Henderson the Rain King Summary, Review PDF

Henderson the Rain King is a 1959 novel by Saul Bellow, whose blend of philosophical discourse and comic adventure has made the book one of his most popular works.

It is considered Bellow’s favorite of his books.

It was ranked 21st on Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels in English.

You may be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

At the end of this book summary, I’ll also tell you the best way to get rich by reading and writing

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Henderson the Rain King Book Summary

Henderson felt restless. Although he had inherited all the money he could possibly want, he still heard an inner voice saying, “I want, I want, I want.” A large, hefty man, Henderson increasingly bullied his wife and children.

Soon Henderson’s growing discontent led him to embark on a trip to Africa, along with his recently married friend, Charlie Albert. However, sightseeing with Charlie and his new bride proved unsatisfactory; their photo safari was too “safe” for Henderson. So he hired a guide named Romilayu and struck out on his own, heading deep into the jungle. “Geographically speaking I didn’t have the remotest idea where we were, and I didn’t care too much.”

One morning Henderson and Romilayu followed a dry riverbed to the rustic village of Arnewi, where Henderson was surprised to find most of the villagers weeping – “mourning for cattle which had died in the drought.”

The two of them were escorted to the Arnewi king, Itelo, and Henderson was impressed: “From his size alone I felt he must be an important person.” He was a little disappointed, though, when the king addressed him in English, explaining that he had traveled to school with another young prince named Dahfu, from the Wariri tribe, and there they had learned English. Itelo then insisted that his new guest must go to meet Queen Willatale, Itelo’s aunt.

As the procession made its way to the aunt’s hut, Henderson caught a glimpse of a sizeable cistern, filled with water. At first he was bewildered. What about all the cattle dead of thirst? But on closer examination he discovered the water was alive with thousands of frogs. “The frogs? They kept you from watering the cattle?” he asked Itelo. Itelo nodded: “Mus’ be no ahnimal in drink wattah.” As they continued on to their appointment, Henderson muttered, “Just you wait, you little sons of bitches, you’ll croak in hell before I’m done.”

Before introducing Henderson to his aunt, Itelo explained that one matter of business had to first be taken care of: “When stranger guest comes we always make acquaintance by wrestle. Invariable.” Henderson demurred, but Itelo insisted. So they squared off, and, in spite of Henderson’s age, he won the bout. Itelo, though the village champion, accepted defeat graciously. Now he could say to Henderson, “I know you.”

Itelo’s Aunt Willatale was wrapped in a regal-looking lion skin when the party arrived. With Itelo interpreting, Henderson explained to Willatale why he was in Africa; he was sick – not physically, but mentally. The queen nodded, telling Henderson that he had what the Arnewi called “grun-tu-molani, man want to live.” Pleased, Henderson promised her majesty that he would rid the village of its frogs.

Henderson decided that it would be best to blow up the frogs. All night long he assembled his “bomb”: an empty flashlight, gunpowder, and a fuse cut from a lighter’s wick. The next morning he went to the cistern and, with all the tribesmen gathered around, lobbed the contraption into the water. Henderson let out a “Hallelujah!” as frogs flew from the opening. But then, hearing “shrieks from the natives … I found that the dead frogs were pouring out of the cistern together with the water. The explosion had blasted out the retaining wall at the front end.” Henderson was aghast. Itelo at once suggested that it would be a good idea if Henderson left, so he hastily collected his belongings and, together with Romilayu, set out for the village of the Wariri.

Some ten days into their new journey, the duo was ambushed by a group of gun-toting tribesmen and led, providentially, to the very Wariri village they had been looking for. They were questioned, then placed in a guarded hut.

The next day two strong, fierce-looking women conducted Henderson to King Dahfu, lounging on an old green sofa and fingering several ornamental skulls that sat before him. “Do not feel alarm,” Dahfu said. “These are for employment in the ceremony of this afternoon.”

Henderson became Dahfu’s honored guest at the ceremony, the purpose of which was to bring desperately needed rain to the Wariri. Large wooden idols were carted in and placed in the middle of an arena. Then after several gun salutes to Dahfu and Henderson, Dahfu and a tall woman met in the arena. They began tossing two of the skulls back and forth, using tied ribbons as handholds and flinging them to great heights. Afterwards, Henderson asked Dahfu what would have happened if one of the skulls had been dropped. “My own skull will get the air,” was his candid reply.

