King Solomon's Mines

Author: H. Rider Haggard
Year: 2002 (1885)
Genre: Adventure

This is it: the grand-daddy of adventure stories. It's the story that inspired the pulps that inspired Indiana Jones; its hero is a founding member of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; it's the original source of more cliches than Citizen Kane. There's a lot of expectation built up around such a classic, and Haggard's wild ride does not disappoint. The story features a deadly desert, a long-lost brother, an ancient map, treasure from Biblical times, an evil witch, a king in exile, and an all-out civil war. It's said that Haggard completed the novel on a bet in a whirlwind six weeks of writing, and the reader's experience is similarly breathless.

For modern readers, the "classic" European view of Africa and Africans is always likely to be politically troublesome, and you might worry that King Solomon's Mines would fall on the racist spectrum somewhere between Heart of Darkness and Little Black Sambo. The introduction by Alexandra Fuller deals with just this question, and comes to the surprising conclusion that Haggard (through Quatermain), in his 19th-century way, shows great respect both for Africans as individuals and for the diversity of African culture and geography. Haggard lived in Africa for many years, and his setting is based on a real place, not just a savagely exotic "other." (Lest we get too smug in our own political correctness, Fuller contrasts Haggard's Africa with the pastiche of stereotypes in the most recent film adaptation.)

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