Y’All, in my interests of being historical, plus my natural thriftiness, I’ve been readin’ more and more public domain books. And some of the books I’ve been reading are by a feller named H. Rider Haggard, who besides being quite prolific, was also way ahead of his time in terms of fantasy/adventure stories. For starters, he invented the lost world genre. He also wrote very extensively about his time in Africa.
This revelation happened in a thrift store (a lot of my adventures either begin or end in that kind of establishment) where I found a "Great Illustrated Classics" version that was illustrated by Pablo Marcos, and the pictures were pretty darned cool. That guy just has a flair for it, as you can see here. The text? Not so much - it was a 4th grade reading level book with all the good parts cut out or translated into elementary school English. So I looked online for inspiration.
Haggard ain't so well known today, but back in his time he was prolific and an inspiration to hundreds of fantasy genre writers who came after. Allegedly, he and his brother had a £5 bet going over whether or not he could write a yarn good as Treasure Island, which came out a few years before in 1882. I don't know if he won or lost that bet, but King Solomon's Mines was a best seller, and I don't think it's actually ever been completely out of print in the last 132 years.
Now as I mentioned before in my “Cons of the Classics” post, a lot of what we would consider to be unacceptably racist/misogynistic in 2017 was just how things were in 1885. A case could be made that in some of his more racist/misogynistic moments, he was only describing social mores and not exactly offering an endorsement. That said, ol’ H. was way ahead of his time in terms of being non-racist and non-misogynistic with a few regrettable paragraphs thrown in there that can be safely skipped over without losing much of the story.
So where things get thorny is that he’s got a real nationalistic Hail Britannica thing going on, very common for his times. Pandering to his readers? Maybe, and that comes up again in his treatment of religion. He’s waaay more open-minded than the Christianity of the day would get behind, and offers a lot of time to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and indigenous beliefs in later books. I think he might have had Theosophical leanings… He also has some very well-developed African characters and female characters. Not so much in King Solomon’s Mines, but definitely in She and in Nada the Lily, which has no white characters, besides the traveler who hears the story but has no lines. Many of the black characters in his books are basically redshirts (In Star Trek, red-uniformed security officers and engineers who accompany the main characters on landing parties often suffer quick deaths). Nowhere near as bad as in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series (I think Burroughs probably was a racist) and the justification is that most of these guys are Zulu warriors who have a low life expectancy anyway, but in the Raven Jake revision, I’d like to see this more equitable. Also, there’s a certain amount of trophy hunting going on, and we’ve seen the results of the ivory trade, and that’s rather uncomfortable. Leave them elephants alone, ok?
So those are the caveats. If you’ve ever seen a film version of King Solomon’s Mines, just erase that piece of crap from your memory. Rider ain’t like that. His writing is incredibly cinematic, considering this book was pre-motion picture, and his whole opus was pre-CG. I’d like to see Peter Jackson take on the She series, but I’m gonna leave that for another post. If y’all saw League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and wondered who Allan Quatermain was, he’s a big-game hunter based in South Africa who is persuaded to lead two other explorers into the African interior, trying to find the expedition sponsor’s (Sir Henry Curtis) treasure-seeking brother, George Neville. They’re accompanied by Curtis’ friend Captain John Good and a few African guys that Quatermain has hired to be porters and guides.
Generally, “porters and guides” is code for “redshirt,” and that happens, but it is also revealed that Umbopa, one of the guides, is actually Ignosi, hereditary chief of the Kukuana tribe. Their mission shifts from finding the missing brother, to restoring Ignosi’s kingdom (the lost world ruled by a despot and an evil witch) and finding the missing diamond mine. In the meantime, Good falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful African girl, Foulata, who is tragically killed while saving the adventurers. Rider muses that it’s all for the best because mixed-race families didn’t really have a place in either British or African societies, and in this case I think he was doing more than pandering to his readership – this is both racist and misogynistic and the Raven Jake Mental Edition just chops those offending paragraphs right out.
Now in my plot synopsis, there isn’t a whole lot of appealing stuff that you probably can’t wait to read, but let me tell you folks – this story is awesome. It’s funny, it’s got fights and narrow escapes and witchcraft and battles, brave warriors, lost worlds and treasure. Allan Quatermain came more than 100 years before Indiana Jones and he’s a lot more likable. J. R. R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) stole some of their best material from H. Rider Haggard, so if you’re a fantasy reader, you’re going to see Easter eggs all over the place with this. The African characters aren’t filler – the characters are fully fleshed out and in subsequent books like Allan Quatermain (1887) or Nada the Lily (1892), which is a fictionalized account of the life of Shaka Zulu, the character of Umslopogaas, a Zulu warrior friend of Quatermain’s, is one of the best drawn, wisest, bravest and most interesting of them all. I’d like to see H. Rider Haggard make a big comeback.
As a small example of his self-effacing sense of humor, here's Quatermain explaining in a letter to his son why he is writing down this adventure:
“Second reason: Because I am laid up here at Durban with the pain in my left leg. Ever since that confounded lion got hold of me I have been liable to this trouble, and being rather bad just now, it makes me limp more than ever. There must be some poison in a lion's teeth, otherwise how is it that when your wounds are healed they break out again, generally, mark you, at the same time of year that you got your mauling? It is a hard thing when one has shot sixty-five lions or more, as I have in the course of my life, that the sixty-sixth should chew your leg like a quid of tobacco. It breaks the routine of the thing, and putting other considerations aside, I am an orderly man and don't like that.”
Read it here: