Tuesday, May 29, 2012
King Solomon's Mines: Review
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard is another read initially selected for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Challenge sponsored by Man of La Book. This time I'm taking a peek at the origins for the character of Allan Quartermain. This book is Haggard's answer to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and was originally written as a result of a five-shilling wager between Haggard and his brother. Haggard had commented that he could write an adventure story that was at least half as good as Stevenson's Treasure Island. Apparently the reading public of the time thought so because when it was published in 1885 to advertisements proclaiming it "The Most Amazing Book Ever Written" they gobbled it up, making it difficult for the publishers to print enough copies to keep up with demand. According to the book's introduction, it sold 31,000 copies in the first year--an incredible amount for that time.
The story is a pretty straightforward treasure hunt story. Allan Quartermain is a well-known elephant hunter--a man who has made his living at a dangerous job for well over the general life-span for such hunters. Quartermaine is approached by Sir Henry Curtis and his good friend, former naval officer Captain Good, who had contacted the white hunter previously about Curtis's brother. The brothers had quarreled and George (the brother) had set off for Africa in search of treasure. He had heard the legend of King Solomon's mines--supposedly the source of great wealth, primarily in diamonds. Quartermain is acquainted with the legend and even has a rough map that is said to show the location.
Sir Henry asks if Quartermain will accompany them on a search for for the missing man...and incidentally for the diamonds. After reaching an agreement that gives Quartermain a share of any treasure found and that will provide for Quartermain's son in the event his death, the hunter agrees--figuring that he hasn't much time left as an elephant hunter anyway. The men set out with three African men on the treacherous journey that finds them crossing a deadly desert, scaling a near-impossible mountain slope, and encountering a warrior tribe to rival the Zulu nation. The adventurers will have to use all their ingenuity and fighting skills to survive their journey.
There is plenty of action in this one--particularly in the last half of the book. Quartermain makes a point of saying that he's just giving the story to us straight, without "the grand literary flights and flourishes" of the day. And for the most part, this is so. Haggard's style is certainly a lot less wordy than, say, George Eliot (whom I love, by the way, but who has to describe absolutely everything from every which way)--but he does have his moments. Quartermain does a bit of philosophizing now again, but not too much. Taken on the surface, it's just a fun book with some humor and some really good characters. Sure, there are those who are going to be all politically correct and get offended over some of the representations of the "natives." But, look, folks--this was written in the late 1800s and we're in the middle of British Imperialism here. Of course, there's bound to be an air of "what these people need is some good old British, white man influence." And, yes, there is. But if you look at it realistically--Haggard's pretty forward-thinking for a man of his time. His representation of the African people is fairly positive in most sections--particularly Umbopa/Ignosi. And he even allows a romance between Captain Good and one of the Kukuana women--a most unusual move for the times. Three and a half stars.
I enjoyed this story quite a bit and am glad that the challenge gave me incentive to read it. And...In reference to the portrayal of Quartermain in League (the graphic novel)--I find that Alan Moore has more closely followed Haggard's characterization of the hunter than he did with Stoker's Mina (Harker) Murray. He has struck just the right note between the great white hunter/adventurer and the coward that Quartermain claims to be.
It is far. But there is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross; save a mountain and a desert of which you are spared the knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hand counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or to lose it as Providence may order. [Sir Henry Curtis] (p. 82)
Yet man dies not whilst the world, at once his mother and his monument, remains. His name is lost, indeed, but the breath he breathed still stirs the pine-tops on the mountains, the sound of the words he spoke yet echoes on through space; the thoughts his brain gave birth to we have inherited to-day; his passions are our cause of life; the joys and sorrows that he knew are our familiar friends--the end from which he fled aghast will surely overtake us also!
Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable elements of individual life, which having once been, can never die, though they blend and change, and change again for ever. (p. 165)
As I grow older, I regret to say that a detestable habit of thinking seems to be getting a hold of me. (p. 166)
When one can only do one thing well, one likes to keep up one's reputation in that thing. (p. 169)