Tuesday, January 25, 2011

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

(Book Review)

Because my real life has become depressingly boring lately, I’ve decided to try and seek out a little bit of excitement in my leisure reading material. And so I come to one of the classic adventure stories: “King Solomon’s Mines”.

(This is also part of my project to read through the classics of pulp fiction. See also: "Sherlock Holmes”, “The Martian Trilogy”, “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu”, “Conan the Barbarian” and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Prisoner of Zenda".)

I didn’t know much about this book before I started, and I confess that it was quite different from what I had expected.
I was expecting much more of a jungle adventure story--men hacking their way through thick green jungle foliage, boating down a jungle river, battling crocodiles and piranhas and tigers.

Instead, this is much more of an African savannah story. They cross through the great plains, there is a bit of elephant hunting, and then the real meat of the journey takes place crossing a desert. And then it becomes a desert story—men wishing for water—wishing they had water again—complaining about not having water, et cetera. (I don’t care for desert crossing stories all that much. They tend to be one note songs.)

Once they get across the desert, they find a kingdom hidden away in the mountains. And then it becomes a “hidden kingdom” story, and a “restoring the rightful king to the throne” story.

I really hate to say this about an old celebrated classic, but reading through these classic adventure stories, do you ever get the feeling that the only reason they became classics in the first place is that they were written before the publishing industry really took off? Maybe back in 1885 people were so desperate for fantasy adventure type stories they would lap up anything. In this day and age, when year after year bookstores are flooded with shelves full of fantasy books, I’m not sure this book would ever have gotten much notice.

That’s not to say this book is completely worthless. There is a bit of wonder that comes through when the characters are descending from the mountains into a completely new land. And there are a couple big epic battle scenes that show a lot of imagination in their descriptions. I just never was able to get past the rather bare bones writing style and skimpy plot.

(Admittedly part of the problem is that I waited too long to read this book. I should have read it at age 12. I would then have probably been a lot less critical of all the undeveloped characters and motivations, and just gotten swept up in all the big battle scenes.)

The publisher’s introduction to my copy warns that H. Rider Haggard presents a rather “patronizing” view of the native black Africans. And “patronizing” is about the right word for it. It’s not a negative view necessarily. The black natives are presented as having their own code of honor, and there are a lot of elements of the “noble savage” stereotype in their portrayal. But they are often presented as childlike in comparison with the white protagonists, easily impressed, easily persuaded, and never quite on the same intellectual level. They are capable of the greatest cruelties as well as the greatest bravery, depending on who gets them excited.
And, there are several little polemics against inter-racial romance in the book. “Can the sun mate with the darkness, or the white with the black?” one native girl says at one point, and the narrator later repeats it as a truism, as if one bad analogy had forever put the question to rest.
(By that logic, why stop at skin color? Why not forbid people with white hair from mating with people with dark hair?
I know, I’m preaching to the choir here. We’re all enlightened now in the 21st century. But one can imagine the effect this would have had on all those children who read this book 100 years ago.)

Well, I guess this is about what you’d expect from a 19th century book during the height of the British Empire.
The author, H. Rider Haggard, by the way, was a bit of an interesting fellow himself, and lived in Africa for a number of years. So he wasn’t simply writing this book from an armchair back in London, relying on newspaper reports and his imagination for an Africa he’d never seen (like Burroughs did with his Tarzan series.) Haggard actually had first hand contact with these people, so you would think his portrayal of them would have been a little bit more enlightened.
But then racism is a funny thing. Although we might like to think that more integration would lead to more understanding, historically this hasn’t always been true. For example the slave owners in the American South did not acquire any more enlightened views from their daily contact with their slaves.

In closing:
Well, I guess I’ve written a number of negative things about this book, but I didn’t hate it completely. (The books I really hate I usually don’t make it to the end of, so by default almost any book on this book review project is something that held my interest at least a little bit.) It’s a short little book (only 214 pages), and it reads fairly quickly. And for all its faults it was fast paced enough that I didn’t really get bored with it, and therefore was able to sit down with it for long periods of time. Not perfect, but a nice little quick read if nothing else.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: WikiLeaks Cables Reveal 'Profound Hatred for Democracy' by U.S. Govt Officials

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