Sunday, April 21, 2013
King Solomon's Mines (1885) by H. Rider Haggard
King Solomon's Mines was the first English adventure novel to be set in Africa. Fortunately, it was written by a man who had spent considerable time in Africa and had extensive contact with native Africans. Because of this his Africa has the realistic feel of an actual place, unlike the fantasy Africa later presented by Edgar Rice Burroughs and so many others. While Haggard's colonialist attitudes are obvious, he presented the natives as actual human beings as opposed to the stereotypes so common in later literature of the period.
The hero of the novel is big game hunter Allan Quatermain, who became very popular and returned to star in a whole series of stories. He is remembered now, if at all, mostly through film adaptations. Allan did not fare well in the movies. The Quatermain from the movies is a far cry from the novel's short, grizzled, fifty-five year old with false teeth. As a matter of fact, Quatermain from the novel is a humble, plain-spoken man who is not even particularly heroic. One can't help but like Allan, despite his unfortunate habit of slaughtering whole herds of elephants.
Quatermain is hired by Sir Henry Curtis to find his missing brother, who was last seen searching for the legendary King Solomon's Mines. As it turns out, Allan Quatermain was the last to have word of this brother. He also happened to own a map to the mysterious Kukuanaland, where the mines were said to be. Allan was not very eager to set out on this adventure, since he didn't think any of them would live through it, but since Curtis promised to leave money to Allan's only son he agreed. They were accompanied by Captain Good, a likable fellow who functions as comedy relief, and the noble African Umbopa. After a series of harrowing adventures they make it (barely) to Kukuanaland where they become involved in a bloody revolution among the natives. They encounter dastardly villains, harrowing dangers and loyal allies.
Probably the most interesting thing about this book is Haggard's presentation of English colonialism. He seemed to view it as natural and desirable that England should rule over the native African cultures. At the same time, having known natives personally, he recognized that they were as human as he was and he presented them as such. His Africans were complex individuals who were sometimes heroic and sometimes villainous. Umbopa, a character as important as any other in this story, is a perfect example of this. While Quatermain is constantly annoyed by Umbopa's attitude toward the white men, this is only because Umbopa has no doubt that he is their equal. We are lucky that Haggard did not have the hateful racist attitudes of so many of his many imitators.
Of course, while it is much more than mere escapist fiction, King Solomon's Mines does work wonderfully as a pure adventure novel. It has a tremendous sense of pace and deftly-written action scenes. The characters in the novel are all finely drawn and come across as actual people. The style is straightforward and unadorned. Most of the dialogue is realistic, though the natives tend to speak as if they just walked out of the King James Bible.
This book spawned a whole genre of "lost world" novels. Authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard were all deeply influenced by Haggard. Haggard himself continued in this vein and wrote dozens of adventure novels. Many were very good, though eventually he started to repeat himself somewhat. King Solomon's Mines is the great original and is well worth the time of any adventure fan.