Sunday, January 25, 2015

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Why I Read It: Had to remember how they laid out the whole lunar eclipse thing, having read it in college.

Summary: An adventurer joins a party looking for a man lost in Africa, and ends up wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but only after much, much more adventure!

My Thoughts: So, we have to put ourselves in 1885 when we read this book. Cool. I dig mental time travel. I can do that.

We have to not only take with a grain of salt the simplicity of the tale compared with today's standards, we have to also live with the fact that this was a man's adventure. Although Allen Quatermain, our hero, from time to time surprises us with a slightly open view of the world (hinting that he would accept a mixed black/white relationship while the rest of the world might not be ready for it), there are no women involved in the story as far as the main effort goes. There are witches, there is Gagool, and there are young handmaidens of the fairest kind, but there is no heroine.

We also have to remember the excitement the "opening" of Africa meant in the 19th century. We have to remember that popular adventure fiction was generally young. In fact, this book kicked off the "Lost World" genre. Suspension of disbelief was in its infancy in the English-speaking nations (though I would say that anybody who had their hands on a copy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from 1818 was probably already in practice).

So what sticks today? The names, for one. What a fantastic job by Haggard! "Allen Quatermain" sounds like a man wearing cargo shorts and a pith helmet. Sir Henry and Captain Good as companions round out the British trio. They may as well have been in the opening scene of a Commander McBragg cartoon ("Quite.") Umbopa becomes Ignosi, the names of the man who returns to become king of Kukuanaland (all great names!), and the evil witch doctoress Gagool, well, doesn't it just send shivers right up your spine? The only name of which I wasn't really enamored was Twala, the reigning king, who just didn't seem evil enough, but his son more than makes up for it. Would you trust someone named Scragga?

Then, there is the total manliness of the story: plunging headlong into the journey knowing it would end on the death of all three; survival against all odds; donning ancient chain mail to participate in an epic battle that reshapes the world of the Kukuanas; the overthrow and installation of kings; the search for the treasure; the blatant use of sexual imagery (pointing to two distant mountains and calling them Sheba's Breasts, then charging into a cave at the base of them); the dramatic manner in which two of the three native guides die; the ruse of pretending to be from the stars, and happening to be in the exact right place for viewing a total lunar eclipse when you're in need of a sign of your other-worldliness; being trapped by Gagool in the mines, getting down to a single ignitable match, then finding your way out in the darkness; I could go on. About halfway through the story you just learn that anything is possible.

Man, do I love this story. It's so deep that I don't think I'll bother to ever watch a movie rendition. Why ruin it?


  1. I started reading this to my boys several years ago when we were on vacation in Maine, but for some reason we never finished it. It may be that we left it in Maine to finish the next time we were there and then just didn't.

    Somewhat similar in style to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World". Loved that one. We've also enjoyed books by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

    The H.G. Wells "The Time Machine" got me thinking about a book (or what I thought was a book) that I read as a kid about a man who travels back in time and steps off a boardwalk and crushes a butterfly. When he returns to the present, he finds things have changed. I finally tracked that story down and found it was a short story called "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury. Funny what you remember reading when you were younger.

    I think I am going to have to get King Solomon's Mines back out. Thanks for the reminder.


  2. BTW, hoping you and your family are okay in this storm. I know you are in area that got pretty hard hit. We got off pretty light compared to what they predicted.


  3. We got slammed by the storm, but will get on with life tomorrow. No injuries, no damage, just tons of snow in the yard and around the property.

    As for the book, yes, this was the one that started that whole Lost World genre, as I stated above. Even Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King is counted among the books within it, another or my old-time favorites. I think there's a bit of expectation I have going into these titles of hokiness, and I love it. I love to laugh at what to some must have seemed hair-raising. We've been so desensitized as readers, little of what is old shocks us, but it's the plot twists that are simply symbolic of excellent writing. This book and Tarzan are full of them. I think I'm just a sucker for Victorian adventure tales :)