Thursday, June 2, 2011

H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines (1885)

H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925)
I can think of few less qualified than myself to be writing today about H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. The book is curious in a lot of ways (a) as a book-publishing phenomenon (b) as a historical document from the high tide of the British Empire, (c) as an example of colonialism, (d) as a work of the imagination, (e) as an artifact of popular culture, (f) as a study in racialism, (g) as myth, (h) as the origin of a narrative genre, (i) as the first appearance of a literary hero, (j) as geography, (k) as a travel book, (l) as crackerjack storytelling, (m) and so on.

If this were a game of hearts, I’m not holding a long suit with enough of those high cards. About all I can do is ramble on here in a way that I hope doesn’t seem like a complete waste of time to anyone reading this. 

Map of southern Africa, 1818
Context. For starters, I see that Haggard was a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. As the story goes, Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines on a bet with his brother that he could write a novel that would stand comparison with Treasure Island. So, right off, we see how it fits into a pattern of public interest in stories about adventures in far-off places.

The American equivalent would be the growing interest in the frontier at roughly the same time. In the popular press of the mid-1880s, it was seen as a violent, lawless, inhospitable land peopled by savages. Popular western fiction rolling off the presses preserved that picture as the new century dawned 15 years later.

Adventure in both cases involved treks on horseback or on foot across these forbidding, dangerous, and crudely mapped territories. They also meant planting the seeds of civilized values wherever they might grow among superstitious and godless heathen. Advanced weaponry was there to enforce compliance or eliminate resistance.

Whether in person or from the pages of a book, the Western imagination thus colonized the expanding margins of the empire. And Haggard’s novel shows how that process works. On the one hand, there was an audience ready for this story – on the other was the way Haggard showed readers how to imagine the African interior. 

Pre-postcolonialism. So the colonizing worked both ways. Haggard planted notions about the Dark Continent that persisted in popular culture for at least 100 years. I certainly recognize many of them from jungle movies of the 1940s and 1950s. About the only one missing is the device of boiling someone in a big pot over a fire.

The colonized imagination is populated by what Ralph Ellison called “invisible” men. Instead of flesh-and-blood people of another color, it sees phantoms fed by fears from its own heart of darkness. We can thank Haggard for some of that, but how was he to know that an obviously far-fetched tale would be taken as truth?

One other thing, I also grew up at a time when celebrity big game hunting was covered in the popular media. Ernest Hemingway used to show up in photo magazines like Life and Look posing with high-powered rifles next to the corpses of what would become endangered species.

Some in the reading group have already raised these issues, and I don’t want to belabor them. The colonialism of King Solomon’s Mines seems fairly benign taken out of context. And there are those who argue that any racist attitudes in the novel are softened by the respect Quartermain shows for the natives and the mixed-race love affair between Good and Foulata.

It’s possible that Haggard’s own sojourn in South Africa (1875-1882) gave him a more enlightened view of the native inhabitants. However, given my own experience with bias, I’d have to say there’s never any guarantee of that. Seeing is believing, but people see what they want to see. 

Hard sell. Haggard apparently had trouble finding a publisher for his novel. That would mean editors were turning him down because they were out of touch with public demand. I’m guessing that the storytelling may have seemed a tad clumsy. It’s a tale told in first-person, with awkward devices intended to make it seem like a record of an actual adventure.

The narrator skips parts of the trip, for instance, because nothing noteworthy supposedly happens in them. Yet he happily digresses into descriptions of hunting, killing, and eating game. At one point, he says he’s writing this for his son, who is a schoolboy in England. And there are footnotes meant to provide a kind of editorial gloss on the text.

There’s also an erotic dimension to the story that may have left Victorian-era editors feeling uneasy. The map featuring the story’s twin peaks, Sheba’s Breasts, makes the trek to Kuanaland like a journey across the trunk of a massive woman’s torso.

Then the dark mysteries of sex pervade the warm, lush jungle, where an evil king and an ageless crone revel in brutality. Bloody death stalks the ranks of handsomely built men, and beautiful women are objects of sacrifice. This is steamy stuff for an era committed to propriety. 

H. Rider Haggard, 1887
Heroics. Finally, there is Quartermain himself, and he’s an interesting creation. There’s this curious note of desperation when we first meet him. He makes an all-or-nothing gamble with his life, believing that he will lose the bet. His chief purpose in agreeing to go on this suicidal adventure is to make a financial deal that would provide for his son.

