Thursday, December 24, 2009

King Solomon's Mines by H. R. Haggard

Nothing works perfectly the first time you try it out, right? Doesn’t matter if you’re fumbling with a girl in the backseat of a Fiesta or shooting at a lion in the African svelt, the first time you do it, you probably won’t get it quite right. Such is the case with King Solomon’s Mines, the famous first ‘lost race’ novel. Written by H. R. Haggard in 1889, it features his hero Allen Quatermain, who would go on to star in a number of other tales of high adventure set in Africa. While an entertaining novel, Mines features many devices and tropes that have had their effectiveness blunted by years or re-use.

Things get started when Quatermain meets Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good on board a steamer leaving Cape Town. He learns that they intend to locate Good’s brother, who went searching for the legendary mines of the biblical King Solomon. The mines are supposedly located in an interior kingdom never before seen by white men. Trouble is, it’s surrounded by treacherous mountains and an impassable desert, and anyway, nobody really knows exactly where it is located. Except that Quatermain then reveals that he knows where it is, because some time ago he came into possession of a map made by a Spaniard called Jose da Silvestre two hundred years earlier. Silvestre died upon finding the exact spot, and in a nice dramatic touch by Haggard, the map is written in his own blood. Being a sensible man, and by nature no seeker of dangerous adventure, Quatermain has thus far had no reason to test the map’s accuracy for himself. But being a poor man, he agrees to accompany the two on their trek upon securing a handsome payment, with which he intends to pay for his son’s education. Decent chap, Quatermain.

The three Englishmen pick up a Zulu named Umbopa to accompany them, and all four brave the terrors of the desert and the mountains and eventually discover a new country, Kukuanaland. There, they become embroiled in intrigue that climaxes in a civil war.

It’s hard to imagine the reaction this book must have provoked in its day, as so many of the tropes it uses have since become standards. The mere idea of white men going off into uncharted Africa and having adventures was a groundbreaker for the literature of the time (though not, I note, for real life). Haggard lived in South Africa for six years, and was present during the British takeover of Bechuanaland. He even read out the declaration of the takeover, as the officer who ought to have done so was sick on the day. His love for Africa, its landscape and cultures, shines on every page, but his writing style is so plain that it often does not overcome the familiarity modern readers will have with almost every situation in the book. In terms of style, he’s certainly a full step down from the likes of Wells and Conan Doyle. There are some great touches, such as the map written in blood, and the dying man who presents it to Quatermain, pointing to the far-off mountain top as the sun goes down. The perilous trek through the desert is also suitably hair-raising. But there are also some childish ‘humorous’ parts that have aged badly, such as the Kukuanas’ awed reaction to John Good’s lack of trousers.

Quatermain himself is quite a likeable character. While no coward, he’s genuinely humble (instead of just continually saying that he’s humble, like some fictional characters I could mention). He’s certainly not afraid to admit when he’s quaking in his khakis, and though he usually swallows his fear and does the right thing (he is a Victorian gentleman, after all), he indulges in heroics and violence with a certain reluctance that makes him far more realistic than the likes of, say, John Carter. He’s pretty much the first and archetypal ‘great white hunter’ character in fiction. As for the rest, they’re a distinctly more forgettable bunch than their counterparts in the later Lost World. Apart from Umbopa, who’s got his own plot-o-matic storyline going on, they simply exist to provide a bit of banter for Quatermain to indulge in.

The Kukuanas in particular are a perfect example of the totally generic ‘African tribe’ in literature. They live in huts, they have a corrupt king who needs to be deposed, and they worship the white men as gods because of their superior weaponry. Yawn. Haggard heavily based them on his own experiences with the Zulus, but their culture is never really explored in any more depth than the plot calls for. Umbopa, to the surprise of no reader over the age of ten, turns out to be the true king of Kukuanaland, precipitating the inevitable climax. Surely, this kind of thing was already old hat in 1889. Also, the lack of any truly fantastic elements make the novel less dramatic than those that followed it (including even Haggard’s own novels). The Kukuanas are, really, just another tribe.

Haggard has often been complimented for his comparatively progressive attitude towards race. For the most part, Quatermain recognizes a ‘gentleman’ whatever his colour, and he respects the pride and bravery of many of the natives he meets. He knows the different tribes of South Africa well, and differentiated between them in terms of character based on experience, not prejudice. As I said above, he’s a pretty likeable guy. But, like most ‘lost race’ novels before and since, the Kukuanas live in the shadow of a distinctly white civilization that scored pretty much all the major achievements in the kingdom. In particular, there is a long, wide Roman road running through their valley, lined with impressive statues. Now, one of the real-world inspirations for Mines was the discovery of the ancient city of Zimbabwe in what was then Rhodesia. At the time, it was unthinkable to European archaeologists that a black civilization could have built such a grand structure. Right up until the independence of Zimbabwe, great leaps in logic were employed to convince the populace that a white or even Arab civilization was responsible. It seems that even Haggard was not immune from this kind of thinking. But compared to other literature of the period, his books still provide a refreshing and humane depiction of black Africa.

King Solomon’s Mines is a largely enjoyable read, but its now-common tropes and somewhat childish tone marr it somewhat. It provides an interesting base from which to compare his later, better novels.

(check out this here comic while you're at it...)

No comments:

Post a Comment