Monday, July 25, 2011

King Solomon's Mines - H. Rider Haggard

'The Most Amazing Book Ever Written'.

Banners around London in 1885 advertising the novel.

 As Richard Matheson's, 'I am Legend', by itself influenced the zombie genre, Henry Rider Haggard's 1885 novel, King Solomon's Mines', is also an incredible influential work. With its eventual publication, ( it took Haggard six months to find a publisher ), King Solomon's Mines single handily created the 'Lost World' genre, which saw the likes of Edgar Rice Burrough's 'The Land That Lost Time', Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World ( catalyst for 'Jurrassic Park' ),  Rudyard Kipling's, 'The Man Who Would Be King', and even Lee Falk's, 'The Phantom', published within the genre. More recently Michael Crichton's, 'Congo', was added.

 But possibly its most influential claim to fame can be that the novel's main protagonist, Allan Quatermain, became the template for Indiana Jones. Haggard though based his original character on real life British big game hunter and explorer Frederick Courtney Selous.  Haggard himself had extensive knowledge on Africa, the continent the novel is based in, from being a 19 year old who witnessed the Anglo-Zulu, and First Boer War. He became impressed by South Africa's immense mineral wealth and ruins of ancient African ruins.

 His experiences and observations aided him well for he wrote this, his third novel, after a bet with his brother, who said he couldn't write a better novel than Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 novel, 'Treasure Island'. Haggard considered it a poor book and proceeded to write King Solomon's Mines in a space between six weeks to six months. At first he couldn't find a publisher, but six months later he did and it was an instant sensation with printing presses unable to keep up with demand.

 The novel was the first novel written in English about Africa. When published sales banners around London praised it as 'The Most Amazing Book Ever Written'. It immediately captured the public imagination and became a best seller. For it's era it was missing the ornate language and writing style of the late 19th Century, and yet even today is a satisfying read literally wise. Haggard after the success of this novel went onto a successful thirty year writing career, particularly with 1886's 'She'.

 The novel opens with protagonist and narrator, Allan Quatermain, writing in a very easy conversational style. Through Quatermain Haggard not only tells a fictional story of a lost land called 'Kukuanaland' and the lost mines of wealthy, wise, Solomon of the Bible fame,  he also expresses to the reader the prevalent colonial views of the era. It is a typical novel of the late 19the Century as most novels did have a real life element of realism as a backdrop to the storyline.

 For its time it is quite open on the question of race as Haggard refuses to use the word 'nigger' for Blacks,( but does call them 'Kafir' ). He makes it quite clear that the blacks were like whites in having good and bad eggs. One can quietly read between the lines as Haggard all but says that he thinks most blacks are better people than whites, and says they also were entitled to be called 'gentlemen',o and general respect. When you read this it is surprising the novel was so popular with what must have seemed almost blasphemous in the 1880's.

 Haggard's knowledge of Africa is obvious as he vividly describes hunting game for meat, and elephants for ivory. The fearsome 'tetsi 'fly get a mention, ( can't be an African novel without one could it?! ), as well as the heat, dust, and general landscape of South Africa. For it's day the African continent must have seemed like a different planet, and the reader can instantly see why this novel captured the public imagination in 1885.

 But the story is the real key here and for its time it was a ripper! As I read it though I couldn't escape a feel of quaintness about it. But this is due to our modern world of instant communications etc, making us more worldly wise than those of the 1880's. It has dated somewhat but not to the point of irrelevancy or un-readability. Even though it hasn't the convoluted writing style associated with the era it is still a challenging read. At 200 pages it isn't a long novel as such, but the text is very small and it took me two nights to finish.

 I have wanted to read this novel for some time and it didn't disappoint. I like 19th Century literature, and whilst this has a dated feel, if you sit back and look at how this novel was received in an era when little was known about Africa, it then becomes an outstanding novel. For its time it fused the real Africa with the myth of King Solomon's Mines, and added a twist with the mine being within a 'lost land'. To have read this in 1885 must have been an extraordinary experience, and even though it may be more familiar to us today, the novel is worth reading as this is where Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park were born!! There have even been no more than six film adaptations made of this novel!

 Quaint for it's datedness. But it is an extremely influential novel who resonance still sounds today, which is why it has endured. Recommended on so many levels!

2 comments:

  1. ...and even with Richard Chamberlains movie of the same.

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  2. I must admit to never having seen any of the film adaptations!

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