Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Book Review: King Solomon's Mines, by Sir H. Rider Haggard (1885)

This is an action/adventure book.  Blood pumping action, heart thumping adventure.  This book is about high adventure in Africa made famous by stories of big game hunters and old legends of lost treasure.

It's not for the faint of heart.  It's not for your mother's drawing room or your gran-gran's tea parties.
Lifting his gun, he let drive at the last, a young cow. By some extraordinary chance the ball struck it full on the back of the neck, shattering the spinal column, and that giraffe went rolling head over heels just like a rabbit. I never saw a more curious thing.
While the antelope drank, the lion had sprung upon him, only to be received upon the sharp curved horns and transfixed. .... Then the lion, unable to free himself, had torn and bitten at the back and neck of the bull, which, maddened with fear and pain, had rushed on until it dropped dead.
There are several graphic hunting scenes with descriptions of bullets through the brain and heart and beasts dropping dead.  But by far the one that topped them all in the early chapters was this gem.
Khiva, the Zulu boy, saw his master fall, and brave lad as he was, turned and flung his assegai straight into the elephant's face. It stuck in his trunk. 
With a scream of pain, the brute seized the poor Zulu, hurled him to the earth, and placing one huge foot on to his body about the middle, twined its trunk round his upper part and tore him in two. 
We rushed up mad with horror, and fired again and again, till presently the elephant fell upon the fragments of the Zulu.
How's THAT for a manly book?  Tore him in TWO.

For the most part, the book reads well and pulls you along.  The story is about white Englishmen searching for a lost comrade who went in search of fabled diamond mines.  Along the way they become involved with local politics, you could say.  They find themselves embroiled in a war.  But the war was tedious.  This part of the book, more than any other part, made me want to skip ahead.  I wasn't really interested in the war.  It had nothing to do with the main plot.  It felt like a distraction.

Plus, they started talking about the number of warriors - thousands...TENS of thousands!  It felt very unrealistic.  I find it hard to believe anywhere in Africa during the 1880s was there a civilization that large that was hidden from the world, and no one knew about it.  We're talking epic battles similar in size to the ones in Lord of the Rings.  That part felt unrealistic.

But the war can be got through with perseverance, or just skipping a chapter or two.  You can guess the outcome.  There are some good gruesome war scenes that fit in well with our "Manly Months" theme here at the Literary Rambler.  There's a nice scene with a head getting chopped off.  When heads get chopped off they always roll up to the feet of the main character, and lay there staring upwards.  You'll see it happen in several books and movies.  I guess there's a scientific study on the rolling of heads similar to the study of how buttered toast always lands buttered side down.

Since I threw in the Lord of the Rings comparison, I should mention another theme that seemed overused.  A lost king returning to his homeland to claim the throne.  I won't get into a philosophical or political discussion of that scenario.  But I have seen it before, and so have you.  Aragorn comes to mind.  Was that such a prevalent theme, or did J.R.R. Tolkien copy the idea from H. Rider Haggard?  Or did they both copy it from someone else?  Or is it just part of the "composite order of literature" that we all love so much?

One of the best scenes in the entire book is the macabre, creepy scene in the mines.  There's a treasure chamber, of course, but you'll find some other gruesome tidbits I haven't seen copied in other places.  That whole section has a wonderful, ghastly quality to it.  An antagonist is a wizened old woman who is ancient, shriveled up, and crawls around in her rags and monkey-like face, spouting evil.  She leads them to the "cave of the dead".  I won't give it away but it's wonderful stuff, grisly and well written.

One downfall of the book isn't the fault of the book at all.  It's that everything in the book has all been done so much that nothing was surprising.  Think of all the movies made from this book.  Think of all the books that copied this theme.  I don't remember ever reading anything like it published before King Solomon's Mines.  But it seems to have started its own genre.  I guess this book is the granddaddy of all high-adventure/lost treasure type books.

In that sense, I felt like I was reading just another Clive Cussler book, mixed with Tarzan, and Indiana Jones, and probably dozens of other books and movies I can't think of right now.

One other thing I should mention.  If you are sensitive to racial issues this book might offend you.  I say "might" because some parts of it show a clear respect for the races while other parts still assume a sort of white - or I should say western - feeling of mastery over non-whites.  Allan Quatermain makes it clear he respects black people, he even says it plainly...which is something I didn't expect in a book of this time.  I'll give the quote here but I don't want anyone to lambast me for this.
What is a gentleman? I don't quite know, and yet I have had to do with n******—no, I will scratch out that word "n******," for I do not like it. I've known natives who are [gentlemen]...and I have known mean whites with lots of money and fresh out from home, too, who are not [gentlemen].
That he makes it clear he dislikes the "N" word is interesting.  Even back in them olden days that word had critics.  I won't go that direction on this blog, but feel free to explore it on your own.  The point I make is that even though all the main characters try not to judge people by their race, there is still a feeling of class superiority.  That might bother some modern readers.  However, anyone reading literature of this time period probably knows what they're in for.

Having said that I say this book definitely stands up well over time.  I would recommend it for some good old fashioned high adventure and treasure hunting.

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