Sir Henry Rider Haggard was one of the most successful writers of adventure stories in the late 19th and early 20th century. His most popular novels are King Solomon’s Mines (first published in 1885), which I am reviewing here, and several sequels which describe other adventures of the hero/narrator Allan Quatermain.
Quatermain is a British hunter/adventurer who spent most of his adult life in the wilder parts of South Africa, a region that had recently gained much public interest at the time the novel was published, following the media hype around the Livingstone/Stanley encounter, and also as a result of the growing tension between the British and the Boer settlers who had created their own republics in South Africa. The novel we are reading is disguised as a report of Quatermain to his son, who is studying medicine in England.
While we learn en passant a bit about Quatermain’s life as an elephant hunter – he is killing them for the ivory -, it becomes soon clear that the meeting with the Englishman Sir Henry Curtis and his friend Captain John Good, and the adventures the three men will encounter, are the core of the book.
Sir Henry’s only brother and living relative has disappeared in an unexplored area in South Africa, while searching for the legendary mines of King Solomon, where according to some old legends and a dubious map by an old Portuguese explorer, an incredible wealth of diamonds is waiting for its discoverer. After some deliberation, Quatermain agrees to guide the men across the desert and the mountain range that isolate the valley in which the mines are supposed to be located, from the region from which the group is embarking; with his knowledge of the area and its dangers, his experience in logistically planning such an endeavour, and his knowledge of local languages and habits of the different indigenous tribes, Quatermain is the only man at hand to guarantee at least a dim chance to find the missing brother of Sir Henry and the legendary diamond mines. After the necessary equipment is bought and several locals are hired as support staff, the expedition into the unknown starts. (A rather odd fellow, Umbopa, is joining them in the last moment, and – as becomes clear later on -, he has his own hidden agenda.)
What follows are encounters with wild and dangerous animals, with extreme heat and cold, lack of food and life-threatening thirst and many more adventures, such as the uncanny encounter with the skeleton of the old Portuguese explorer in a cave. But finally, the group is descending the mountain range and is entering a “Lost World”, an indigenous culture that was obviously exposed hundreds of years ago to the influence of a highly developed culture from the North, but that has completely lived in isolation ever since. Finally it is revealed that Umbopa is in fact the legitimate contender to the crown of Kukanaland, Ignosi, which is now governed by the cruel and despotic King Twala, his uncle. Twala, together with his even more cruel son Scragga and the old witch Gagool have established a rule of exemplary cruelty, and a bigger part of the novel is describing the preparations and the execution of the big witch hunt festival that every year leads to the arbitrary killing of many innocent people.
Quatermain, Curtis and Good are drawn into the conflict between Umbopa/Ignosi and military units loyal to him and those part of the armed tribesmen that remain supporters of Twala. A fierce and bloody battle ensues between the two parties, which ends in a blood bath but finally Umbopa/Ignosi gains the upper hand and can finally establish his legitimate rule. The journey to the Mines of King Solomon is still ahead of the group, and the question of the fate of Sir Henry’s brother remains still to be resolved. More adventures are waiting for the men, and you better read about them by yourself…
Did I enjoy the book? Yes, because Rider Haggard knows how to spin a yarn and how to keep the interest of the reader. In my younger years, I read a lot of such adventure stories, and although the reader knows already in the beginning that the book ends well (after all, Quatermain obviously survived the adventure, otherwise he couldn’t have written the account for his son in Engalnd), the book contains quite a number of surprises and unexpected twists and turns that will keep you entertained. There are also humorous moments, for which mainly Captain Good with his eye glass, his starched white collars, and white legs is responsible. Although Quatermain’s world is a man’s world, there is also an encounter with a young local beauty, Foulata, but the unfolding love story with Good ends tragic.
Rider Haggard who had lived himself several years in South Africa, was of course a Victorian and an imperialist. The superiority of the White Race, and particularly the British over the local tribes is expressed implicitly and explicitly. But by late 19th century standard, Rider Haggard may be described as a rather benevolent man in his attitude regarding the natives, and all three main ‘white’ characters show remarkable empathy on more than one occasion. Umbopa especially, who is not only of royal blood but also in other respect a very remarkable man, is accepted more and more as an equal, and the high degree of social organisation Quatermain and his companions encounter in Kukuanaland provides also some interesting lessons for the British, for example:
“Indeed, in Kukuanaland, as among the Germans, the Zulus, and the Masai, every able-bodied man is a soldier, so that the whole force of the nation is available for its wars, offensive or defensive.”
Yes, even from such primitive tribes, the British could learn a thing or two, seems to be Rider Haggard’s message to his readers here…
Another paragraph that made me cringe was the description of a massacre of an elephant herd; while on a quest to find Curtis’ brother, they encounter a large group of elephants, and Quatermain decides to hunt them, because it would be ‘unethical’ not to do so…yes, not to kill as many elephants as possible would be ‘unethical’ – I had to read that revolting paragraph twice…
As for poor Foulata, who so devotedly took care of the seriously wounded Good: Quatermain, who speaks highly of the qualities of the girl, seems to be quite relieved that she died – imagine the complications if she and Good would have started a relationship! (As an aside: I am not sure how many readers at Rider Haggard’s times were consciously aware of the obvious homoerotic attraction between Quatermain and the younger men.)
Rider Haggard was a child of his time, and some of his views are for readers of today rather unsupportable; but that’s actually true for a lot of the literature of the past. And once you as a reader accept this limitation, you can still feel entertained by his writing. So, all in all, this was not my most favourite book of all times, but it was OK as a quick read without great literary pretensions in between plenty of more ambitious books on my TBR shelf.
Henry Rider Haggard: King Solomon’s Mines, Collins Classics 2013
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