King Solomon’s Mines is a classic example of 19th century pulp (or “dime novel”) fiction that rises above that genre in a number of ways. It is a “man’s man” adventure that has become a classic with several movies based on it (I count five of them on IMDB). While the book contains a lot of the biases of nineteenth century literature with many cringe-worthy moments, I found it amazingly more progressive, in some regards, than I expected.
The story is an action-adventure arch-plot. The protagonist, Allan Quatermain, is a “great white hunter” in late nineteenth century Africa. He barely makes a living by leading hunting expeditions, but it’s a life that suits him. His “call to adventure” comes when he meets Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good on board a ship taking him home after a hunting trip. Sir Henry engages Quatermain to lead an expedition to find his brother, who disappeared while searching for King Solomon’s lost diamond mines.
The expedition is worthy of an Indiana Jones movie (Indy is dramatically descended from Quatermain). There’s a desert crossing, mountain scaling, being lost in an underground maze, a treasure room, and even a tribal civil war. There’s plenty of action here, and it’s generally well done.
Yes, there are racist and sexist aspects to this novel. I was struck, however, by some mitigation of those aspects by the author, Mr. Haggard. The whole book is constructed as a memoir written by Quatermain for his son (a common nineteenth century literary device). Near the beginning, Quatermain makes use of the N-word and then states that he hates that word, and does not use it again. That’s more than Mark Twain or E. R. Burroughs ever did (not that the latter were racists, but they were white men of their time). Quatermain does use the term, “kafir,” a lot, which I believe is an African equivalent of N. I don’t know how derogatory it was in the 1800’s, but there is, at least, a definite condescension in it’s use here.
The largest section of the book deals with Quatermain’s time among the Kukuana tribe—even fighting in their tribal civil war. There are “evil, crazy, native” scenes like you see in the early Tarzan films, but there is some balance to that with an overall presentation of the Kukuana as good people with noble leaders (other than their evil king and witch doctor). This noble aspect has a “Black Panther” (the movie) feel to it, considering the time when the book was first published (1885).
I also have to ding the novel for scenes of native ignorance: fear of guns, believing the white men are from the stars, seeing a lunar eclipse as magic from the white men. Of course, for the time, these were probably conventions expected in jungle adventure stories. But then, there is also an interracial love relationship featured. That had to be explosive for the time, though Mr. Haggard mitigated it by implying that this was a singular relationship and that unlike races should not mate.
The book is also infused with the belief that white men are superior to all other races and all women. Since the book is written as a work of Quatermain, though, that belief can be ascribed to being his bias. Maybe that was a way for Mr. Haggard to appease his general readership while sneaking some progressive ideas into an adventure story.
Another big cringe aspect is the slaughter of African animals being taken for granted and without conscience, especially the killing of elephants for ivory. But again, that attitude was common for the time.
For this book being a heavy action tale, with the greatest part of it involving the fighting in a civil war, Mr. Haggard presents some interesting observations about the futility of war. He has Quatermain noting the misery impacted by any warrior’s death on that warrior’s family and friends. He does this several times. Even so, there is still often depicted the manliness and bravado of fighting to the death so that one person, rather than another, can rule over everybody.
While I could not ignore all the biases and archaic attitudes as I read, still, this is a classic “pulp jungle adventure” that is better done than the Tarzan stories (in my opinion). While containing the racism and sexism of the day, Mr. Haggard offers some surprisingly progressive ideas. Overall, it’s an adventure tale that expresses the joy of just being alive and facing challenges. Showing a fledgling respect for women and native Africans, it is a classic of its genre and King Solomon’s Mines remains, to this day, a good read.