The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Valdar the Oft-Born (1895)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Valdar the Oft-Born was written by “George Griffith,” the pseudonym of George Chetwynd Griffith Jones (1857-1906), a British journalist and prolific writer of adventure fiction, historical novels, and science fiction. Although not a good writer, he was extremely popular—for a time he was more popular and successful than H.G. Wells, who thought little of Griffith—and embodied many of the worst aspects of the imperial British world-view. Valdar the Oft-Born is an adequate heroic fantasy.

A man wakes up, fully grown, in Mesopotamia, with no memory. He is found by a band of Armenian warriors who make the mistake of attacking him, but because the man is so big (at least seven feet tall) and so strong (far stronger than ordinary humans) they fail to hurt him. They bring him to their fortress, Armen, where he meets Ilma, the beautiful queen of the Armenians. The man is told that he fulfills the prophecy that the “Son of the Stars” shall arrive and bring a day of glory for the “Children of the Sword.” The Armenians give the man the name “Terai,” and he falls in love with Ilma and fights for her against Nimrod and the armies of Nineveh. But at the moment of his triumph he dies. Terai awakens centuries later in Ashur and meets Tiglath-Peleser, and then travels and falls in love with Balkis, who is Ilma reincarnated. Terai, now called “Valdar,” and Balkis meet King Solomon and are eventually betrayed by Balkis’ sister Zillah. Valdar reincarnates in the time of Cleopatra and ends up fighting for her, but after she betrays him he spends thirty years wandering around Europe and Africa as a warrior before returning to the Middle East. Valdar sees Christ’s crucifixion and then dies, reincarnating centuries later as a goat herder who becomes one of Muhammad’s Companions. And so on through the ages, as Valdar meets and fights alongside or against Vikings, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Sir Francis Drake, and Napoleon. Valdar always meets and eventually loses Ilma. After Napoleon’s defeat, Valdar and Ilma grow old together, and by the end of the novel Love seems to have conquered both the Gods and Fate.

Valdar the Oft-Born falls into that category of heroic fantasy known as the “reincarnation fantasy,” which involves a hero reincarnating through the ages and meeting famous people in his various lifetimes. The classic example of the reincarnation fantasy is Edwin L. Arnold’s The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician, and Valdar was clearly written in the wake of Phra and was influenced by it. Phra is lighter and more entertaining than Valdar, but Valdar has virtues which Phra lacks. Griffith begins Valdar with Valdar’s mysterious appearance and his own ignorance of his past, so that the mystery of Valdar’s background lasts for several pages. This air of mystery, and Griffith’s refusal to hand all information to the reader, makes Valdar more intriguing, at least initially, than might be expected. For the first several chapters Valdar is an acceptable heroic fantasy with a more realistic historical atmosphere than Phra; Griffith’s history has (or seems to have) a greater level of detail and verisimilitude than Arnold’s. In these first chapters Valdar is colorful, quick-paced, and dense with incident. But as the book progresses the chapters grow longer, and Griffith’s skill is not sufficient to retain the reader’s interest through the longer chapters. The earlier segments are tighter and more interesting; the longer sections expose Griffith’s weaknesses at plotting and characterization.

With books like this there are often subtexts which add interest to the novel’s reading experience. There are only two in Valdar. The first is the occasional sneer at weak, degenerate Mediterranean types, such as the Greeks, in favor of the purity and strength at arms of Northern types, such as the English. This sort of nineteenth century racial viewpoint is not uncommon in English historical novels but seems as out of place in Valdar as it did in Phra the Phoenician. The second subtext is a remarkably even-handed treatment of Islam. When Valdar becomes one of Muhammad’s Companions and a warrior for Islam, Griffith recounts his exploits in an unblinking and notably non-ironic manner. Griffith treats Islam relatively respectfully and as the equal of Christianity, something surprising given the time when Valdar was written. There were certainly Muslims in Victorian England as well as Christian freethinkers whose treatment of Muslims and writing about Islam were comparatively friendly,1 and it’s possible that Griffith’s even-handed treatment of Islam was inspired by them rather than the preponderance of Victorian fiction and religious writing.

There are aspects of Valdar the Oft-Born which are of better quality than any in Phra the Phoenician, but Phra is much more readable and enjoyable.

Recommended Edition

Print: George Griffith, Valdar the Oft-Born. London: Forgotten Books, 2017.



1 See Ron Geaves, Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam (Markfield, UK: Kube Publishing, 2010) and especially Ghada Al Abbadi, “There Is A Wound in That Wall: Representations of Islam in Selected Works of Nineteenth-Century British Literature” (PhD diss., Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2012) for an introduction to these topics.