Friday, October 23, 2009

268. King Solomon's Mines - H. Rider Haggard

History: Haggard wrote the novel as a result of a five shillings wager with his brother, namely whether he could write a novel half as good as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883). He wrote it in a short time, somewhere
between six and sixteen weeks between January 1885 and 21 April. However, because the book was a complete novelty, it was rejected by one publisher after another. When, after six months, King Solomon's Mines finally was published, the book became the year's best seller; the only problem (much to the chagrin of those who had rejected the manuscript) was how to print copies fast enough.The book was first published in September 1885 amid considerable fanfare, with billboards and posters around London announcing "The Most Amazing Book Ever Written". It became an immediate best seller.
By the late 19th century, explorers were uncovering ancient civilizations around the world, such as Egypt's Valley of the Kings, and the empire of Assyria. Africa remained largely unexplored and King Solomon's Mines, the first novel of African adventure published in English, captured the public's imagination.
The "King Solomon" of the book's title is the Biblical king renowned both for his wisdom and for his wealth.
Haggard knew Africa well, having traveled deep within the continent as a 19-year-old during the Anglo-Zulu War and the First Boer War, where he had been impressed by South Africa's vast mineral wealth and the ruins of ancient lost cities being uncovered, such as Great Zimbabwe.
His original Allan Quatermain character was based in large part on Frederick Courtney Selous, the famous British big game hunter and explorer of Colonial Africa. Selous's real-life experiences provided Haggard with the background and inspiration for this and many later stories.
The book has scholarly value for the colonialist attitudes Haggard expresses, and for the way he portrays the relationships among the white and African characters. While Haggard does indeed portray some Africans (such as Twala and Gagool) in their traditional (for Victorian literature) literary posts as barbarians, he also presents the other side of the coin, showing some black Africans as heroes and heroines (such as Ignosi), and shows respect for their culture. Although the book is certainly not devoid of racism, it expresses much less prejudice than some of the later books in this genre. Indeed, Quatermain states that he refuses to use the word "nigger" and that many Africans are more worthy of the title of "gentleman" than the Europeans who settle or adventure in the country. Haggard even includes an interracial romance between a Kukuana woman, Foulata, and the white Englishman Captain Good. The narrator tries to discourage the relationship, dreading the uproar such a marriage would cause back home in England; however, he has no objection to the lady, whom he considers very beautiful and noble. Haggard soon "kills off" Foulata, but has her die in Good's arms.
Kukuanaland is said in the book to be forty leagues north of the Lukanga river in modern Zambia, which would place it in the extreme south-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The culture of the Kukuanas shares many attributes with other
South African tribes, such as IsiZulu being spoken, and the kraal system.
Plot: Allan Quatermain, an English adventurer and hunter based in Durban, South Africa, is approached by English aristocrat Sir Henry Curtis and his friend Captain Good, seeking his help finding Sir Henry's brother, who was last seen traveling north into the unexplored interior on a quest for the fabled King Solomon's Mines. Quatermain has a mysterious map purporting to lead to the mines, but had never taken it seriously. However, he agrees to lead an expedition in return for a share of the treasure, or a stipend for his son if he is killed along the way. He has little hope they will return alive. They also take along a mysterious native, Umbopa, who seems more regal, handsome and well spoken than most porters of his class, but who is very anxious to join the party.
Traveling by oxcart, they reach the edge of a desert, but not before a hunt in which a wounded elephant claims the life of a servant. They continue on foot across the desert, almost dying of thirst before finding the oasis shown halfway across on the
map. Reaching a mountain range called Suliman Berg, they climb a peak (one of "Sheba's Breasts") and enter a cave where they find the frozen corpse of José Silvestre, the 16th century Portuguese explorer who drew the map in his own blood. That night, a second servant dies from the cold, so they leave his body next to Silvestre's, to "give him a companion."
They cross the mountains into a raised valley, lush and green, known as Kukuanaland. The inhabitants have a well-organized army and society and speak an ancient dialect of IsiZulu. Kukuanaland's capital is Loo, the destination of a magnificent road from
ancient times. The city is dominated by a central royal kraal.
They soon meet a party of Kukuana warriors who are about to kill them when Captain Good nervously fidgets with his false teeth, making the Kukuanas recoil in fear. Thereafter, to protect themselves, they style themselves "white men from the stars" - sorcerer-gods - and are required to give regular proof of their divinity, considerably straining both their nerves and their ingenuity.
They are brought before King Twala, who rules over his people with ruthless violence. He came to power years before when he murdered his brother, the previous king, and drove his brother's wife and infant son, Ignosi, out into the desert to die. Twala's rule is unchallenged. An evil, impossibly ancient hag named Gagool is his chief advisor. She roots out any potential opposition by ordering regular witch hunts and murdering without trial all those identified as traitors. When she singles out Umbopa for this fate, it takes all Quatermain's skill to save his life.
Gagool, it appears, has already sensed what Umbopa soon after reveals; he is Ignosi, the rightful king of the Kukuanas. A rebellion breaks out. The Englishmen join Ignosi's army in a furious battle. Although outnumbered, the rebels overthrow Twala,
and Sir Henry lops off his head in a duel.
The Englishmen also capture Gagool, who reluctantly leads them to King Solomon's Mines. She shows them a treasure room inside a mountain, carved deep within the living rock and full of gold, diamonds and ivory. She then treacherously
sneaks out while they are admiring the hoard and triggers a secret mechanism that closes the mine's vast stone door.
Unfortunately for Gagool, a brief scuffle with a beautiful native named Foulata causes her to be crushed under the stone door, though not before fatally stabbing Foulata. Their scant store of food and water rapidly dwindling, the trapped men prepare to die also. After a few despairing days sealed in the dark chamber, they find an escape route, bringing with them a few pocketfuls of diamonds from the immense trove, enough to make them rich.
The Englishmen bid farewell to a sorrowful Ignosi and return to the desert. Taking a different route, they find Sir Henry's brother stranded in an oasis by a broken leg, unable to go forward or back. They return to Durban and eventually to England, wealthy enough to live comfortable lives.
Review: Allan Quartermain's job is hunting elephants. Ugh. With all we know about these majestic animals today, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to kill them; reading about it in some detail was really depressing. I tried to remember that people thought differently in those days but it didn't help all that much.
Then we have the relationships between the white/European characters and the black/native African characters. Racism was part of life when this book was written but again, I'm looking back on it with "modern" eyes and it's pretty sad. Most of the black African characters were stereotypical, as were the white Europeans and white Africans.
However, that being said, it was when Quartermain and his companions get where they're going the story really got entertaining for me and I found it hard to put down. There's nothing in here that is completely surprising but it is still fascinating and exciting all the same. The author's use of language - although somewhat antiquated - was very entertaining.
The book is written as a letter from Quartermain in Africa to his son in England; it's full of side notes and PS-type items that Quartermain throws in from time to time to shed light on his story. Plus, Quartermain has that dry sense of humor that I appreciate.
On the whole I truly enjoyed it and am glad that I read it.
Opening Line: "It is a curious thing that at my age - fifty five last birthday - I should find myself taking up a pen to try and
write a history.
Closing Line: To-day is Tuesday. There is a steamer going on Friday, and I really think that I must take Quatermain at his word, and sail by her for England, if it is only to see you, Harry, my boy, and to look after the printing of this history, which is a task that I do not like to trust to anybody else. -- Allan Quatermain. "
Quotes: 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!
Rating: Good.

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