The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Lance of Kanana (1892)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Lance of Kanana was created by Harry W. French. French (1854-1915) wrote children's novels, books on art, and novels meant for adult readers. The Lance of Kanana is a novel written for children and young adults, both boys and girls, but it can be enjoyed by adults, even in the twenty-first century.
Kanana is a teenager, thirteen years old, of the Bedouin tribe of the Beni Sad. He lives during the years after the Faithful of Islam have swept across the desert and before Byzantium fell. He is the despair of his father, for he will not take up the sword and lance as any real man of the Beni Sad would. Kanana reasons that
I am taught that Allah created these animals and cares for them, and that I cannot please him if I allow them to suffer; it must be surely that men are more precious to Allan than animals. Why should we kill one another, even if we are Arabs and Ishamelites?1
This mystifies Kanana's father, the “Terror of the Desert” and Sheikh of the Beni Sad, who cannot understand why any son of his should believe in such rubbish. The other Beni Sad are similarly scornful of Kanana, who as a result is an outcast among them, despised and ignored, working as a shepherd rather than as a warrior. But one day Kanana's brother is captured, along with the caravan he was escorting, and the Sheikh reproaches Kanana over his brother’s capture. Kanana, who knew nothing of his brother's fate, vows to go and bring his brother back. The Sheikh his father disbelieves him, but Kanana swears it. Off Kanana goes, and through great cleverness and trickery he rescues his brother, who returns to his father Sheikh, riding on the top of the family’s white camel. Kanana meanwhile goes from adventure to adventure, helping first Caliph Omar of Mecca and then the great general Kahled. Kanana acts as a courier and scout, displaying bravery, loyalty and great ingenuity. Thanks to Kanana's efforts the invading army of the Byzantines is destroyed and all of Arabia is saved. Kanana eventually sacrifices himself so that Kahled can win the final battle with the Byzantines, but before Kanana dies he is greatly honored by his father, by the Beni Sad, by Caliph Omar, and by Kahled himself. For decades after his death “the name of Kanana is still a magic battle-cry among the sons of Ishmael.”2
The Lance of Kanana is one of those rare children's books which is as enjoyable to adults as it is to children and which can be read and reread with great pleasure. Kanana is not a mighty warrior, although he has the muscles of a shepherd. Rather, he achieves his great feats through an exceedingly sharp and clever mind, through careful observation and careful planning, and through an honest, straightforward personality. He is also kind, caring a great deal for the animals he shepherds and then rides. After making a three-week ride in two weeks, nearly killing himself in the process, his first words are for the dromedary he rode. Kanana is a great role model for a child, in other words, which is yet another reason why The Lance of Kanana would be a good book for any child to read. For adults, the book is well-written and smoothly told, with the pacing and diction of the best folktales. French goes into no great depth in his portrayal of Bedouin culture, but is a good enough writer to create an impression of familiarity, so that the reader, having finished Kanana, will feel that they are familiar with Bedu culture. The novel’s dialogue is straightforward but sharp, the action scenes suitably stirring without being bloodthirsty, and the characters quickly and expertly drawn. The Lance of Kanana is a quick, entertaining read, and for the right child or teenager could be one of the favorites of their life.
It should be noted, though, that French, while clearly intending to write favorably of the Beni Sad and the Bedu, nonetheless occasionally includes comments like “He knew that every Arab of the desert lived by a warfare that was simply murder and robbery.”3 Comments like these, even in a work otherwise sympathetic toward Arabs, were standard in children’s fiction for decades,4 and readers can be forgiven for thinking that The Lance of Kanana is no different than the many other anti-Arab children’s fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Lance of Kanana is not perfect in this regard, but on balance its portrayals of Kanana and his culture are both well-intended and well-executed for the time period in which the novel was written.
Print: Harry W. French, The Lance of Kanana. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.
1 Harry W. French, The Lance of Kanana (Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1920), 15-16.
2 French, The Lance of Kanana, 11-12.
3 French, The Lance of Kanana, 15.
4 Greta Little, “Representing Arabs: Reliance on the Past,” in Yahya R. Kamalipour and Theresa Carilli, eds., Cultural Diversity and the U.S. Media (Albany: State University of New York, 1998), 263 ff.