Friday, August 23, 2013

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Still plenty of fight left in this grizzled old-timer
Originally published in 1885, H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon's Mines is a ground breaking adventure novel that has had an indelible influence on popular literature and film. By establishing the subgenre of “Lost World” novels—in which an intrepid explorer ventures into the wilderness to discover a lost civilization—it ignited an explosion of adventure literature, pulp fiction, and motion pictures. Despite showing some signs of age, this renowned classic of its genre still packs plenty of excitement and entertainment for the modern reader.

The story of King Solomon’s Mines is told through the first-person perspective of Allan Quartermain, a veteran big-game hunter and native Englishman living in South Africa. Although in the movie adaptations of Haggard’s books Quartermain is often portrayed by handsome, burly action heroes, Haggard’s take on the character is far less heroic. In King Solomon’s Mines, Quartermain is described as elderly, wiry, and, by his own admission, cowardly. Nevertheless, when danger presents itself, this is one coward who rises to the occasion. Because of his expertise in the African bush, Quartermain is invited by Sir Henry Curtis to accompany him on an expedition into uncharted Africa in search of Sir Henry’s long lost brother, who years ago had set off on a hunt for the diamond mines of the biblical King Solomon and never returned. Although Quartermain considers it a suicide mission, he agrees to go along with Sir Henry and his companion Captain John Good, a retired navy man, on the condition that Sir Henry make arrangements to insure the financial security of Quartermain’s son. Once that’s settled, the three white men, accompanied by their African servants and armed with an old treasure map, set off on a perilous trek across a vast desert toward a distant, mysterious mountain range where, rumour has it, untold riches await.

Despite being written over a century and a quarter ago, there’s surprisingly little racism in this book. For today’s reader, the most offensive scene in the novel may be the killing of nine elephants for their ivory. In terms of its portrayal of the African characters, Haggard displays a surprising amount of political correctness for his time. The book does feel antiquated in some respects, however, most notably in the nineteenth-century pacing of its plot. Though King Solomon’s Mines was strikingly original for its time, after 100 years worth of adventure novels and lost treasure films, much of it will seem familiar to the 21st-century reader. For today’s audience, there are few unforeseen plot twists here. When a battle takes place between two warring tribes of African natives, for example, Haggard provides a thrilling blow-by-blow narrative of the combat, but the outcome of the conflict is never really in question. The dubious reward for being so influential and inspiring so many imitators is that it now feels somewhat conventional, clichéd, and predictable. When compared to comparable novels of its time, however, King Solomon’s Mines is more compelling than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and is worlds better than Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes.

Readers expecting this book to compete with the fast-paced, nonstop action of today’s thrillers will most likely be disappointed by King Solomon’s Mines, but enthusiasts of classic adventure fiction—those who appreciate the “classic” as much as the “adventure”—will find it a fun and enjoyable expedition.

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