Thursday, 22 February 2001

H. Rider Haggard: King Solomon's Mines (1885)

Edition: Minster Classics, 1968
Review number: 763

Even twenty years ago, King Solomon's Mines was probably read by most school children in England; I suspect that in the time since then it has proved a victim of political correctness.

It is an early thriller, in which South African elephant hunter Allan Quartermain joins an expedition into the unknown interior in searching for both the missing brother of the expedition's leader and the possibly mythical diamond mines, supposed source of Solomon's wealth, for which he was also searching.

The plot today seems rather far fetched, but in 1885 of course there were still large parts of Africa, even relatively close to the South African towns which were barely known by white men. The diamonds of Kimberley had only been discovered fairly recently, and there was no reason why there should not be vast unknown deposits further into the interior. The Solomonic side of the plot is clearly suggested by the Prester John legends and imperialist feelings that anything showing signs of civilization could not have originated in Africa but must have been the result of contacts with ancient cultures nearer Europe.

This final issue is the real problem with King Solomon's Mines today. It is abundantly clear throughout the novel that Quartermain regards the Africans as less than human. It is less clear that Haggard shared the views of his creation, but it is at least likely given his own background.

Cearly you cannot expect Haggard to be a hundred years ahead of his time. However, his writing would need to have something special about it to make the reader overlook its faults, and this is not the case. King Solomon's Mines no longer seems a particularly exciting novel; even the most famous scene (when Quartermain's party convince their captors of their magical powers by predicting a solar eclipse that an almanac tells them will take place the next day) is too far fetched to hold the interest. Poorly written, this is a novel which now deserves oblivion.

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