Saturday, July 30, 2016

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Source of book: I own this, but we listened to the Audiobook version.

This was our final audiobook for our summer camping trip. We failed to finish it during the trip because we ran out of road before we ran out of disks. I essentially overestimated travel times, which could mean one of a few things. Perhaps because we had a lot of two-lane roads, my speed towing the trailer was closer to the estimated speeds for Google Maps. Or perhaps I am getting faster with towing experience. Or maybe I padded the times for narrower roads than we actually ended up on. Anyway, we had about 3 hours worth left, which we have listened to at home on the evenings my wife is at work. 

 From the first edition. This is one of the best scenes.

Anyway, I first read this story back in my teens, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that while the real life explorer Hiram Bingham was a real life version of Indiana Jones, it was the novels of H. Rider Haggard which contributed most to the atmosphere - and plot points - of the movies. The ideas for the booby traps, stone doors with hidden mechanisms, exotic locations, thousand year old humans, and more come straight out of Haggard’s books. The rapid aging scene from The Last Crusade is stolen, nearly beat for beat, from She, as the most obvious example.

Re-experiencing this book was both fun and disappointing.

First the bad: Haggard is a definite product of the 19th Century. He is disgustingly racist and colonialist and some passages are painful in the extreme. When I was young, I was better able to ignore that factor and just enjoy the story. It’s not that I didn’t know it was racist, but that it was easier to assume that the stereotypes were, like slavery, an artifact of the past. Well, not so much, as I have come to realize more and more as I have aged.

On the other hand, one of the challenges of reading older literature is seeing things through the lens of the times. It may not seem shocking now, but Haggard was considered controversial in his time because he actually came close to putting an interracial marriage in this book. He felt he had to kill off the African woman or the book would never have been published, but he presents Foulatta as a suitable mate for Captain Good. In fact, one thing that struck me this time is that she is presented as a clear representation of the Victorian female ideal: the “ministering angel.” Yes, this is sexist. That’s Victorian literature for you. But the very fact that a black woman was written as taking the role that an ideal white woman would have must have been shocking to many at the time.

The other factor that mitigates Haggard’s prejudice in this book is that he does write his African characters as fully realized people. Although they are often viewed as savages, several major characters are presented as noble, intelligent, honorable, and formidable. At one point Ignosi and Sir Henry are able to acknowledge that they have much in common. “We are men, you and I.”

Still, it suffers from the old trope of the white savior and the easily wowed savage.

I think that it has been, on the whole, good to expose my kids to stuff like this and then discuss how stereotypes linger. It helps explain things like why a friend hates her brown eyes and brown skin, for example. Our culture values whiteness as ideal beauty.

In many ways, I am glad that my kids’ first and favorite exposure to African settings was Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Ramotswe books, which have a more modern sensibility and tackle racial issues with both tact and unflinching probing. 

I’ll also note in the bad category the indiscriminate slaughter of elephants for their tusks. But again, back then, nobody believed they were endangered. The cautionary tale of the Dodo bird had not yet impacted European or American thought. It would take the extinction of the Carrier Pigeon to do that, unfortunately.

Now, for the good:

King Solomon’s Mines is an outstanding adventure, from back when there really were unexplored places which could hold anything. In the vein of Jules Verne, the unknown was still undiscovered. Space was not yet the final frontier. 

The book is considered the first of the “Lost World” genre, which still fascinates today. (Tomb Raider, among others.) I remember as a young kid watching the Land That Time Forgot movies with my dad, discovering Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, and later Lost Horizon by James Hilton - the origin of “Shangri-La.” (Hilton’s other books are good too.) Even the various Star Trek series mine this idea. There is something endlessly fascinating about the potential discovery of civilizations untouched by modernity.

Haggard dreams up fantastic places, dangerous terrain, lost peoples, ancient roads and mines, and fantastic wealth. The idea of civilizations that have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years must have appealed in the days of colonialism. After all, much as the United States is a young country, Europe itself is a young civilization compared with ancient Egypt, China, and India.

I also remembered why I loved the character of Allan Quatermain so much. He is the man many of us dreamed of being in some way. He is short, not terribly strong. He is, as he puts it, “a natural coward,” always seeking ways to avoid violence if possible, and preferring to use his head rather than his gun. He is also a worrier - I sympathize with that too. In many ways, he turns the “Big Game Hunter” stereotype on its head. He lacks bluster, brawn, and machismo. He has serious chutzpah, though, and plays his hand well.

My kids were mixed about this book. My older daughters thought it was boring. Except that my second daughter liked the battle scenes. (She is a bit macabre, and likes blood and guts.) My sons, on the other hand, liked it a great deal. Since Haggard warns at the beginning that there are “no petticoats” in this book - the white characters are all male, and the main female character, Gagool, is thoroughly evil - it might be natural that the girls weren’t as into the story.

The boys particularly liked the humorous scenes with Captain Good. Basically, Good is interrupted in the middle of his elaborate toilet, so his first appearance to Ignosi’s tribe is half-shaven, with his pants off. Because of the circumstances (Quatermain claims they are from “the stars” in order to avoid a beheading…) Good has to remain like this, to his extreme consternation, for some time. Classic humor at the expense of a dandy.

So, I guess, I’ll give this book a qualified recommendation. It’s a pretty thrilling tale. But it had a lot that was racist and colonialist too. Enjoy, but be prepared to discuss some heavy issues. 


Fun additional fact: Haggard got his start with this book, after a bet. His brother bet him a shilling that he couldn’t write a better book than Treasure Island. It took a few tries to get it published, but it became a success, and launched Haggard’s career. No word on who won the bet, however. I think Treasure Island remains higher in the pantheon, but both novels have had far-reaching influence on culture. Between the adventure genre and the pirate genre, much of what we think of when we think of lost civilizations and hidden treasure come from these two authors. 


Don’t even start with the movies. There is no way Sharon Stone or Deborah Kerr belong in this tale. Ever. In any way. Sorry. But Idris Elba and Lupita Nyong’o as Ignosi and Gagool? That would rock.


  1. I sing in choir with Hiram Bingham's grandson. Bingham's son, Hiram IV, secretly smuggled Jews out of France during WWII while working at the State Department. My choir mate is Hiram IV's son Robert Kim Bingham, who got into his dad's Wikipedia article below because he got him on a commemorative stamp. The Simon Wiesenthal Center Medal of Valor mentioned is on the wall of the family's huge rambling 18th-century house where my choir has their Christmas party every year.

    1. If you haven't, then, you absolutely must read Mark Adams' Turn Right at Machu Picchu, which retraces one of Bingham's expeditions. Great book.