Mary Anderson
A Son of Noah
Digby, Long & Co
London. 1893

A Son of Noah

John Clute writes of A Son of Noah in the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction (1995), that it "features many of the conventions of prehistoric sf with the added spice of pterodactyl-worship on the part of a speciously advanced race. But the Flood will soon clear the air." It is not included in Brian Stableford's ESF article, "Origin of Man," a succinct survey of the prehistoric genre, nor in Angenot and Khouri's International Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction (1981). But David Pringle mentions it in his Introduction to the 1999 Pulp Fictions edition of Henry Rider Haggard's Allan and the Ice Gods: "One of the new sub-genres which arose in that period was the tale of prehistory, the adventure story set in the remotest conceivable human past... Examples of the form include A Son of Noah by Mary Anderson (1893)...". And Jessica Salmonson, on her Violet Books web page "Lost Race Checklist": "Ante-deluvian setting; marginally lost race because of sequences about the son of Noah finding an advanced race who worship a pterodactyl." William Matthews, Bookseller & Serendipity Books offered a copy for sale on line (Jan. 3, 2000) described as "Ante-deluvian fantasy including the discovery of an advanced race who worship a pterodactyl," (possibly a rewording of Salmonson).

These descriptions all tend to create the impression that the novel is an example of Prehistoric Fiction and/or sci-fi, which (as shown below), it is not, and the (incorrect) references to pterodactyl worship and lost-race suggest that the novel is usually not read beyond the opening chapter. In fact, it is what the title suggests, a story of Noah's eldest son, a biblical adventure centering around Shem, in the time directly preceding the flood.

The story is framed in the first chapter, in which a souvenir brought back from an English couple's trip to Jerusalem is found to contain a scroll written in Hebrew, which their friend, a linguist, offers to translate. He discovers that "The narrative relates some of the doings of Shem, son of Noah, before the flood, and appears in the first instance to have been told by his wife to her children." He says it's not a part of the Bible. "These writings do not lay claim to inspiration. I should say that the story, which probably has some foundation of truth, was first put into writing about the time of the Maccabees. Before that period it was told verbally, and no doubt acquired various additions and alterations in transmission from one person to another." He makes a complete translation. "...I thought it desirable to keep to the Biblical phraseology, although I assure you I found it, at times, exceedingly trying." He explains to the wife, who had brought back the curio, his opinion of the creature called "Mashtak" in the narrative, "I should say it was undoubtedly the animal to which modern scientists have agreed to give the name of 'Pterodactyl,' and of which gigantic remains have been found in different places."

After the brief (11-page) introductory chapter, the remaining 307 pages of the book contain the 'translation,' "The story of Tirzah, wife of Shem, son of Noah."

The language resembles that of the King James translation of the Bible. A typical dialogue:

"Thou hast but newly come hither, and thou art weary with traveling. How then canst thou find strength to return again so speedily?"
"Lo, I am strong and I care not for the length of a journey. I will go and sleep now until thy people are ready and then shall I be ready likewise."
(Which probably helps explain why the book appears to be not often fully read!)

The novel is not Prehistoric Fiction — weapons are of iron, jewelery of gold and precious stones, an age of clothing, horse-drawn carriages, agriculture, houses... Rather it is Biblical fiction, essentially a moral tale. Many of the major characters are familiar from the Bible — Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japhet, and the 969-year-old Methuselah. The narrative ends with the Flood, and the escape by the Ark, of Noah and his family and the animals. With its Biblical emphasis, it is actually anti-Prehistoric (non-evolutionary), as can be seen in this section a few pages before the end:

"And Shem considered the living creatures that were before him, and amongst them he beheld many that were hitherto unknown to him. But there was not one like unto the Mashtak, seeing that he had been the last of his kind. Likewise there were sundry large beasts upon the earth which the servants of Noah had not been able to find when they went forth to seek for all the animals to drive them unto the Ark, therefore such creatures as they could not discover were destroyed in the waters of the deluge. And since that time there have been no beasts like unto them in all the world; howbeit their bones are to this day found hidden in caverns and in secret places, that the children of men may know what manner of beasts dwelt upon the earth in the time that was before the flood."

The Mashtak mentioned in this paragraph was a giant beast of the forest, which sometimes carried off men and ate them. It was eventually hunted down and killed by Shem. The professor's opinion in Chapter One was that it was a pterodactyl, though in the story it never flew, but ran through the forest. Contrary to the descriptions, it was not the beast 'Calvan' worshipped as a god by the Sarpis, which was apparently about the size of a crow, more like a kind of vampire bat. The Sarpis were not a "lost race," but a society of men turned to evil ways, particularly, cannibalism, the type of society which caused God to loose the flood upon the earth.

There are many good adventures in the 22 chapters, but the language is off-putting, as are to some extent, the "author's" affairs of the heart, as she disdains the love of the excellent Shem for that of a poor copy and enemy, until almost the end, when she realizes the folly of her ways, and escapes with Shem to the Ark where she becomes his bride, and they sail off to found a new world...

Steve Trussel
January 2001