Written in 1885, King Solomon’s Mines is an adventure novel following Allan Quartermain as he travels across an uncharted Africa searching for a lost man and a mythical treasure. At face value, it’s as simple as that, though like the titular diamond mine there is more buried beneath the surface.The novel holds an odd place in my mind, it’s one I’ve been aware of for as long as I can remember but not with any great reverence. I didn’t consider it a ‘must read’ before I started making more of an effort to read classics, it didn’t bother me that I hadn’t read it and now that I have, I can’t say I was wrong in either opinion.
Allan Quartermain seemed to have a legacy I was only barely aware of too, yet somehow separate from this, his first and most famous outing. Perhaps that’s more due to his appearance in the flimsy-but-fun League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film and portrayal by Sir Sean Connery.
Quartermain, in Haggard’s universe at least, appears in 13 novels and two collections of stories spanning over 40 years. By various measures, he’s as prevalent as James Bond, Tintin or Sherlock Holmes, but hasn’t quite carried into modern popular culture the same way. Though he’s been adapted into film several times, Connery’s effort is the most memorable, which says it all.
Some of that could be down to the attitudes displayed by Quartermain towards Africans and women, that are plain repellent. While there’s no issue portraying characters with those flaws, it’s troubling to the modern reader when they’re on show from our hero.
Giles Foden, writing in the Guardian, seems to agree. He notes “it has become a novel one must defend against charges of misogyny and racism” and that “there is some unspeakable stuff in King Solomon’s Mines”.
The book must be understood as being of its time, for it to be anything else would detract from the feel of authenticity Haggard brings over from his life experiences. Yet, despite this, the novel never feels cruel or spiteful, more a record of the era. Quartermain’s occasional philosophical commentary seems to apply to all men equally (if seldom woman) and never holds the behaviour of his white peers, who he has chosen to leave many miles behind, in any great esteem.
Haggard’s writing and Quartermain’s story bounds along like a leaf caught in a flowing river, always moving along, seemingly out of control, but over time moving smoothly from start to end. He is a master at building tension as characters wait in the crisp stillness before a battle then force their way through bloody rampages to discover who made it alive.
Perhaps due to its incredibly longevity, King Solomon’s Mines feels lighter and less consequential than its reputation suggests. While there is more to the novel than the adventure, touching on Africa, war and bravery in the face of death, it’s hard to argue there’s a rich seam within in, rather a collection of humble treasures. Haggard’s work, full of excitement and entertainment will of course last another 100 years. Diamonds are forever, after all.
About the Author
H. Rider Haggard was born in 1856 and is best known for his Allan Quartermain and She series of novels, which crossed over in 1921’s She and Allan. Haggard died in 1925, having written an astonishing 56 novels.