Every once and a while I like to go back to the classics. They’re the stories you hear referred to, but were never on your reading-list at school. Maybe they were the first of their kind, or the trend-setter to the trope we are so familiar with today! I had one such opportunity after helping family clean out old books: I found King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard.
Now, I know of this book from numerous mediums, including the Hollywood movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (based on the graphic novels) all the way to Monty Python’s Australian Wines sketch. So when Haggard’s book fell into my hand, I swept it up!
The story is written in the archaic way of rich description and thoughtful action that is representative of an older era, and probably more realistic pace of life, than today’s bestsellers. However, I like the old style, and the narrator, Alan Quartermain, a canny, risk-avoiding big game hunter in South Africa, who lures you into his tale with the attention to detail of a native guide who knows where he’s going and how to get you there.
What unravels then, at the pace of well-planned expedition—before planes and helicopters could take you places like Skull Island in a quick travel montage—is the epic journey of buying oxen, recruiting native bearers, and the long winded trek across the African landscape, through exotic animal herds, over burning deserts, up brutally cold mountains, and into the mystical Kukuanaland, where they face dangerous natives, conniving witch doctors, and navigate the legendary diamond mines of Solomon, complete with secret doors, and… is it a trap?!? It’s so well described that you feel you have actually been there, if you can handle all the walking!
I must say I enjoyed it. I think it is well written. And if you can remember that this story came before Indiana Jones, and every other treasure-hunter/archeological expedition movie you’ve ever seen–you can see the brilliance of it, and why it captured the imaginations of many people, and inspired many more stories of its ilk.
But it was horrifically racist.
And horrifically imperialist.
Set in an age when men were still impressed with themselves not only for what they could engineer, but also with what they could destroy, the book makes no apologies when its protagonists slaughter a massive herd of elephants, just in the hopes they can carry off the ivory at some later point. Also, especially Quartermain, is insulting and overbearing to his hired native servants, insisting that they cannot be as intelligent as a white man, and they should not speak to him as an equal even if they would be more noble or capable than any white man. Even to the point when a native girl who falls in love with one of his companions dies unfortunately, while Quartermain is saddened, but he is also secretly relieved because “the sun cannot mate with the darkness, nor the white with the black.”
Just reviewing this quote makes my stomach turn.
So while the general premise of the story is great, the action is believable, therefor the danger is believable, and the characters are compelling, I can only recommend it with the heavy caveat to arm yourself against the despicable racism, and the heartless imperialism, that is better left fully in the past. Good story; tainted worldview.
I give it a nogrometer reading of 6.