Hawking Up Hairballs

Sunday, April 02, 2006

King Solomon's Mines

I’ve recently read William T. Vollman’s You Bright And Risen Angels. He heads each chapter of that book with quotations. Some of them are attributed to H. Rider Haggard. I didn’t know who Haggard was, so I looked him up on the internet. As it turned out, Haggard, who lived from 1856 to 1925, was an Englishman who wrote adventure novels, the most well-known of which are King Solomon’s Mines and She. My interest was piqued, so I checked the former title out of the library, and decided that I would do a short piece on it before writing about Vollman’s novel.

King Solomon’s Mines is your basic narrative of a journey into the heart of darkness. Not to suggest that Haggard measures up to Joseph Conrad, but the tale in his book has that sort of structure. The protagonist, Allan Quatermain, leads a party into the depths of Africa in search of King Solomon’s treasure. After a long journey through the plains, followed by a perilous trek across the desert, and a climb into the snow-covered mountains, they arrive in the land of the Kukuana people. There they become embroiled in a civil war, but Quatermain and his party finally find the treasure that they were seeking. Unfortunately they have no way of getting it out, so they have to settle for a pocket full of diamonds. The diamonds are worth plenty, but they’ve left a fabulous treasure behind, a treasure that might well have made them the richest men in the world.

If one allows for the difference in eras, it’s not a bad story. It’s told in the manner of someone recounting the adventure to a circle of listeners. By today’s standards, which have been so heavily influenced by the cinematic, Haggard does too much “telling”, but not enough “showing”. It starts a bit slowly for my tastes as well but, once the story gets rolling, it moves at a sprightly pace. I read a 1999 reprint edition. It had a new introduction which referred to The Raiders of the Lost Ark as Haggard-like. I would agree. King Solomon’s Mines certainly shares the flavor of the movie.

As is usually the case in such novels, there is no blurring of the lines between good and evil, and King Solomon’s Mines is no exception on that score. Quatermain and company are honorable, loyal and intelligent. Twala, the usurper of the throne of the Kukuanas is large, loathsome and cruel, a man who conducts periodic, bloody purges, just to keep his subjects in a constant state of fearful obedience. His chief adviser is an old woman, a witch who is described as a withered-up monkey. Of course, such moral monstrosities as these two cannot be permitted to live, and Quatermain’s company disposes of both of them.

As is to be expected of a British popular novel of the late nineteenth century, King Solomon’s Mines is imbued with plenty of racism and imperial hubris. It is taken for granted as a simple fact that the white race is superior to the darker ones, and the putatively inferior races line right up with this prejudice. For example, the Kukuana people do not even question Quatermain’s claim that he and his party are from the stars, and Umbopa, the true heir to the throne, is described as having wandered for years, during which time he “learned the wisdom of the white people.” The reader does not have to be told that this wisdom is of a superior sort.

That said, Haggard was not a virulent racist and he had a more nuanced understanding of aboriginal peoples than did a lot of his contemporaries. For example, on the second page of the novel, he says, “What is a gentleman? I don’t quite know, and yet I have had to do with niggers - no, I’ll scratch that word ‘niggers’ out, for I don’t like it. I‘ve known natives who are (gentlemen).” In addition, Umbopa turns out to be the equal of Quatermain and the white men in terms of being a gentleman, though, of course, only because he has adopted the white man’s wisdom.

I can see the influence of Haggard upon You Bright And Risen Angels, though I don’t know how direct it is. Novels like Quatermain’s were obviously a big influence upon the American comic book tradition, and Vollman’s book seems to owe much to that tradition as well. However, given that Vollman includes several quotations from Haggard as chapter heads in You Bright And Risen Angels, I suspect that there was a good deal of influence.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home