|H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925)|
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|
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.
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.
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|
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?