King Solomon’s mines: praised and then damned with faint praise

Just finished reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s mines.  It’s one of those books your hear about a lot and it has had half a dozen film and TV adaptations*.  Still I didn’t really know what to expect. 

A party of adventurers , including Good (a decommissioned British sailor), Curtis (a hulking Danish gentleman), Allan Quartemain (a British elephant-hunter), a Hottentot tracker, and Umbopa (a mysterious African manservant), go on a quest to find the Dane’s missing brother who vanished on his own quest to find the legendary source of the Biblical Solomon’s riches.  They have a series of adventures involving travel through deserts and over mountains, wild animals, and intrigue and a huge battle in a dangerous lost kingdom.  Allan Quatermain, the narrator, admits that he often terrified by the proceedings.  Part of the action takes place inside a mountain, featuring traps, secret passages, and fabulous treasures.  So basically it is a Victorian-era D&D adventure.  Great fun.

 It was written in 1885 (on a bet, apparently!) but it holds up very well, as it is written in a first-person style, and avoids the florid prose you find in a lot of Victorian writers.  Haggard has a reputation for being much less racist and chauvinistic than one might expect for his background and era, and King Solomon’s mines seems to support that reputation.  He says early on that he won’t use the n-word, and that many Africans are far more deserving of the title ‘gentleman’ than are the European settlers and explorers.  Umbopa in particular is made out as one of most interesting and competent of the characters.  In fact the only really racist remarks in the book are the narrator’s insistence that interracial marriage cannot be successful, although a generous reader might assume he just means that White society simply cannot accept it.  As a modern reader, I was occasionally bugged by the casual racism of the White characters.  I suppose that on the ‘racism in fantastic literature’ scale from 10 H.P.Lovecraft (very racist) to 1 Kurt Vonnegut (staunchly anti-racist), Haggard is around a 5 — somewhat less racist than, say, Robert E. Howard (6 — mildly racist), but less enlightened than Poul Anderson (3 — not racist at all), which is pretty damn good, really, for someone writing 50-70 years before them!

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*The 1937 British film sounds like the one to watch, as it follows the plot pretty closely and has a strong cast.

Published in: on September 3, 2011 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Haggard is a lot of fun

  2. Very cool Mike.

    Strangely enough I just picked this and several other ebooks up to load onto my Nook. I am reading a friends published book at the moment but will be digging into this and the others very soon.

    Thanks for the reply on the email about the mini bases too. Much appreciated!

    -Chad


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