The story begins when renowned safari hunter Allan Quatermain agrees to help Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good search for King Solomon's legendary cache of diamonds. Eager to find out what is tru, whit is myth, and what is really buried in the darkness of the mines, the tireless adventurers delve into the Sahara's treacherous Veil of Sand, where they stumble upon a mysterious lost tribe of African warriors. Finding themselves in deadly peril from that country's cruel king and the evil sorceress who conspires behind his throne, the explorers escape, but what they seek could be the most savage trap of all--the forbidden, impenetrable, and spectacular King Solomon's Mines.
I'm glad that I did (sorry it took me so long, Quatermain), because this is a fun, exciting adventure. I wish I had read it the day I took it home from that book sale as a kid, because this book reminded me of childhood adventure stories. There is a small group of people setting out on a dangerous journey, in which of course all sorts of dangers occur, but in the end through bravery and luck, everything turns out happily. It was familiar, but satisfying.
The plot is that Allan Quatermain, a wild game hunter in 1800's Africa, is recruited by two other men to search for lost treasure - a diamond mine of unimaginable wealth. Apparently, others have gone before them searching for the same diamonds (including a brother of one of the men in the party) but no one has ever survived. Or, that's what we have to assume, since no one ever came back. Quatermain and his two friends, joined by an African bushman, journey across mountains and deserts, surviving thirst, hunger, murderous native tribes, witch doctors, and other such perils.
I really loved that this book was set in South Africa, as my boyfriend is from there. In fact, he is from Durban, in the KwaZulu-Natal region, which is the most specific setting that the book ever offers us. I've been slowly learning Afrikaans from my boyfriend over the past 2 years, but rarely - in fact, never ever - have I found any use for it. So I can't describe how delighted I was to come across quite a few words I recognized.
Haggard throws some dashes of comedy into the story, too. I thought that their first encounter with the natives was absolutely hilarious. Hunter tribesman come upon the group when Good is in the middle of dressing and shaving. He also has false teeth and glasses, leading the natives to think that he is a god. They think that he grows hair on only one side of his face, and assume that there must be some deep significance to the fact that he goes about with his legs bare. When he later attempts to put pants on, they say "Would my lord cover up his beautiful white legs?" So for the rest of the time he is with the natives, Good must keep shaving one side of his face and banish any pants.
Quatermain also furthers the natives assumptions by telling them great stories about how they are from the stars. It was pretty funny.
Besides adventure and comedy, a few parts in the book also got quite detailed, in a Jules Verne type of manner. Our narrator goes into great detail about the supplies they are taking with them, and then goes on to tell us all about the wagons that will be holding the supplies, and the oxen that will be pulling these wagons. He even launches into a few paragraphs about how to immunize oxen against disease - tips for anyone traveling the wilds of Africa, I suppose.
I know that others would see it as tedious, but I just love tiny little insignificant details like that.
As for the negative, I didn't like Quatermain's disrespect toward animals and his occasional racist quips, though the racist part wasn't exactly unexpected, as this was written by a man of 1800's British Africa. Quatermain has a habit of describing natives and animals with negative words like "brutes" and "wretches" for no apparent reason. The African people are there for him to dismiss as beneath him, and the beautiful African animals are there for him to slaughter.
In the old tradition, Quatermain begins the narrative by telling us that he is speaking about his experiences and is relating the tale for his son. He never addresses his son in any part of the book, so I felt that this "fireside story" was pretty pointless. If anything, all that it does is tell the reader that Quatermain is going to get out of everything okay, because he lives to tell the story, after all. And even worse, another reason he gives in the beginning for writing the book is that his two traveling companions, Good and Curtis, want him to. Alright, great, now we know that not only the main character, but ALL THREE of the main characters will survive. It made the climatic scenes just a bit less suspenseful.
