This is a book I wouldn’t have picked up if not for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Challenge. Of all the books on that list, this one was a question mark for me. I haven’t read much of the “adventure fiction” of the 1800s, except for Treasure Island in grade school. Although since it’s English Victorian fiction it definitely fell within my comfort zone.
Some interesting facts about the book from Wikipedia:
- It was published in 1885 with ads touting it as “The Most Amazing Book Ever Written”. It’s the first of the British “adventure” genre to be set in Africa, and is seen as the genesis of the “Lost World” literary genre.
- Haggard had travelled extensively in Africa as a 19-year old during the Anglo-Zulu War and the first Boer War. The character of Allan Quatermain was based on a famous British hunter and explorer, Frederick Courtney Selous.
- Haggard was accused of plagiarism for this book by Joseph Thompson, a Scottish explorer who published a similar book earlier in 1885, and who claimed to have inspired the part in the book where one of the adventurers takes out his false teeth and makes the natives believe he’s from another world.
- Supposedly, Haggard wrote the novel when he bet his brother five shillings whether he could write a novel half as good as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (published just two years earlier). The book was written over a few months, but was rejected by one publisher after another. When it was published, it became the year’s best seller.
The book begins in Durban, South Africa, where elephant hunter Quatermain meets Captain Good and Henry Curtis. Curtis is searching for his brother, who has been missing for two years, and Quatermain was one of the last to see him. Quatermain tells Curtis that his brother was searching for King Solomon’s diamond mines. He also tells a story about an explorer named Jose Silvestra, who was searching for the mines using a centuries-old map from his own ancestor, who found the mines but died on the way back, drawing the map with his own blood.
The map and story tells of a path to the mines that goes around two large round mountains, described by the explorers as “Sheba’s breasts” (the breast comparison goes on and on in this book and is pretty funny). Quatermain agrees to take Curtis and Good on this route, only after Curtis agrees to provide generously for Quatermain’s medical-student son in the event of his death. It is unlikely they will survive the mission but Quatermain’s willing to give it a go as a last hurrah in his long career — as he explains, most elephant hunters have died much younger. Quatermain hires a group of servants, including a mysterious native named Umbopa, and a team of oxen, and the three set off to face adventure, danger, starvation, thirst and freezing cold.
This was a really fun read. There are only a few slow parts, like the long trudge to find water, but that’s to be expected in an expedition like this. Most of the book is fast-paced and engaging. The characters work well together and seem to form a real friendship. The typical treasure-hunting story would have the characters turn on each other for riches, but that isn’t the case here. Curtis is already wealthy and only wants to find his brother. Good and Quatermain are mainly there for the adventure, although they won’t turn down diamonds if they find them.
The group endures months of travel and hardship before they stumble into a tribe called the Kukuanas. These people are a huge and well-established group living in a lush part of the land. The warriors are about to kill the adventurers until Quatermain convinces them they are from another world because of Good’s false teeth. Because the natives have never seen guns, they become convinced the explorers are magicians and take them to the bloodthirsty King Twala and his evil ancient witch, Gagool. The explorers eventually become involved in a bloody war over the rule of the country.
There are plenty of parts of this book where you feel you’ve seen it before – but no wonder, since this story has been copied hundreds of times since its publication in other stories and movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unfortunately, there were parts of this book that had me screaming “no, don’t go that way” because clearly the explorers are heading towards disaster. But that’s what happens when you read a classic that’s been copied for 125 years.
There’s a lot of talk about race in this book, and while some of it is definitely uncomfortable, I think the author’s views are probably very progressive for his time. I liked that he gave so much detail about different tribes and races – it’s not like everyone is the same, the different backgrounds of African natives seem to be respected. Also, the Kukuana tribe is made up of intelligent, brave, and loyal men in addition to its tyrannical, murderous king and his crazy witch. Are there stock, over-the-top characters? Definitely. But there’s no single stereotype being offered here.
There’s a native woman, Fatoula, who falls in love with Captain Good, and Quatermain is disturbed by the idea of his friend being with a black woman. But his observations are more practical than malicious (as in, it will be impossible for their relationship to work when they return to civilization), and he never treats Fatoula with anything but respect.
So, like I said, there’s definitely language in the book that made me uncomfortable, and I found the same to be true of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. But these books were written 130 years ago and at least are addressing racial issues rather than ignoring them.
There are only two female characters in the book, Gagool and Fatoula. Neither are well-developed characters, but again that’s about what I expected of an adventure novel of this kind. Gagool is crazy and evil, and Fatoula is kind and beautiful. So while this book lacked good female characters (a movie adaptation in the 50s actually substitutes a woman for Captain Good), at least reading about these two minor characters was much better than the hundreds of pages devoted in Dracula to Mina’s purity and goodness. Bleh.
So that’s more than I expected to write about King Solomon’s Mines. If you’re a fan of a good action and exploration story, you’ll enjoy this book. I really liked reading about South Africa and the possible history of the mines.
Is it cheesy and predictable? Definitely! But who says cheesy has to be a bad thing?