“Haggard’s heroes attain a legendary stature as their adventures strip away what Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, calls ‘the veneer of civilization,’ and perpetually confront them with danger and death.’ – Robert Morsberger, Afterword to King Solomon’s Mines
This begins with Ursula Andress.
Back in junior high, when my buddies and I were the sort of slobbering idiots about girls and women that one our current POTUS candidates seems to be in advanced middle age, Hammer Films, the British film company that specialized in remakes of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy announced that it was releasing a new film version of the H. Rider Haggard adventure novel, She. More important to my crowd’s budding libidos, the film would star original Bond girl (there’s a respectful term) Ursula Andress (Andress was the first Bond girl, appearing in the first James Bond film, Dr. No, as the tastefully named Honey Ryder).
We dutifully, lustfully went to see She – which was a typical Hammer film: a lot of fun once one put one’s critical thinking skills on hold. In the aftermath of that experience, and without telling my friends, who would have laughed at my bookishness, I decided to read Haggard’s novel.
It was a lot of fun, too, and a damned sight better than the movie, Ursula Andress notwithstanding. I planned to go on and read King Solomon’s Mines, too, but something distracted me (probably baseball or a guitar) and I never got back to the Haggard universe.
Until last week.
After finishing Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, I went back to the nicely bound set of books from whence it came and spotted King Solomon’s Mines. The memory just related above flashed through my mind in Proustian fashion and I decided that fifty years was a long enough wait. I pulled Haggard’s most famous novel off the shelf and devoured it in a few days – just as I would have done as an 8th grader.
It was a lot of fun, too. But problematic.
In King Solomon’s Mines we meet Alan Quatermain, Haggard’s most famous creation, a middle aged elephant hunter who gets drawn into adventure that he freely admits he would be happier avoiding. In this, the first adventure novel set in Africa, he is recruited into what turns out to be the adventure that makes him a wealthy man by Sir Henry Curtis, a wealthy Englishman who has come to Africa to find his brother George. George Curtis has disappeared while searching for a fabled treasure site, King Solomon’s Mines. Joining Curtis and Quatermain is a retired Royal Navy captain, John Good. These three, along with a mysterious African named Umbopa who hires on as a servant but becomes a trusted friend, make an arduous trek into the African interior and find Kukuanaland and the road to the mines. Before they can try to obtain the treasure, however, they participate in a civil war precipitated by Umbopa who is in truth the usurped king of the Kukuanas, Ignosi. The revolt succeeds, Ignosi regains his throne, and, after a harrowing escape from the mines (where Quatermain has luckily filled the pockets of his hunting jacket with diamonds, which is, let’s face it, a very good thing to do if you happen to find a mine full of them that no one holds any claim to), Sir Henry, Good, and Quatermain return from Kukuanaland to South Africa. On the way they discover Sir Henry’s brother George at an oasis (Did I mention that part of their trek takes them across a desert? yep, it’s that sort of adventure.) where, with his guide, an African named – wait for it – Jim, he has been trying to recover from a serious leg injury.
Quatermain graciously divides his treasure among the three principals. Sir Henry refuses his share because – well, he’s already rich having inherited the entire Curtis family fortune (ah, good old primogeniture), a fact that led to younger brother George’s trip to Africa in the first place. So George gets that third of the fortune. Then they all sail home to England, even Quatermain, who’s been coaxed into returning by his friends Sir Henry and Good.
It should be noted that the following is true: in an adventure novel set in Africa many black people die and no white people do. I could go into a long diatribe about the excesses of colonialism and imperialism in late Victorian England that inform Haggard’s writing, but such revisionist reading does nothing but reiterate the obvious: those were brutal times filled with racism and greed.
As a 13 year old in 1965 I would never have thought about such things. I would have read King Solomon’s Mines as the exciting adventure it certainly is. Now I read it as the exciting adventure it certainly is – and as the product of a racist, greedy culture. Just as I learned not to be a slobbering idiot about girls and women, I learned to recognize that received assumptions about the world are not always to be accepted.
Sadder but wiser we all must become.