Quatermain never really came alive as a character for me. I think that from what I have seen, Haggard is better at writing vivid, exotic settings than grounded, realistic people. Quatermain describes himself a few times in the beginning chapters as a "timid, cautious man," but his past and future experiences make me wonder what would ever make him say this. He's an elephant and lion hunter on a deadly journey through the African wilderness, after all! Maybe he's just a bad describer, going back to the whole pointlessly calling gazelles "brutes" thing.
My main problem with Quatermain, far more hindering to the story than mislabeling some gazelles, was that he seemed so lacking in passion and personality. When Good and Curtis try to get him to come with them on their journey, he agrees without ever giving a reason. Is he a thrill-seeker? Loves an adventure? Is bored with life and wants something new? Seeking treasure? Lover of mysterious African lore? Something... Anything?
Well, no. None of those options. Or maybe all of them. We just never know.
Quatermain agrees to go, but never gives a reason. In fact he appears to just agree right on the spot without even thinking it over, but tells the two men only minutes later that he does not believe they will find any diamonds, and that they will probably die. At least they're starting their journey off on a realistic note, I suppose!
Quatermain remains icy cool and calm in the most hopeless of situations, and the only traces of humanity we ever see in him are some slight nostalgia or appreciation over the untamed beauty of the African landscape. Needless to say, noting a sunset here and a birdcall there are far from enough to fill him out as a character.
Hopefully, the next books in the series will provide a more likable Quatermain, but even if they don't, I'll still read them.
"King Solomon's Mines" was a fun adventure that I got through quite quickly. Or... quite slowly, if you count the 10 lamentable years it has sat on my shelf (shelves) untouched.
The story is engaging, and the voice of the "narrator" of the piece shows a writer at the full peak of his talent. He manages to maintain the line between Quatermain's natural voice and the voice of someone attempting to write a proper narrative for others to read, which maintains the fiction of Quatermain writing about his experiences very well.
The humour is often unexpected, the story is well-paced, and the action is well-written. It's not a deep read, but it's a thoroughly engaging one.
I was pleasantly surprised by the humor in the book. The story is laced with laugh-out-loud passages like this one:
As those who read this history will probably long ago have gathered, I am, to be honest, a bit of a coward, and certainly in no way given to fighting, though somehow it has often been my lot to get into unpleasant positions, and to be obliged to shed man's blood. But I have always hated it, and kept my own blood as undiminished in quantity as possible, sometimes by a judicious use of my heels.
Haggard's style reminds me of Mark Twain, and the plot bears some similarities to parts of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Haggard's book came first, and it would seem that it had some influence on Twain.
This is a book I've wanted to read ever since reading Elizabeth Peters' The Last Camel Died at Noon a couple of years ago. Now I know why Peters was a fan. The book will also appeal to readers who love adventure movies like the Indiana Jones series and the National Treasure films.
What follows is a real Indiana Jones story that had me completely absorbed from start to finish. First the desert must be navigated, then there are mountains to cross, only for the exhausted trio to find themselves embroiled in a bitter tribal war on the other side. It could have been so dull, but Quatermain's plentiful dry humour and beautiful flights of description proved irresistable. The excitement and suspense is genuinely riveting - there are a couple of deliciously gruesome moments that sent me mentally diving behind my sofa cushion - and when I reached the last page I felt utterly bereft. Having been so completely immersed in the trio's African exploits, I wasn't quite sure what I could read next that could POSSIBLY compare (always the sign of a great book!).
The characters are exquisite creations, each and every one of them. Sir Henry, the great fair Viking with his deep integrity and ferocious strength as a warrior. Captain Good, with his eye glass, impressive swearing abilities (never rendered here, by the way!) and determination to dress like a gentleman despite the harsh conditions. Even foul old Gagool, the ancient and evil Kukuana witch doctress, was so brilliantly drawn that I felt a wave of revulsion every time she graced the page with her presence. The biggest thing I'll take away from the book, the element that will stick with me the most, is the incredible set-piece imagery, some of which wouldn't seem out of place in a Lord of the Rings film. I think certain 'snapshots' from the book are forever imprinted on my memory, they're so unforgettable. The great twin mountain peaks at sunrise. A wounded bull elephant charging through the trees. Key moments from the tribal war. The moment when the trio first enter the Kukuana Place of Death (that was perhaps the most memorable scene of all for me). I mean... wow. I'm actually glad that no decent film adaptation of the book has ever been made, because now I'm not tempted to watch it. It'd take a damn fine movie to match up to the pictures in my mind! Perhaps I should write to Peter Jackson...
