King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard
In a discussion with a certain fellow Legacy Teacher the two of us were discussing what books and short stories the Legacy Students here should be able to read. I suggested the short story “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry, which she printed out last night for the students today. She suggested King Solomon’s Mines, a novel that I had never read. Since she warmly recommended it, I decided that I should try to read the novel as soon as possible, and it was fortunate that the novel happened to be on Project Gutenberg .
King Solomon’s Mines is a novel that is considered a young man’s novel, one of the Late Victorian classics of that genre, and it is the modesty and humanity of narrator Allan Quatermain (one of the heroes of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where I first heard of him myself), whose refusal to call Africans by the n-word shows his extraordinary sensitivity to the dignity and gentlemanly status of people across ethnic boundaries. It is this basic humanity that makes this book particular poignant in its portrayal of the mixture of ambition, love between estranged brothers, greed, and historical curiosity that lead three Englishmen and some native associates far from civilization into an area with great historical interest that, supposedly, contains King Solomon’s Mines.
This novel does not talk a lot about women, though it does feature one particularly appealing young African woman who has a chaste but passionate relationship with the naval officer of the group who helped save her life from being sacrificed to barbaric heathen historical gods from the Bible, and also one very old witch who tries to trap the heroes in the diamond mines at a key part of the story. The book does provide some interesting thought into ancient construction and the constant lure of precious metals and items for peoples, bringing areas into civilization strictly for exploitation of their natural resources. The book hints that Westerners are only the latest of a long line of empires that have sought to spread their tendrils far and wide to take in the resources of the world for their own profit and to enrich their culture’s beauty.
Aside from a few difficult adjectives, and one rather accurate reference to Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, and a few biblical references and at least one cited reference to Shakespeare, the book is generally accessible to a wide audience even now. The fact that a book that references so many sources should be considered juvenile literature suggests that children used to be much more well-read than they seem to be these days. That said, I would have liked to have read King Solomon’s Mines as a child myself. It is precisely the sort of book I have always enjoyed reading–an action packed novel with excellent characters, a good prose style that avoids too many extraneous details, and a generally humane worldview.
And let us at least discuss the plot a little bit, because the plot is what many readers (especially the target audience of young and old boys) would be drawn to initially. The novel starts with a party of three in search of adventure as well as finding the whereabouts of one of the adventurer’s brothers, who had been estranged across long distances because of an unfortunate brotherly rivalry. Part of the novel is a travelogue of their trek into ever more remote country in some remote area like Zambia or northeastern Namibia that is probably still remote. Then the novel takes an interesting political turn and shows a civil war among an ancient people related to the Zulu before going into the mines themselves and then having a satisfying but rather sudden ending.
This is a satisfying novel on many levels. It has intriguing historical speculations, great plots and characters, and a worthy worldview that manages to defend the importance of family and loyalty and honesty and modesty and decency while also showing respect and providing dignity to men and women of a wide variety of ethnic origins. Such a novel would be worthwhile today, where it written, but for a novel of its time it was particularly enlightened. I must therefore thank Hanna once again for her excellent taste in books , and helping to enrich my own reading. If you are looking for a reasonably brisk and worthwhile work of classic adventure novels with a hint of biblical intrigue, this is a very satisfying read for readers of all ages.