Friday, March 4, 2016

Adventure classics – Blast to the past: lost lands & riches

King Solomon’s Mines
by H. Rider Haggard
So here I am, clickety-clacking away at a story about lost tribes that I could swear had never been done before when I realize—I’m channeling H. Rider Haggard! That’s right, the Victorian writer whose 1885 breakout novel, King Solomon’s Mines, singlehandedly created the “Lost Civilization” genre of adventure fiction.

At least I’m in good company. Haggard’s most famous fictions, King Solomon’s Mines and 1887’s She: A History of Adventure,  have been influencing writers from Rudyard Kipling to Edgar Rice Burroughs to James Hilton and Michael Crichton, as well as giving rise to a slew of movie adaptations and knockoffs. (Indiana Jones, anyone?)

It’s not that the concept of recovering civilizations believed to be lost hadn’t been knocking around the world for a while. Probably Plato no sooner wrote his myth of lost Atlantis than people started to wonder about the possibility of Atlantean survivors. Medieval Europeans dreamed of discovering Prester John’s lost kingdom. The whole lost civilization mythos got an unexpected blast of reality when Spanish conquistadors stumbled across the amazing New World kingdoms of the Aztecs and Incas, and the remains of the still more ancient Mayan civilization. Beyond every horizon lay the possibility of cultures older, wiser and wealthier than even the most ardent dreamers could imagine.

Still, fast forward a few centuries, and as the blank spaces on the map were filled in, hopes of finding such lost civilizations ebbed. That is, until the younger son of a country barrister, after failing the army entrance exam, finally managed to get a job as secretary to the governor of Britain’s Natal colony in South Africa.

Although Henry Rider Haggard’s stay in Africa lasted only four years, they were years that changed his life, and with it, the lives of countless readers and dreamers after him. It was the down to earth vividness of his African experiences, the language of hunters and farmers, the sounds and sights and scents of ox-drawn wagons and lions and elephants described by such apparently down to earth narrators as King Solomon’s Mines’ Allan Quartermain that made his fantastic dreams of lost treasure and lost civilizations come alive.

But that was still in the future when Haggard returned to England. He married and returned briefly to Africa with his wife before settling back in England to study law and dabble in writing fiction.

He had a couple of not very successful (and now little-read) novels under his belt in the early 1880’s when one of his brothers bet him he couldn’t write anything as exciting (or successful) as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. (Or in another version, Henry Rider was the one who bet his brother that he could write something better.)

The result, written in six weeks (or possibly sixteen weeks—the mythologizing had already begun), was at first rejected by baffled publishers. But when once published, it became 1885’s best seller. And adventure stories have never been the same since.

Although Haggard dedicated the story to “all the big and little boys who read it”, girls have always liked it too. Out of copyright, it’s readily available online, although I’m currently get reacquainted with it, after an initial reading decades ago, through the Barnes & Noble Classics edition from the Dallas Public Library and available at Amazon. I recommend reading the original before checking out the numerous movie versions, including the 1937 version whose poster illustrates this post.

(Next Friday, plot, characters and controversies in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines.)

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