Setting: South Africa about 1890 maybe?
Yes, this has some graphic descriptions of an elephant hunt. In fact, the main character, Allan Quartermain is a hunter. That's how he makes his living, killing animals, especially elephants, for their hides and their ivory. Yes, there is a lot of racism in the book. Some racial epithets, but even more a feeling of white man's superiority that permeates the whole book. By the end of the book, I think that the white folks are more tolerant of the black, but there is still a gap. So if that is going to keep you from enjoying the book, I'm warning you now not to pick it up.
But I loved it. I'm not sure what it says about me that I could overlook that, if that means there are some deep hidden character flaws or if it means that I am more shallow than the rest or what, but I stinking loved this book. It was a kick butt adventure yarn. Elephant stampedes, Sheba's Breasts (that made me giggle), treasure maps, missing brothers, diamond mines, evil witch doctor ladies, it totally has it all. And I got it for free for my Kindle. You absolutely can't beat that. Now I'm going to find more by this author and save them for when I'm having a really rotten day and need something absorbing and fun to make me feel better. 5 stars.
I haven't read Treasure Island, but if it's anything like Stevenson's Kidnapped, which I read and enjoyed a few weeks ago, I would personally say that Haggard failed his bet. King Solomon's Mines contains all the elements of a proper adventure novel - kitting up for an expedition, nearly dying in the wilderness, uncovering a Lost World kingdom, huge battles, restoring a rightful king, beiing trapped in a treasure chamber etc. - it's almost as though he's following a recipe.
I found myself quite bored throughout, particularly during the wooden and lifeless battle scenes. This is fairly typical of 19th century novels, as far as I'm concerned, and it was more that Kidnapped pleasantly surprised me than that King Solomon's Mines let me down. But Stevenson is certainly the better writer; he has a wit and a charm about him that is wholly lacking in Haggard, which is unsurprising, given that the latter wrote a formulaic novel just to win five pounds.
It includes all the stock elements of a Jungian search for the Self -- [this might be a spoiler if you don't know the tropes of the adventure novel] the secret treasure and its map, the lost brother, the trek through the pitiless desert, the isolated & savage kingdom, the twin Kings -- one noble & betrayed & the other 'cruel and sensual' (103), the exiled heir to the throne, the sacrificed maiden, the crone/witch, the treasure chamber deep in the earth & secured by a locking mechanism.
Again from the bio: E.M. Forster once made an observation about 'the novelist sending down a bucket into the unconscious.' V.S. Pritchert elaborated on this notion, claiming that Haggard 'installed a suction pump. He drained the whole reservoir of the people's secret desires.' (pg x)
When describing an African landscape, Haggard's elephant-hunter hero happily states his biases: ' ... here and there a white house, smiling out at the placid sea, puts a finish and gives an air of homeliness to the scene. For to my mind, however beautiful a view may be, it requires the presence of man to make it complete, but perhaps that is because I have lived so much in the wilderness, and therefore know the value of civilisation, though to be sure it drives away the game. The Garden of Eden, no doubt, was fair before man was, but I always think it must have been fairer when Eve was walking about it.' (26)
Allen Quartermain is a tough old hunter in the African bush who is hired by a rich Englishman, Sir Henry Curtis, to cross the desert to a mysterious land where he believes his estranged brother has gone in quest of treasure. The legendary diamonds of King Solomon's mines have never quite left the memory and imagination of the area, and many a man had gone to seek them, never to return. But Quartermain has some secret information of his own, and on this slender hope the men set out. Accompanying them is Captain John Goode, of the false teeth and eyeglass that play such a memorable part once they arrive at their destination.
