Wednesday, October 12, 2011

King Solomon's Mines (H. Rider Haggard)

King Solomon's Mines
H. Rider Haggard
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Adventure
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Allan Quartermain, an aging English-born elephant hunter in the wilds of colonial Africa, faces danger on a daily basis, yet somehow has managed to outlive most every other white hunter on the continent. During a trip to his home in Durban, he meets a pair of countrymen on a quest to the legendary mines of King Solomon, rumored to lie in an unexplored mountain range beyond a lethal desert. None who have sought the mines ever returned alive, and only madmen's ravings speak of the dangerous route. With the promise of diamonds and wealth unimaginable - tempting prizes for a man nearing his twilight years, with a son to support no less - Quartermain joins the expedition, a journey that will prove more perilous than any maddened bull elephant, hunting lion, or bloodthirsty native.

REVIEW: One of the classic adventure stories, it remains a readable tale even today, with plenty of adventure amid exotic locales and warring natives. The Victorian attitude - with the White Man entitled to ownership of the world and its bounty, and all other races "knowing their place" beneath British rule - shines through loud and clear, but this was the mindset to which Haggard and his audience were no doubt accustomed. (I cannot help thinking, reading this book, just how shocking it must have been to them when the native peoples of the world rose up in anger against British rule; they would probably have understood their own dogs rising up better than the notion of non-white bipeds possessing feelings and intellects on par with their own. They also would've been flabbergasted at the idea of Earth's endless bounty teetering on the edge of oblivion... but, then, I'm a modern human and I can scarcely comprehend what my species has done to its only known habitat in the Universe.) Looking past the dated attitudes, Haggard crafts a story so filled with dangers and treacheries and ancient wonders that it comes close to parodying itself. The story isn't without a certain sense of humor, though, so perhaps Haggard knew exactly what he was doing. Even the manner in which Quartermain and his fellow Englishmen dupe the natives of the lost valley into thinking them visitors from the Stars has a tongue-in-cheek air... or maybe that's just a modern mind reading into a scenario that has become a chestnut by now. It's been said that Allan Quartermain was one of the chief inspirations for the character of Indiana Jones, and I can certainly see hints of Jones here; Quartermain makes no pretense to bravery for bravery's sake, yet somehow keeps ending up in dire predicaments where cowardice would be lethal. All told, I can see why this is still considered a classic adventure tale, and if it isn't quite my cup of cocoa, I'm still glad that I finally read it.

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