King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard (1885)

20 July 2012

Henry Rider Haggard, age 29, was on a train journey with his brother. He was back in England after a five years’ sojourn in South Africa and the two were discussing the merits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, still wildly popular after its publication in 1883. Henry says, “Oh there’s nothing special about the book, really.” His brother says, “Well I bet you five bob you can’t write something better.” So Henry sat down and wrote King Solomon’s Mines in 12 weeks, for a bet. It was published in 1887 by Cassels, the same firm who had published Treasure Island, and has gone on to become one of the great classics of adventure fiction, and one of the great bestsellers, of all time.

Reading King Solomon’s Mines in 2012 is rewarding on a number of levels:

Identifying with the hero At the simplest level it’s a boy’s own adventure, full of thrills and spills designed to test and exercise and reassure the white adolescent male reader: the men are strong and heroic; they survive extreme physical tests; they triumph against overwhelming odds; some natives are trustworthy unto death; others are cruel savages who must be tamed; there are no white women (‘petticoats’ as Haggard calls them) to distract our heroes; though there are plenty of ‘preposessing’ and scantily clad African maidens! There is treasure beyond counting! Vicariously, the reader experiences all these excitements, and triumphs and lives.

It is fiction at its most primitive: total identification with the Hero Who Overcomes.

The gang Except there isn’t just one hero; it is about a gang with attractive attributes distributed among them. Thus the (male) reader can choose whether to identify with Quatermain, experienced, self-deprecating; Henry Curtis, a lion of man, the pick of the white race, a heroic Englishman; Captain Good, a comedy figure, running to fat, wearing his comedy eyeglass, eternally fussing about his clothes and with a weakness for the fairer sex; or the brave and physically superb Zulu, Umbopa. For some reason the combination of the plucky with the comic, and the idea of a small group of heroes,  reminds me of Tintin (and also because the plot hinges on our heroes impressing the natives by predicting a solar eclipse, as Tintin does in ‘Prisoners of the Sun‘).

The Plot On board ship to Durban, South Africa, Quatermain, an ageing but hardy African hunter, is introduced to a giant of a man, Sir Henry Curtis and his ex-navy sidekick Captain Good, who are seeking Curtis’ brother who disappeared into the African interior two years previously in search of a legendary kingdom. Quatermain just happens to have come into possession of a map of the route, years earlier, from a dying Portuguese explorer. And so the three team up and set off, accompanied by some ill-fated Kaffir helpers and the striking Zulu, Umbopa, who is to play a key role in the plot. You can read the book, free, on Project Gutenberg.

Tone and humour The text isn’t as dated as you’d expect. It is kept fresh by the rhythm and pacing of Haggard’s plot, moving confidently from one tense action scene to another. And it is written in an open, serviceable prose, very unlike the clotted Latinate phrasing of ‘literary’ authors of the time. The prose is frequently adorned with hilariously over-the-top poetic descriptions of the African scenery or 5th form thoughts about the meaning of Life. And Haggard’s  good humour (English and self-deprecating and often schoolboyish) comes through in every line:

       I shook my head and looked again at the sleeping men, and to my tired and yet excited imagination it seemed as though death had already touched them… All sorts of reflections of this sort passed through my mind – for as I get older I regret to say that a detestable habit of thinking seems to be getting a hold of me – while I stood and stared at those grim yet fantastic lines of warriors sleeping.

       ‘Curtis,’ I said to Sir Henry, ‘I am in a condition of pitiable funk.’

Not as racist as expected Haggard’s attitude to Africans is noticeably sympathetic. Early on he says he’s met plenty of blacks who are true gentlemen and plenty of whites who are not – and many overtly heroic deeds are performed by Kaffirs and blacks. One black servant dies very nobly saving Good from a rampaging elephant. And Umbopa the Zulu grows in regal stature throughout the book. When the adventurers come among the lost people of Kikuana land the black natives are highly differentiated; the king Twala may be a sadistic tyrant, the crone Gagoola an uncanny witch, but the maidens who attend them are courteous and beautiful and other leading Kikuaners like Ignosi are honest and valiant. The point is Haggard depicts blacks as variegated individuals, nothing like the appalling racism found among, say, the Boers of the same time and place.

