King Solomon’s Mines & She – Review

H. Rider Haggard. “Hunter Quatermain’s Story.” Amazon Digital Services, 17 May 2012. E-book.
—————. King Solomon’s Mines. 1907; Amazon Digital Services, 17 May 2012. E-book.
—————. She. 1886;, 30 July 2010. E-book.

King Solomon’s Mines is one of those books I wanted to read for years. Since I was doing some Doyle, I got inspired to read some other Victorian adventure stories, so King Solomon’s Mines beckoned.

King Solomon’s Mines is a solid, if slightly imperialistic, yarn. It introduces us to the “great white hunter” Allan Quatermain, who would become the hero of a number of Haggard’s books. It helps us to remember that at the time this was originally written in the 1880s, the middle of Africa was, in the words of Thoreau, still “white on the chart.” Much of the continent was still not mapped or explored by Westerners.

As in Treasure Island or many gothic novels, South African Quatermain possesses a three century old manuscript that describes a diamond mine of untold wealth that the Portuguese writer believes were first discovered under the reign of King Solomon. Indeed, the traditional monarchy of Ethiopia claimed descent from Solomon, though the mines in this novel are well to the south.

Quatermain, Sir Henry Curtis, Captain John Good, and a hand-picked native crew have to trek across a desert (unnamed, but presumably the Kalahari) and climb snow-capped mountains to get the isolated and uncharted land of the Kukuanas. The name echoes the Bechuanas, now called Botswana.

There is a certain exotic quality to the story; e.g., Captain Good falls in love with an attractive and kind Kukuana woman. Of course, there are caves, stone portals, and secret passages that take us to the mines. But King Solomon’s Mines is primarily a survival story.

On their return trip to Natal (this is before the country of South Africa was born), the survivors come across an oasis in the desert where two men, thought dead, have been living for a number of years. The narrator compares their lifestyle to that or Robinson Crusoe. While there is a treasure hunt as we see in Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines is not so much a swashbuckling adventure as it is a pure survival story. Lesser men with less experience and skill would have perished.

While the primary conflict is indeed man vs. nature, there is plenty of other action, too. At one point our adventurers find themselves in the middle of a Kukuana civil war. Quatermain’s most trusted African worker turns out to have Kukuana connections.

The men are able to communicate with the Kukuana because these people speak a language related to Zulu which Quatermain and some of the others speak. Quatermain hypothesizes that the Zulu may have originated to the north among the Kukuana. This may be set in Victorian times, but the perspective is African.

“Hunter Quatermain’s Story” is a short story that may be of some interest to Quatermain fans. It is set in London after the events of King Solomon’s Mines, but tells a brief hunting tale that took place before the novel.

Allan Quatermain is an African Natty Bumppo. Like Cooper’s hero, he prefers the uncivilized and wild. Like Bumppo, he is a good shot. And as Bumppo admires manly American Indians like Chingachgook, so Quatermain admires manly native Africans like the Zulu Umbopa.

I have never read a book quite like She. Compared to the other two works by Haggard, it is far more original at its core.

There are certain similarities to King Solomon’s Mines in She. There are a few ancient family letters and an inscribed potsherd that tell of an African queen of unusual beauty and magical power that have come down to Leo Vincey, a recent Cambridge graduate. He and the narrator, his guardian and Cambridge professor L. Horace Holly, sail to East Africa and with a small crew go to the interior to try to discover the lost kingdom mentioned in those ancient writings.

Rather than a desert, their chief obstacle is a vast swamp. When they do arrive at the land of the Amahagger, an isolated people group that inhabit an area unknown to the outside world whose ruins show it was once a great civilization. These people speak a form of Arabic, a language that both Englishmen studied at the university, so they are able to communicate using that language just as Quatermain could use Zulu with the Kakuana.

Compared to the Kakuana, the Amhagger are uncivilized. Quatermain understands their name to mean “People of the Rock,” suggesting the so-called Stone Age. They practice cannibalism—they attempt to kill and eat one of the men in the Holly party. The only thing that restrains them is the authority of their mysterious and apparently immortal and beautiful queen, She who shall not be named, or simply She. They fear her magic, and they know that she has a sense of justice that keeps them in line.

If King Solomon’s Mines is an adventure and survival story, She is something else. She is at its core fantasy. It might not come across as a total fantasy like Lord of the Rings, but that is only because it takes place in the contemporary world.

She who shall not be named tells her visitors that she has no magical powers. She has learned to do certain things, but others have done them before her. She has learned to keep herself young-looking and beautiful though she is two thousand years sold. Still, she admits that she is both human and mortal.

And she is a woman. Holly and Leo both confess they have never seen anyone as beautiful. We also find out that Leo is a dead ringer for an apparent ancestor that She was once in love with. Leo and Holly spend most of their time just observing and trying to figure out what is going on. She tries to win Leo’s love.

The ruined city of Kôr and She are fantastic. There is an air of mystery about both that the two men never attempt to solve. I read that both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were influenced by She. She herself, though morally more ambiguous and human, is a model for Jadis, the white witch. If you read chapters 24 to 26 in She, you have discovered the model for Mt. Doom.

The difference?

Haggard builds his fantasy of what he knows of the classics, Africa, and the Arabs of East Africa. Lewis builds on his knowledge of the classics and fairy tales. Tolkien builds on the Old English, Nordic, and Welsh folklore he studied and loved. I suspect that fans of Lewis and Tolkien will get a kick out of She.

P.S. As noted above, this reviewer used the Kindle editions of these stories. The online reviews posted on Amazon said that the edition of She available from Amazon had serious formatting problems. The Project Gutenberg version of She was fine. There were some minor formatting problems with a few footnotes, but otherwise it was a clean presentation.

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