Back in September 1885, when H. Rider Haggard's 'King Solomon's Mines' was first published, billboards described it as 'The Most Amazing Book Ever Written' and the public lapped it up, making the novel the biggest seller of the year. Yet somehow I'd never got round to it until now, even though I'm reasonably well read in the genre it invented, the 'lost world' story. It was a strong influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert E. Howard and all the others who have since written in that genre.
I found it a creaky beginning, Haggard's story far better than his prose. Given that it originated an entire genre, it's no hardship to forgive an abundance of what are now cliches but at the time were new ideas. However, it's harder to forgive the plot conveniences that riddle the story through. If this is the template for all the magic and adventure that its followers adopted, it's also the template for many of their bad habits.
Like so many of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that followed in its footsteps, it's fiction that claims to be wild fact, introduced and narrated by its lead character, Allan Quatermain, who was my biggest surprise. Unlike the various depictions of him in film that I've seen or the various characters who followed in his stead, he's simply a man who does what needs to be done. He describes himself on a number of occasions as a sort of coward, though it reflects his reluctance to resort to violence rather than his willingness to use it when needed; as a renowned hunter of African big game, he certainly has the capability. He's also not even the greatest physical specimen in his small party, that description going to Sir Henry Curtis, who is much closer to the musclebound hero we know from so many action movies.
The story begins when Sir Henry crosses paths with Quatermain on a brief sea voyage and solicits the great hunter's help in tracking down his brother, George Curtis. They'd parted on poor terms and Quatermain was one of the last people to see him before he set off on a dangerous trek into the African desert in search of the fabled treasure of King Solomon. Quatermain agrees to join Sir Henry and his companion, Captain Good, to attempt to find George and, quite possibly, a fortune in diamonds by following a copy of the map George used. He adds a few servants to the party, who each either die on the way or become something more notable later in the story, just like every episode of 'Star Trek' ever made.
I enjoyed the first person narrative approach, which was unusual at the time but seems entirely natural today, given that so many followers copied it. Sadly it's lessened at points by overdone dialogue that reads like horrible overacting sounds. Of course, having the lead character tell the story does lessen some of the possible suspense, given that we know from the outset that Allan Quatermain has already survived everything that we'll read about. Haggard partially fixed that with his fourth and next novel, 'She', the other for which he's principally known, introducing it himself after receiving a letter from a fictional character.
Anyone who's read a lost world novel won't be surprised by any of what goes on here. Curtis's party (for it really is his, rather than Quatermain's) sets out from civilisation, which here means Durban, South Africa, and travels north for four months to reach Sitandra's Kraal. From there, they venture out into the unknown. Their adventures through burning desert, over snowy mountains and within the lush country of Kukuanaland beyond them, comprise our story.
Haggard knew Africa well, having been sent by his father to South Africa at the age of nineteen to assist the secretary to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Natal. In addition to his many novels and short stories, he wrote non-fiction about the continent too, so knew many key movers and shakers, including many adventurers and explorers whose real stories he plundered when creating his fictional characters. Indeed, he became one of those movers and shakers.
His love for the continent is, perhaps, what sets this novel apart from many of its competitors. Anyone reading novels like this at the time read them from the perspective of the time. Those who lived in far flung climes were either savages or exotics, not worthy of comparison to upstanding white gentlemen. Oddly, this novel doesn't fall prey to most of the institutional racism of the era even as it describes it, perhaps being more sexist than racist.
Haggard praises characters in 'King Solomon's Mines' for their deeds regardless of the colour of their skin. Quatermain sees some black natives as superior to most whites and there's the onset of a fascinating interracial relationship that ends mostly because it just wouldn't have been accepted back home. It's interesting to see Quatermain decry the use of the N word in 1885, even as some of the people he deals with fall prey to base stereotypes.
Yet, if Haggard deals with race surprisingly well for the era, it could be argued that this is a rather sexist volume. There are really only two women of note in the entire book and one of them is the chief villain of the piece, an incredibly old witch called Gagool, who has manipulated the Kukuanas for centuries. Only Foulata, a native Kukuana girl who is saved from execution by Captain Good and who promptly becomes attached to him, offers a positive aspect to womanhood and, as perfect as she is, she's killed off before she can become a problem.
If anything, the most offensive angle to the book today could be seen in the wake of the outcry over the illegal shooting of Cecil the lion by a Minnesota dentist to be the treatment of animals. Quatermain makes his living as a hunter of big game, so naturally shoots a lot of animals. In the context of this novel, he does so primarily for food, but there's a sequence that sees the party pause their quest for a few days for no better reason than to shoot as many of a passing herd of elephants as they can for sport and for ivory. In a book that's surprisingly tasteful to the modern palate, that's the most notable exception.
I enjoyed 'King Solomon's Mines', but more for what it started than what it actually is. It was odd to see this story driven by Sir Henry Curtis more than Allan Quatermain and its resolution reliant on a number of outrageous plot conveniences. It builds well but ends very quickly, spending most of its action time in freeing Kukuanaland. The mines of the title aren't reached until almost the very end and George Carter becomes a MacGuffin, even if his story is resolved as a sort of afterthought.
This is a massively important book, the progenitor of one of my favourite genres, but it's weaker than many of the books that followed it. As Haggard's third novel, I'm hoping to see his work improve over time, so I'll follow up with 'She' and 'Allan Quatermain.' The latter is the first of many sequels to this book, forming a series around the character who doesn't really lead this one. The former is a separate novel but its series becomes entangled with this one later on. Watch this space. ~~ Hal C F Astell