Imperialism of the imagination Nonetheless, whatever Quatermain’s sympathy for and admiration of native Africans, it is crystal clear that the white Englishmen have an innate superiority over all natives, all women and indeed all other white men. White Englishmen just are naturally superior, why else would the British Empire be the greatest the world had ever seen? Reading this as a white Englishman it is hard to resist the repeated signals in the text as to my superiority. I can smile at its naivety but it still tugs at my imagination. The text flatters me. I can well imagine all women and non-white people finding this pretty tedious, if not offensive. The inscription to the sequel, Allan Quatermain, says it all:

I inscribe this book of adventure to my son ARTHUR JOHN RIDER
HAGGARD in the hope that in days to come he, and many other
boys whom I shall never know, may, in the acts and thoughts of
Allan Quatermain and his companions, as herein recorded,
find something to help him and them to reach to what, with Sir
Henry Curtis, I hold to be the highest rank whereto we can
attain — the state and dignity of English gentlemen.

Women One stereotype which is conspicuous by its absence is there are no white women at all in the book. Scantily clad African women, yes, but no ‘petticoats’, as Haggard puts it. Presumably this reflected the physical reality of the time – reading Kipling’s frontier stories, there was continual warfare with native tribes and the Zulu Wars in South Africa had only just ended. It’s dangerous frontier territory.

But it’s striking how all the screen versions of KSM do include women, as love interest and as ‘terror-prompts’ ie woman cornered by fierce beast/dinosaur/native who has to be rescued by gallant white hero. What does the addition of the Woman In Peril cliche – not necessary in 1885 but indispensable from the 1920s onwards, up to and including Romancing The Stone and Indiana Jones – tell us about the 20th century, and about us?

King Solomon’s Influence The biggest obstacle to reading the text is the fact that I seemed to have read or seen so much of it before. This book has been copied in scores of other novels, films, TV dramas and comics. What must have been extraordinary incidents to its original audience have been worn smooth by over a century of assimilation. Just one example, the treasure chamber is entered by a massive rising & descending stone door; while our heroes are distracted by the chests full of treasure, the wicked crone Gagool triggers the lowering mechanism in order to trap them; she stabs the (prepossessing) serving maid who has accompanied them to the chamber and makes to escape but the dying maiden grabs her foot and so the crone tries desperately to wriggle free even as the vast doorway slowly descends until it gruesomely (and noisily) squashes her to a pulp.

In how many films and TV dramas have you seen a mechanical doorway inexorably descending as a protagonist tries to slip under it to safety? Was this the first time this trope, this meme, this cliche, was ever used?

Stereotypes One of the great pleasures of reading King Solomon’s Mines is in savouring the gorgeous tapestry of cliches and stereotypes. The whole text is built of cliches. Possibly the text could be represented visually as sets of overlapping boxes or diagrams, each containing a plot or character device. They’re like jigsaw pieces laid out at the start of the text, which are then dovetailed together as the plot unravels, with satisfying clicks. Everything about it seems familiar:

  • the brave band of adventurers
  • the Quest to an Unknown Land
  • the plucky native assistants who one by one are picked off in mishaps
  • our heroes almost dying in the desert ie pushed to the limits of human endurance
  • their sudden arrival in a land of plenty and marvels
  • the mysterious carvings on the mysterious road
  • the way they fool the tall, strong blacks who suddenly surround them that they are gods ‘come from the stars’
  • the cruel leader of the lost tribe (Twala) who suspects they are ordinary men after all

On and on it goes, every element seeming familiar as if from a dream, and in fact from hundreds of films, TV series, comics which I consumed avidly as a boy. If Haggard really is the source of these scores and scores of climactic scenes and sensational scenarios, then he’s one of the most influential writers of all time, his adventure memes a permanent part of the pulp imagination of all of us.

Conclusion There are so many superficial reasons for objecting to King Solomon’s Mines (the casual racism, the sexism, the violence) that there is, ultimately, no point objecting. Either you buy into the conventions of a genre or you don’t. If you know you’re going to see an adventure movie, don’t be upset if it features strong heroes, cowardly baddies, damsels in distress in exotic foreign locations populated by unreliable locals. The interest is in feeling Haggard shape and develop the stories, stereotypes and cliches which were to help form the popular imagination of our culture. Without Allan Quatermain – no Indiana Jones.

Illustration of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’

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