Posted by: zhiv | March 13, 2012

King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard

It’s more than a bit shocking to read the pure form of British Imperial literature in this day and age, but that doesn’t mean that a great adventure story isn’t fun. It’s just that this well-done, exciting book is pretty problematic as South African literature, but that’s not a surprise. The idea of the absolute superiority of the English gentleman is fairly absurd, and I seem to read a book like this with my guard up, resistant against being taken in by the story. I suppose being on edge and on the lookout for pitfalls, both political and fictional, is part of the nature of reading this type of thing. The understanding of pernicious assumption seems to get clearer with each passing decade, and I’m sure that there are layers of prejudice and colonialist horror that I’m missing, and I’d be interested to keep studying the mechanics of the literature of Empire, of which this is a great example, a sort of naive Heart of Darkness. All qualifiers aside, King Solomon’s Mines seems mostly about pure adventure and a Lost Horizons-style, untouched and remote African civilization, a rich blend of elements and influences put together with straightforward, honest enthusiasm by Rider Haggard. It’s cited, in fact, as the first instance of the “Lost World” genre.

But to continue with qualifiers for just a moment, I was reminded, as I started thinking about writing about this book, of a story I heard a long time ago about the famous low-budget independent film producer Roger Corman taking LSD, back in the Nicholson, Hopper, and Fonda Easy Rider era. Corman reportedly said, wow, I’m sure glad I made a million bucks before I took this shit. In the same spirit I’m really glad that I read Olive Schreiner and studied South African Literature in some depth before reading King Solomon’s Mines. A book like this would have captured my imagination quite powerfully when I was a kid, and that would not have been the best way, I don’t think, to begin understanding southern Africa. Again, it’s not that this book is so bad, and Haggard presents a relatively balanced view, with heroic African characters, and his hero Quartermain is relatively enlightened, but it’s still powerful Brit Empire Lit 101, and the enjoyment of it seems somewhat disconcerting and distortional.

The power of the story comes from Rider Haggard’s manipulation of real elements and making them into fantasy adventure fiction, building myth out of mystery, otherness, and reality. It’s fascinating as a reflection of Haggard’s own experience as a young man, when he worked and lived in Africa at a critical juncture of its 19th century history. Haggard’s 1856 birthdate is the same as Harold Frederic, who I’ve been reviewing, and close to Chekhov, and I find it handy to understand the experience of late-century decades relative to my own 1958 birth–the idea that Haggard went to South Africa in the mid-70s, aged 19, makes sense and has context for me, and it’s pretty astonishing at the same time. He was married with a son and returned to England in 1881. Dennis Butts’ 1989 introduction to the Oxford edition begins by noting what must be well-known, that Haggard, having already written two tepidly-received novels while studying and beginning to practice law, was challenged by his brother to create a yarn in the vein of Stevenson’s popular success Treasure Island. As I said, he had ample background and experience, and he was still a young man, and part of the charm of this book is its combination of stoical grit and boyish enthusiasm. Haggard’s creation of his narrator, the well-known Allan Quartermain, is an interesting equation, as he makes him a wise and knowing veteran hunter, with too many stories to even begin telling them, aside from this particularly amazing tale. Haggard writes about a trio of mature, experienced, well-rounded, complementary and idealized Englishmen, and builds an adventure out of a fantasy about first contact.

In writing about the clash between his own British civilization and culture and a different African society, Haggard uses his understanding and fear of the primitive and savage to create a fantasy that reads like a journey into the subconscious and a dream. I’m amused by my own anxiety about the political repercussions in this text, when they’re actually a mask of sorts, as it’s so much easier to track the creation and reception and adaptation of this text on its journey through its first century, rather than the last 25 years. This story is as rich as it gets for the germination of Freud (another 1856 birthday) and Jung, and it seems like it’s part of a body of literature that might have prompted that type of pyschological thinking. It makes perfect sense that Haggard would write such a story after reading Stevenson’s pirate tale, and that Stevenson would go a step further the following year and write Jekyll and Hyde. With so much material and such a charged geopolitical landscape, psychoanalysis seems almost inevitable as a response over the next 25 years, and the subsequent 75 years of academic institutionalization and interpretation all fits. If there’s a perceived literary gap in the 1880s and 90s, and it’s a transitional phase, perhaps it’s because simple and primitive storytelling was rising to a cacophonous din beneath the super-refined mannerist layer of Henry James and George Meredith. Oscar Wilde seemed to get it, if one looks at the cross section between the sophistication of his plays and the simple psychological conceit of Dorian Gray. Hardy was working away at figuring things out, and King Solomon’s Mines is a fascinating precursor to Conrad (b. 1857) and Heart of Darkness.

Part of what’s interesting here for me is the distillation of basic adventure story elements, which suggest the preceding reflections, and how much power they held as the building blocks of popular cinema. The hero’s journey of Jung and Campbell and studio pictures and Star Wars and Raiders is all her, in relatively pure late 19th century narrative form. And that’s why it was a fun, if slightly anxious read, and an amusing follow-up to downing a current text like The Hunger Games in a single ravenous gulp. Hunger. Games. Bring it on. It should be interesting to check out the multiple film and television adaptations of this story, which take all sorts of liberties with the original text. Popcorn alert.

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