BY SEAN CLARK
Author: H. Rider Haggard
Public Domain, 1885
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King Solomon’s Mines is a late nineteenth century adventure story. I picked it up on a whim from Project Gutenberg. I used to read a lot of adventure stories and Hardy Boys books when I was young, so I thought a story of this type would be a nice change of pace from the more involving books I’ve been reading this summer. A little more Shaka Zulu than Indiana Jones, Haggard’s story delivers a fine adventure, though its age and flaws are evident.
Allan Quartermain is a British ivory hunter in Africa. Apparently Quartermain is a recurring character in Haggard’s novels, although there is little to suggest this in the book. (This is actually a good thing as it adds to the adventure of a lifetime feeling that Quartermain ballyhoos in his narration.)
Quartermain is hired to lead an expedition across the desert in a search and rescue for the missing brother of English aristocrat Sir Henry Curtis. Sir Henry’s brother disappeared while seeking the fabled diamond mine hidden in the African wilds. By sheer coincidence, Quartermain happens to have a map to the mine (scrawled on a tattered cloth by a dying Portuguese treasure hunter 300 years prior). The map was given to him by a lost and thirsty traveler he came across while on a hunting expedition. Quartermain doesn’t believe in the stories of the mine, but he agrees to the trip when Sir Henry promises a monetary allowance for the hunter’s son in Britain.
Unfortunately, coincidence plays far too large a role in this book. Haggard is not a subtle plotter at all. I won’t spoil the surprises, but it became a reasonable expectation while I was reading that each perilous situation that arose as the adventure moved from one place to the next would be resolved in part by fortune, usually of the most convenient variety.
The other noticable flaw in the book as it reads today is certainly a product of its age. This novel was written from a Victorian colonialist perspective, and this presents many cringe-worthy moments involving musings on racial roles. There’s a great deal of primitivist commentary, and plenty of many rather distateful observations of the “kaffir savages” and their ways of life. At one point the white adventures convince an African tribe they are gods from the stars, proving their magic through shooting their guns and by predicting an eclipse–the most convenient of the coincidences. They take part in a tribal civil war, and the non-fatal injury of a white man is treated with much more gravity than the death of 10,000 or so (by Quartermain’s count) tribal warriors.
Unlike in some great old books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this racism is presented merely as a matter of fact not only by the characters but by the narration, which tarnishes things a bit in a modern context. It is not vicious though, and the book is very old, so it doesn’t ruin things. There is some nice writing to be found as well, which helps temper any frustration that arises with the narration:
Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable elements of individual life, which having once been, can never die, though they blend and change, and change again forever.
If you blow off the dust and forgive the plotting shortcuts and aged racism, you’ll find a fun and engaging adventure story. King Solomon’s Mines has plenty of tribal battles, fights with elephants, life-threatening desert crossings, tomb raiding, buried treasure, and ancient mysteries to keep a reader happily engaged from start to finish. Fans of adventure stories and classic stories will almost certainly enjoy this book. (Note: I’ve labeled this Young Adult for our reviews because it is of the Boys’ Life stories ilk, however be warned that at times this book gets quite violent and graphic.)