sillouette of a person wearing a mining helmet that shines a light off to the side

King Solomon's Mines

by H. Rider Haggard

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Critical Evaluation

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This story of the search for King Solomon’s legendary lost treasure, hidden in the land of the Kukuanas, provides absorbing reading for children and adults alike. The slaughter provoked by the cruelty of King Twala and the character of the ancient sorceress, Gagool, make King Solomon’s Mines a book that is not soon forgotten. This, the first great African adventure novel, set the pattern for a host of jungle stories to follow, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan epics (the first of which was published in 1912) to serious novels such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King (1959).

H. Rider Haggard chooses his heroes for maximum dramatic effect. Allan Quatermain, the narrator, is the thorough professional. He is a moderate, practical, cost-conscious man, courageous when he has to be but quite willing to avoid danger if given the option; he is a firm believer in brain over brawn. Sir Henry Curtis is the more typical hero. Where Quatermain is rational and careful, Curtis is emotional and extravagant. Quatermain is the mechanical expert, especially with guns, but Sir Henry is most at home with primitive weapons and becomes fearsome in hand-to-hand combat. In short, Sire Henry is the natural warrior; it is he who kills the one-eyed villain, King Twala.

Captain John Good, the former naval officer, is the one hero who seems out of place in the depths of Africa. He is fastidious and fussy. His personal quirks and unusual accessories—such as his monocle, his false teeth that “snap” into place, his formal attire, and his delicate white legs—provide the necessary comic relief. Late in the novel, however, these humorous details become crucial plot elements when Good’s half-shaved face and bare legs are taken as signs of divinity by the hostile natives. Although the characterizations are neither deep nor complex, they are vivid and thoroughly convincing.

Haggard also keeps the plot simple and the language plain, as Quatermain states in offering his “apologies for my blunt way of writing . . . simple things are always the most impressive, and books are easier to understand when they are written in plain language.” The plot is organized around the most basic adventure formula—the treasure hunt—and has all the necessary ingredients: a mysterious map; an exotic, even mythic, destination; an unknown, dangerous terrain; and a pair of grotesque, diabolical villains. Haggard carefully develops his story by subjecting his heroes to a series of crises that become progressively more dangerous, more extreme, and more fantastic.

No matter how exotic these adventures become, the author keeps them believable with his matter-of-fact language and his careful, realistic use of detail. Calling upon his own youthful experiences in Africa, Haggard supports every incident with relevant particulars. Quatermain, the thoroughly seasoned professional, uses the best equipment, detailed accurately, and demonstrates his expertise in dozens of small ways: handling animals, negotiating with natives, organizing and directing their hunts, and supervising the day-to-day safari routine. As the men encounter more unusual environments, Haggard continues to reinforce his narrative with concrete details. The natives’ equipment, social and military organizations, tribal customs, and religious rituals are described with precision. Even the most fantastic sequences in the novel—the exploration of Solomon’s mines, the discovery of the giant figures and the Place of Death, the search through the treasure room, and the escape through the underground tunnel—are explained minutely and logically by historical speculation, biblical references, and native folklore. Since the novel takes place in an area that was, at the time, as yet unexplored, the book seems “authentic,” and many of its first readers even thought that the story was true.

As one of the first and best of the popular modern adventure novelists, Haggard understood the basic rule of escapist fiction: If the imaginative adventure is to succeed, the world the reader escapes to must be as real as the one he lives in, however improbable the particular events may be.

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