1885. Modern Library. Paperback. 304 pages.
From: the public library
In a nutshell:
An experienced big-game hunter named Allan Quatermain is hired by a wealthy Englishman – Sir Henry Curtis – to help Curtis find his long-lost brother in what is now South Africa. The brother was said to have gone in search of the fabled King Solomon’s Mines, so that is where Quatermain, Curtis, and Curtis’ friend Captain Good set their sights. Curtis also hires a couple of native African men, including one by the name of Umbopa, who seems to have his own mysterious reasons for joining their quest.
When I worked at my college’s writing center, we tutors knew to expect a wave of first-year students with papers comparing the film adaptations of King Solomon’s Mines. I had little desire to see the films myself on their own, but even less after reading a bunch of papers on the subject by somewhat apathetic freshmen. The book didn’t come to my attention until my sister and dad read a couple of Haggard’s books and were discussing them at Christmastime a few years ago.
I remember many of the essays, if not all, focused on comparing the films’ depiction of race. I find myself wanting to focus on the same thing with my book review. I think Heart of Darkness is the only other 19th century book that I’ve read set in Africa and that was a while ago. I was definitely curious about how Haggard would depict the African characters.
Certainly, the story’s narrator, Allan Quatermain has prejudices regarding African people. He has set ideas about their ‘station’. For example, when Umbopa speaks boldly to Sir Henry Curtis near the start of the quest, Quatermain is displeased and angrily demands that Umbopa be more subservient. But it is pretty clear from Curtis’ early respect for Umbopa that we are not to find Quatermain’s opinions to be authoritative in these matters. As the oldest person in the hunting party, Quatermain seems to represent the old guard’s way of thinking, and throughout the story, he has to begrudgingly admit that he’s wrong about Umbopa, among other things.
Indeed, Umbopa becomes a brother-at-arms when their group becomes entangled in a tribal conflict. They throw in their lots with his. The quest for Curtis’ brother becomes almost an afterthought.
So the depiction of race was more complex than I expected from a Victorian novel. I think I get surprised by older book’s depictions of race, sex and class because present-day movies and books usually paint historical societies as being simplistically prejudiced in their views with little modulation. This is not to say that King Solomon’s Mines doesn’t participate in prejudiced views at all. One of the most obvious examples is in the descriptions of the (fictional) Kukuana people. The women are described as handsome – because:
They are tall and graceful, and their figures are wonderfully fine. The hair, though short, is rather curly than woolly, the features are frequently aquiline, and the lips are not unpleasantly thick as is the case in most African races. But what struck us most was their exceedingly quiet dignified air.
And the villain, Twala, is described as:
It was that of an enormous man with the most entirely repulsive countenance we had ever beheld. The lips were as thick as a negro’s, the nose was flat, it had but one gleaming black eye (for the other was represented by a hollow in the face), and its whole expression was cruel and sensual to a degree.
It is possible to argue that it is, again, only Quatermain’s views on display here, and not necessarily the author’s, but I am more inclined to believe that these descriptions of what is beautiful/good and what is ugly/evil are equivalencies of the author’s. Indeed, colorism is still very much an issue today.
King Solomon’s Mines of course was not intended to be read as a time capsule of its times and views. It was a very popular adventure novel in its day. I could see how modern adventure tales descend from it, with its hidden treasures, skeletons discovered in caves, ancient maps, and men dragging across deserts parched with thirst. It’s got a sense of humor too. It’s the kind of tone you find with Indiana Jones movies.
I have to admit that I found the climactic battle scenes to be a bit of a slog. I’m sure there are battle scenes that I have enjoyed in the past, but the detailing of battle strategy with its columns of men, vanguards, regiments and armor just doesn’t readily engage me. I much preferred their adventuring endeavors.
I hope you don’t mind my lengthy digression about one aspect of the book, but I read King Solomon’s Mines a few months ago, and its depiction of race still remained the aspect I most wanted to discuss.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Chamber Four – “Unfortunately, coincidence plays far too large a role in this book. Haggard is not a subtle plotter at all. I won’t spoil the surprises, but it became a reasonable expectation while I was reading that each perilous situation that arose as the adventure moved from one place to the next would be resolved in part by fortune, usually of the most convenient variety.”
Man of La Book – “This is a simple tale, filled with swashbuckling adventures and explorations galore. Some of the book simply drags, other parts are offensive in today’s terms (which I don’t hold it against the book) and some parts are simply funny. I especially found the pompous attitude of some of the characters (mostly Quatermain) hilarious.”
Wet Asphalt – “But still, Allan Quatermain, African explorer, is considered one of the great adventure characters of nineteenth century literature, and I can’t help but feel disappointed at him turning out to be the cowardly, lying, hypocritical and, yes, racist schmuck portrayed in this book.”