Thursday, September 10, 2009

Adventure Week #3: King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

According to The Source of All Truth, Wikipedia, H. Rider Haggard bet his brother that he, H. Rider, could write a novel half as good as Treasure Island, published two years before in 1883. I’m not sure he reached that lower bar. Sure, the book may have been a bestseller back in 1885, but the book really isn't even half as good as Treasure Island.

If Treasure Island was a giant leap forward in Victorian adventure novels, King Solomon's Mines was a few steps back. Following a common thread of the novels I’ve been reviewing this week, King Solomon’s Mines (KSM) is a travel/adventure book. Allan Quatermain, an English adventurer living in South Africa, is commissioned by Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good. They want Quatermain’s help in locating Curtis’s brother, last seen hunting for the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon, the son of King David.

Here’s where the waves of my preconceived notions going into the novel broke against the hard rock of the novel itself. Before I read this book, the name Allan Quatermain held a somewhat mythical place in my imagination. I remember Richard Chamberlain playing him in some movie I never saw but, mostly, I know Quatermain as played by Sean Connery in the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s Sean Friggin’ Connery so Quatermain was a bad ass. Yeah, well, not in the book. He’s almost a coward and calls himself one a couple of times. That jarred me and, frankly, started to lend itself to a general lack of interest and caring about what happened to him. Besides, the novel was written in first person so you know Quatermain lives. How dull.

The party travels north toward the desert and then nearly dies of thirst. Really? No way. Then they survive and the entire story comes to a screeching halt as Quatermain, Curtis, Good, and the African guide Umbopa, become embroiled in the inner squabbles of a lost African tribe. When I say screeching halt, I mean it. Haggard wrote something like five to seven chapters of the whites trying to help the blacks. Oh yeah, the white chauvinism is rampant in this novel, as you’d expect of a novel published during the high Victorian era. And, lo and behold, Umbopa just so happens to be the true heir to the throne. You saw that one coming, didn’t you? I’ll admit the war scenes were thrilling, filled with typical British stiff-upper-lipness (made that one up) and bravery, even for the coward Quatermain. But that couldn't overcome the boring, political parts.

The one thing KSM has going for it is an over arching story: the hunt for the mines. That’s something missing from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but a trait Robert Louis Stevenson does better in Treasure Island. The ultimate goal that’s achievable is what makes the chapters where the journey stops infuriating. Sure, they have to get out of their predicament but seven chapters worth? Nah.

KSM is the first of the “Lost World” novels, a mantle taken up by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ruyard Kipling, HP Lovecraft (didn’t know that one), and Michael Crichton (in Congo). As a first novel of its kind, it’s not horrible. It’s just that many of its successors did it better.

One of the books I’m now interested in reading is the graphic novel of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which features Quatermain and Captain Nemo. I want to see how Alan Moore used these two characters and how, or if, he changed them.

Like 20,000 Leagues, I’m glad I’ve read King Solomon’s Mines but I’m not hankering to start in on the sequels. Anyone read them? Are they worth it?

P.S. this is your last chance to offer a prediction about my forgotten book tomorrow. The only clue you have so far is that it was published after this novel.


Barbara Martin said...

My grandmother read H. Rider Haggard books which were passed down through my mother to me. I read several of the books when I was a child and they didn't seem so bad then. They were adventures in a foreign land.

My grandmother thought so much of H. Rider Haggard that she named my mother after one of his characters. Apparently there was a Queen Zaida who, when tired of her lovers would boil them in oil. My mother was adventurous by nature, firm, resolute, fair and kind, but never vendictive.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm not a big Haggard fan. This one was OK but pretty slow, I thought. Definitely no treasure island.

Perplexio said...

Speaking of Alan Moore's Graphic Novels have you read The Watchmen or seen the movie?

If so what are/were your thoughts on it?

pattinase (abbott) said...

You are a writing machine this week.

Scott Parker said...

Barbara - I think I would have had a different reaction were I to read this book as a 12-year-old. True, the rugged African locale was cool but the story just wasn't there. Interesting about your mom's name.

Charles - As I mentioned to a friend this morning who loves TI and has re-read it numerous times, I'm not sure Rider Haggard even reached the half-way point when compared to TI.

Perplexio - I have read and seen both. I read Watchmen (i.e., finished it) only this year. Really enjoyed the book. The movie was good but I had one major issue: too many of the scenes were taken directly out of the graphic novel. Thus, I had the sense that I had seen it all before. Glad I saw it but it's not The Dark Knight.

Patti - And I have one more to go for tomorrow.

Perplexio said...

I couldn't agree more about The Watchmen. It remained a bit TOO faithful to the graphic novel for my tastes.

But I thought the ending of the movie was a bit more plausible than the ending of the graphic novel.

The Dark Knight was much better. I hope that WB chooses a director equal to the task on the Flash and Green Lantern films. I've heard they've approached the writers @ DC to work on the scripts for the respective movies so my hopes are high. Last I'd head Geoff Johns was/is working on a script for The Flash.

Jay Stringer said...

Funny, I love King Solomons above most adventure stories.

Part of it is down to my grandfathers telling, but I also think it stands up well- aside from it's Christian preachings.

Don't be fooled by Quartermain, he's pretty brave and tough. But it's an adventure story written by a modest and introspective old man, so he talks himself down. It's really in the sequel ( far sillier, far more of a fantasy, but fun) that some elses voice gets to describe the old guy.

Interesting to hear a different view though.

Anonymous said...
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