The most physically heroic of the trio of men is Sir Henry, and Good is the one who finds true love. Quartermain’s main achievement is that, against the odds, he survives. He also manages to bring home enough diamonds to forget his money worries. But from the beginning to nearly the end, he’s the first to admit that he has his doubts about himself and the whole enterprise.

He’s a reluctant hero often breaking out in a cold sweat and shaking in his boots. I’ve not read any of the later Quartermain books, but from these tentative beginnings, I gather that he became as well known and loved as his fictional contemporary, Sherlock Holmes. Fascinating, that.

What's your take?


  1. Ron, this sounds most interesting. If I ever find a copy of this I will read it.

  2. Ron?......This book was required reading by all us boys in the late 50`s and early 60`s. It was a standard book held by all schools. You point out A-M, as being as being the points of curiosity within the written text.
    I was an avid reader of all books from when I was a young child and even unto my late 50`s! I read these books and never thought, nor would I, of how we now dissect these books as critics. I am still of the firm opinion that books are a moment in time of either the authors imagination, or historical fact. I know, such a fixed point of view! I think these types of books should be read as pure Adventure and imagination. I know we can look back and see racism etc. But thats what the time was, it was a part of life. i also saw Hemingway and his Big game shots. I dont think "they should have known better", because they didnt, they didnt see that eventually extinctions would take place. Likewise today, we dont see just what we are doing to the planet, and if we do, we ignore it.

    We always look for the hidden meaning, the "man" behind the book, or woman! Why do we do this?

  3. What a splendid review. You've done your homework and thought deeply about all this. I grew up with Haggard, but more with Jules Verne, and I'm sure that the authors of that period left their stamp on me.

  4. I did not know about the bet. That's really interesting. The book has certainly stood the test of time, though I don't imagine it is as good as Treasure Island, which I love.

  5. Superb post! I learned a great deal reading this. Was this your first time reading the book? If so, what inspired you to pick it up?

  6. Ron, You were the right reviewer for the job. Like Cullen and Charles, I learned items I hadn't known about this classic and Haggard. I enjoyed the book and am glad I read it. Of course, my negatives about the novel are already acknowledged elsewhere. Bottom line: Haggard wrote a thrilling novel that clips along and is never dull. I would search out other titles by him in the future.

    Thank you, sir.

  7. Nice work, Ron. Though today, after three weeks of sharing our thoughts, I'm biased toward Cheyenne's comments above. My hard hat is dusty with the debris of deconstruction!

  8. Great review! Having had several chances to read King Solomon's Mines, I passed it up for cowboys and Indians or American literary works. I wasn't mature enough to handle the jewels and racial tones of those times. Not interested at all, but I might take another look at it.

  9. Superb review. You reflect some of my thoughts, others that didn't occur to me.

  10. This book is an excellent adventure story and had quite an influence on the pulps. ADVENTURE MAGAZINE for instance was full of rousing adventure yarns written by Talbot Mundy, Arthur Friel, Gordon Young, Harold Lamb, and others.

  11. Well done, Ron. Excellent job of summing up the reading experience for all of us who participated, it seems!

  12. Leah, it's easy enough to find online and free.

    Cheyenne, I have learned to read these old novels the same way, as time capsules of attitudes and notions not forgotten but imperfectly remembered. Being offended is beside the point.

    Richard Wheeler, thanks; your comment reminds me that these old adventure novels would have been read and enjoyed by the early western writers I've been reading - and would have had some influence on their storytelling.

    Charles, you're going to get me to read TREASURE ISLAND again.

    Cullen, it was my first time with Haggard, period. David Cranmer got a bunch of us started on it. Coming up next is HEART OF DARKNESS. Join us.

    David, Haggard's achievement for me is having such a huge impact on the adventure genre. If he didn't invent it, he certainly got it rolling.

    Rich, that deconstruction is dusty work, for sure.

    Oscar, I wouldn't have read it either but for David Cranmer's prodding. Cowboys are more my interest, too.

    Randy, thanks, and thanks for dropping by.

    Walker, it's good to know that connection - that KSM was having its effect decades later.

    Chris, looking forward to HEART OF DARKNESS. It's fun reading these old classics together.

  13. Well, hey, the best thing about "King Solomon's Mines" is the movie precursor to the African Queen. When Deborah Kerr steps into the underbrush to put on her safari outfit and comes out with a big hairy tarantula on it at about crotch level and her all unawares -- but Stewart Granger steps forward and quickly knocks the spider off -- well, you don't have to know symbolism.

    But no one has made a decent movie of "Alyesha" or "She" which are far more erotic. All that stuff about Victorians being repressed is rot. Consult Peter Gay.

    Prairie Mary