Saturday, February 23, 2008

H. Rider Haggard

King Solomon's Mines
by H. Rider Haggard
Recommended Age: 14+

You may, just possibly, have heard of or seen the movie based on this book, starring Sharon Stone, Richard Chamberlain, and a very typecast John Rhys Davies. After I read this book, I rented the tape and couldn't even watch it all the way through. Not only was it one of the worst movies I have ever seen, but it was so loosely based on the book that I didn't recognize anything, not one thing, about it except the title and the main character, Allan Quartermain. [EDIT: On the other hand, it was obvious why this movie inspired Stephen Spielberg to create Indiana Jones.]

Nevertheless, this classic from the year 1885 is worth reading, though you may not find it in your school library. It is frightfully "politically incorrect." I feel bound to caution you that, being the memoir of an adventurous 19th-century South African elephant hunter, its political incorrectness is double-edged.

One reason you wouldn't get away with reading this book in public school is that it has very primitive attitudes towards African black people. At the beginning of the novel Quartermain (as narrator) declares that he doesn't like the N-word, but he has no trouble using the equally offensive term Kafir; and his outlook on blacks is so patronizing, and the way he dismisses the idea of a white man marrying a black woman is so cold-blooded, that one can easily imagine the trouble a teacher could get into for reading this to his or her class. It would probably be banned in a lot of schools if parents knew about it. But, in spite of this, it's a good story and it does portray some black characters in a very noble light, even perhaps shining a little irony on the narrator's point of view.

On the other hand, elephant hunting for sport doesn't exactly play in Peoria either. I believe the ivory trade is now banned in most countries and is only carried on illegally now. And, to tell the truth, the zestful accounts of elephant hunts depicted in this book are full of the very reason people don't believe in hunting like that any more: the senseless slaughter of magnificent animals, only to take small portions of their bodies (the tusks for ivory, the hearts for meat, and maybe the feet for trash cans!). It's so mindlessly cruel that it's no wonder no one dares to make a movie that accurately depicts the book. But in that case, why attempt to make a movie at all?

So this book is, shall we say, dated. But it is a rousing adventure told in a winsome, gripping way. The narrator, Allan Quartermain (who was also the title character of a later novel by the same author), is an Englishman making a living in South Africa as a hunter and trader. Kind of an autobiographical character, I think, as Haggard himself had a number of diverse adventures and careers in South Africa before the Boer War.

Anyway, in the novel Quartermain is hired to lead a mission into the harshest desert of the African interior, to find the long-lost brother of an English nobelman named Sir Henry Curtis, who is accompanied by a fashionable young naval officer named Captain Good. Aided by a handful of natives, they make their way into the interior hunting game along the way, then traverse a practically impassible desert, then manage to cross an equally impassible mountain range, and then find themselves smack in the middle of a war of revolution in a hidden valley untouched by the outside world...and finally they have a hair-raising adventure in the tomb-like treasury where long ago, unknown ancients left a vast hoard of diamonds, gold, and ivory.

It's a tale of action and suspense, survival and camaraderie, with lots of blood and guts and even a touch of the love story. And of course at the end, "King Solomon's Mines" are lost forever...but Quartermain gets away with a pocketful of diamonds, so all is not entirely lost.

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