A fine weird imagination

1881 unexplored
The parts of the world (vertical stripes) still ‘unexplored’ by Western nations around 1881

H Rider Haggard King Solomon’s Mines
Reader’s Digest Association 1996 (1885)

Haggard wrote this as a reaction to Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883); he believed he could write a more exciting novel, leading him in King Solomon’s Mines to produce an action-filled first-person narrative that sold sensationally well on its eventual publication in 1885. In some ways the quest plot is similar — a group of adventurers sets out, map in hand, to a previously unknown destination, surviving natural dangers, privations, battles and treachery along the way — but where Stevenson’s narrative is epistolary, deliberately archaic (it was set a hundred years before the author’s time) and occasionally backtracked in time Haggard’s storyline is contemporary, follows Time’s arrow, and is mostly told in breathless prose. It set the tone for the numerous Boy’s Own stories that were to follow in its wake.

As with Treasure Island the author tries hard to create verisimilitude by seemingly accurate details. The trio of adventurers — hunter Allan Quatermain, Captain John Good and Sir Henry Curtis — mount an expedition to find Sir Henry’s brother George, with the latter’s last known position being within sight of Suliman’s Berg, whispered as the location of King Solomon’s diamond mines. From Bamangwato (a tribe in present-day Botswana) Quatermain has seen “the peaks of the mountains that border [the fabled mines], but there were a hundred and thirty miles of desert between me and them.” This desert sounds like the Kalahari (which takes up much of Botswana) though the De Beers diamond mines now located there were only created in the late 20th century; sadly, too, there are no uplands like the mountains the author describes.  Haggard, who knew Southern Africa quite well, peppers his text with both genuine and invented names, many on based on Zulu words. The original publication even included a purported facsimile of the original “map of the route to King Solomon’s Mines, now in the possession of Allan Quatermain, Esq., drawn by the Dom José da Silvestra, in his own blood, upon a fragment of linen, in the year 1590”.

mines
“The route to King Solomon’s Mines …” based on Dom José da Silvestra’s 16C map

The story is so well known that — unless you’re only familiar with it from the many dire 20th-century film versions (“Actually filmed in the Savage Heart of Equatorial Africa!”) I need only give an outline. The three white men, together with a team of locals, including one Umbopa, set off from Durban into the interior. Eventually and with the greatest difficulty they cross a great desert to arrive at a snow-capped range, this perhaps inspired by Haggard’s knowledge of the Drakensberg escarpment in eastern South Africa.

Ukhahlamba Drakensburg Cliffs
Ukhahlamba Drakensburg Cliffs (Wikipedia)
Kukuanaland (Wikipedia Commons)
Kukuanaland (Wikipedia Commons)

Once across this formidable obstacle they discover the original literary lost world (Conan Doyle’s own novel The Lost World didn’t appear till 1912). What Quatermain calls Kekuanaland is a fertile plain, King Solomon’s Road stretching out before them towards a trio of distant peaks called The Three Witches. Here on this plateau they encounter both friend and foe in the Kukuana nation, a population akin to the Zulus of KwaZulu-Natal. Here we too meet the duplicitous King Twala and the aged crone Gagool, the beautiful Foulata and the honest Infadoos, and discover the true nature of Umbopa, their faithful servant. After a bloody siege and the cessation of warfare the trio eventually find themselves trapped in the mines. Will they escape? As Quatermain is himself narrating the story it’s a given that he at least survives.

Haggard is credited with creating a genre, the contemporary adventure tale, set in fabled lands and involving episodes full of action. He was of his time, to be sure, but generally he was evenhanded and respectful to his black characters, unlike some of those who followed and set their novels in the still mysterious continent. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) barely treats Africans — bar one or two — as individuals, and mostly they are shown as victims or savages, but at least he had spent time in the Congo. Edgar Rice Burroughs hadn’t even set foot in Africa when he wrote Tarzan of the Apes (1914), but that tale too was peopled with stereotypical natives, superstitious, treacherous or barbaric for the most part.

Given the cultural assumptions and prejudices of the time King Solomon’s Mines is relatively free of notions of white superiority on the one hand and condescending attitudes towards the Noble Savage on the other; though Haggard rather reluctantly realised the reading public would baulk at any suggestion of an inter-racial marriage. Haggard interweaves the exciting action with humour such as Good’s forced appearance of undress, and factoids such as the novel being a genuine report of an expedition told “in a plain, straightforward manner”. His familiarity with local languages led to his distinguishing Kekuana speech by almost Shakespearean turns of phrase, including the use of “thee”s and “thou”s (by then redundant even in Victorian English).

My edition has the evocative Walter Paget illustrations of 1891 which are ideal for recreating the sort of authentic thrill Haggard’s contemporaries would have had on reading it. In fact Stevenson, whose Treasure Island had spurred Haggard in the first place, praised the “flashes of a fine weird imagination and a fine poetic use and command of the savage way of talking,” a fitting tribute to the way that the younger man had partially eclipsed — in the manner of the famous natural phenomenon featured in this novel — the older, established writer.

*  *  *  *  *

In my 2015 Reading Challenge this novel fitted the category a book loved by my mother; she always enjoyed books and films about adventures, explorers and, especially, exotic places, having herself lived in India and Hong Kong and visited many places in what was called the Far East. This story was also typical of the fiction she got me to read as a youngster.

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6 thoughts on “A fine weird imagination

  1. Okayy. I’ll admit it. I’ve never read the book nor have I watched any of the movies, but oddly I do know of Allan Quartermaine. From your review, it seems it is time I read the novel.

  2. Wonderful illustrations. I’ve never read this but I have heard of it so many times I feel as if I have.

    If you want to read a real-life explorer your mother would have loved I can recommend Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and Maitland’s biography of him. He was the quintessential British explorer of a type we no longer see- absolutely correct and British in every way when in Britain, but most at home in the Sahara. A fabulous life.

    1. Thank you! I think visuals can add so much to any text: “And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

      Thanks too for the Thesiger recommendation. He sounds like one of a long line of British gentleman-explorers, of whom there are still a few left. Ranulph Fiennes, for example (his full name is Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes!), Colin Thubron (Colin Gerald Dryden Thubron) and the late Henry Worsley (Alastair Edward Henry Worsley) who died recently attempting a solo Antarctic crossing all spring to mind. They most resemble their Victorian forebears with their adventuring credentials, military background and, of course, multiple names!

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