Next, attention turned to the wooden gods in the center of the arena. Tribal members advanced one by one to pick up a heavy idol and move it away. Henderson cheered along with the others as each icon was muscled and hoisted. At length, only one remained – Mummah, goddess of the clouds. The strongest man in the village could not raise her. Excited, Henderson turned to the king and stammered, “Sir, sire, I mean … let me! I must.” Dahfu gave him permission to try, but warned that there might be consequences, no matter the outcome. “Never hesitating, I encircled Mummah with my arms. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. The wood gave to my pressure and benevolent Mummah with her fixed smile yielded to me; I lifted her from the ground and carried her twenty feet to her new place among the other gods.”

Almost on cue, the sky filled with clouds and it began to rain. Dahfu declared that Henderson was now the respected “Sungo” of the Wariri tribe. The new Sungo was taken and forced to run naked through the town, blessing the water; then he was returned to the arena, where he was made to beat the gods with whips. As the ceremony drew to a close, Henderson, overcome by exhaustion and fever, passed out.

The next morning Dahfu explained to Henderson his duties, which included wearing flimsy green shorts. Dahfu also clarified his own position in the tribe: he was not yet the king. After his father Gmilo died, the tribe’s priest, following an age-old tribal myth, had pulled a maggot off the corpse and declared that the maggot was now mystically transformed into a lion cub. Before Dahfu could take his father’s place as king, he must capture this full grown lion (named Gmilo, after Gmilo’s own father). Instead of capturing the beast, however, Dahfu on an earlier attempt had captured a lioness, which he kept beneath the palace.

The friendship between Henderson and Dahfu grew. Henderson learned much from the prince; and Dahfu felt free to discuss important matters with Henderson that he could not discuss with the men of his tribe. Together they spent most afternoons beneath the palace with the lioness, Atti. At first, Henderson kept his distance while Dahfu rubbed and stroked Atti; but soon he was coaxed into moving closer. “Fear is the ruler of mankind,” Dahfu theorized. Though Henderson did not like these sessions with the lioness, he endured them because he did not want to lose his friend’s admiration.

One day Dahfu announced that Gmilo had been spotted near the village. If he captured the lion, he would be able to claim kingship.

The Wariri fashioned a trap called a “hopo” and then sent out drumbeaters to drive the lion into the hopo. Once he was inside, the entrance was blocked and the would-be king, standing on a catwalk, tried to drop a net on the lion. However, as Dahfu lowered his net, something went wrong. Dahfu leaped from the platform to readjust the net, but fell onto the lion instead. “The claws tore. Instantly there came blood.” Prince Dahfu rolled away, and with his dying breath pronounced Henderson the new Wariri king.

Only Henderson’s grief for the loss of his friend could overshadow his distress at becoming king.

Again, guards locked him up with the faithful Romilayu – this time in a hut next to Dahfu’s sepulcher; but Henderson was determined to break out. As the tribal priest waited for the mystical maggot to appear on Dahfu’s corpse, so that it could be plucked and transformed into a lion cub (a cub conveniently held by a tribesman near the tomb), Henderson planned his escape.

When night came, Romilayu let out a shout, screaming that the Sungo had been bitten by a snake. As the guards rushed in, Henderson bolted out, snatched the lion cub from the arms of the stunned tribesman, and dashed into the shadows.

Traveling at night to avoid being seen, and foraging for grubs and roots during the day, Henderson felt his fever worsening. He charged Romilayu to care for the cub while he recuperated: “This is Dahfu to me. Don’t let anything happen, please, Romilayu. It would ruin me now.”

Eventually reaching civilization, Henderson recovered his strength and prepared for his trek home. He gave many gifts to Romilayu and bid him a tearful goodbye. Arriving in Ethiopia, he boarded a plane bound for Europe; and from Europe, headed for America, where his wife and children were waiting.

When the plane landed to refuel in wintry Newfoundland, Henderson got off to stretch. The cold air “was like medicine applied, a remedy.” At last, with the young lion in tow, Henderson greeted his family. Once again he was safe and sound – and a little saner.

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Henderson the Rain King Book Review

For his fiction, Saul Bellow has received the Nobel Prize in Literature, the National Book Award, and the International Literary Prize (the first for an American). He received his college degree in Anthropology, a fact that is evident in Henderson The Rain King.

This novel is written in a bizarre, swift narrative. Its mixture of eccentric comedy, tribal superstition and imaginative detail, together with a hero who combines the qualities of both Don Quixote and Odysseus, make the novel a likely future classic.

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