend of historical fact and fiction which is Silverberg's novel Lord of Darkness.


     The novel is rich in historic detail. Without wishing to give too much away regarding the plot, there is a slow build up to introduce the early life of Battell before he is plunged into misadventure under foreign skies, with plenty of memorable scenes that form a precursor to future events (for example, Battell's first sighting of a Jaqqa: "There was about this one man a strangeness and a presence most commanding, and such a sense of silent menace, that made him a sort of Lucifer or Mephistopheles, and I knew at first instant he was nothing ordinary." p.43, Nonstop Press Edition, 2013)- and most notably Battell's encounter with an albino witch doctor, a ndundu:

Indeed this ndundu was passing through the market, sampling this food and that, taking a bite and a bite and tossing away, and all this while he was allowed to go where he pleased. He came within five yards of me and turned to stare, for my blond hair was as strange to him as he was to me. Our eyes met, and his were red, red where mine were blue, the red eyes of a demon from Hell, that I have never seen otherwise.
Toward me he did make certain holy gestures, that were like the writhing of a madman, with much waving of the arms and crooking of his fingers. And in a hissing voice, he cried out, an evil croak... (p.102, Nonstop Press Edition, 2013)

     The novel becomes, appropriately enough, progressively 'darker' in tone as Battell's Boys-Own style buccaneer adventures slowly descend into Silverberg's take on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the memorable descriptions of the dangerous and mysterious Lord of the Jaqqas, Imbe Calandola. ("...this Calandola, I thought at once, had in him the stuff of majesty...he could capture the souls of men, and make them follow where he willed.")

     Silverberg sought to write the novel in an archaic style similar to Elizabethan prose, without using anachronistic language, yet at the same time ensuring that the novel was readable for 20th century/21st century readers. It is an uneven balance at times ("Yet am I grateful for all that Thou hast shown me in that land, even for the pain Thou hast inflicted upon me for my deeper instruction", p.10, Nonstop Press edition, 2013) but on the whole he succeeds.

     In my opinion Lord of Darkness is an unfairly neglected novel by Silverberg. This was because he was and is considered predominantly a genre writer of fantasy and science/speculative fiction, most notably for Dying Inside, a dark and melancholic tale about a telepath losing his powers, and for his Majipoor fantasy/SF series. SF enthusiasts who were aware of Silverberg's work were not drawn to what was patently a work of historic fiction ( a tale of buccaneers, explorers and colonial Africa) while readers of historical fiction were unaware of a novel by a SF/Fantasy author that ended up on those particular bookshelves in bookshops/stores.

     I will say no more, so as not to spoil the twists and turns of the story for potential readers, and I will merely conclude by saying that Lord of Darkness is a novel which I would highly recommend to fans of historical fiction and adventure stories.


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