When they do finally reach the land beyond the desert, they find an isolated African culture that has survived untouched by the outside world for many hundreds of years. Before they can begin their search for Sir Henry's brother (and those fabled diamonds, along the way), they are swept into a civil war in which a faction seeks to depose the wicked king in favor of the rightful heir. These intrigues and battles make up the bulk of the story, and when they finally get to the treasure hunt it seems a bit of an anticlimax. Still, the story carries on and the suspense picks up again with the ancient mines dug for King Solomon and the unimaginable treasure—and danger—they hold for the travelers.
Early on Quartermain tells us that there are "no women" in the tale, but this isn't strictly true. There's a lovely native woman named Foulata who has a part to play. But she is overshadowed by another female character—this one a femme fatale in Gagool, the ancient witch who helped set the current king on the throne. Gagool's grotesque appearance and behavior almost de-sex her as an anomalous monster, not a woman at all. And to further emphasize my point that the story is not devoid of aspects of the feminine, the two mountains at the entry of the country are called by the racy name of "Sheba's Breasts." I must say I found this a bit shocking, especially in light of the story's original date of publication.
We can't really talk about this book without mentioning race relations. Initially I was impressed by Quarterman's deliberate decision to use the word "native" rather than "nigger," but he does show a careless, casual disrespect toward the Africans (calling a native man "quite clever for a native" and addressing him as "boy"). But anything else would be entirely unnatural for the period. Also, Quartermain provides a home/job for one of his native hunters who was wounded too badly to hunt again. As the story develops, you can seethe increasing respect he has for Umbopa, their native guide and an impressive man in his own right. At several points Quartermain compares Umbopa to Sir Henry, observing how each is a perfect specimen of his race and a fine sight seen with the other.
Modern readers may also be put off by the casual and occasionally detailed descriptions of hunting elephants for their ivory. I understand this is quite accurate to the period, and I don't have a problem with hunting non-endangered animals. But I was still glad when the story moved on.
I listened to this on audiobook, read by Simon Prebble, and it really was a pleasure. Perhaps it is not as highbrow as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness which I also recently finished, but infinitely more enjoyable. Recommended.
The notes in my Penguin Classics edition are a little basic, but that's probably because there's not much to note, and Robert Hampson feels compelled to say something.
Sir Henry Curtis (Incubu) is searching for his last brother who was last scene on his way to find the illusive King Solomon’s Mines, which are allegedly filled with diamonds. Curtis hires Quatermain (Macumazahn) to travel with him with the stipulation that if Quatermain dies, which he fully expects to, Curtis will provide for his son. Curtis’ friend Captain John Good (Bougwan) will also embark on the quest.
As the three men begin their journey they have no idea what’s in store for them; harsh desserts, elephant hunting, a war between tribes and so much more. Though parts of the story were predictable, they were still entertaining and the plot never lags. The adventure story had real heart, which made it stand apart from more generic versions.
I loved Quatermain’s honesty. There are moments when he says he doesn’t want to fight because it’s senseless, courage be damned. He’s honorable and sincere, a true friend to the end. I absolutely thing he deserves a spot in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
If nothing else, however, it's a good, classic story to have under the belt for all those references to it in other stories, shows, and movies.
The basic story:
Allen Quatermain has made his home in Africa, and while on a ship back to his home, he enters into conversation with two men, one of whom has decided to go and look for his brother whom he has not seen in some time and whom he fears to be lost. It turns out that his brother may have gone to seek the lost diamond mines of King Solomon, and on hearing this, Quartermain tells of an old map which has come into his possession, telling the location of this alleged treasure. The three set out with a Zulu native, who has his own reasons (untold to the group) as to why he wants to accompany them. Along the way they have some strange encounters, none the least of which is an evil witch.
Very very fun, and you can almost hear the theme song to the Indiana Jones movies as you read!