Friday, March 18, 2016

Adventure classics – The treasure Solomon never owned

King Solomon’s Mines
by H. Rider Haggard
Without African diamonds, would there ever have been an H. Rider Haggard? At the least, without the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1868, Haggard would have never written his most famous adventure story, King Solomon’s Mines, and would only be remembered, at best, as a footnote in history for his work in agriculture.

And to think, King Solomon probably never owned a diamond in his life.

One of several sons of an English country squire, Henry Rider Haggard was “seen as unpromising by his family,” biographer Benjamin Ivry writes in his introduction to the Barnes & Nobel Classics edition of Haggard’s 1885 tale. No great scholar, he didn’t attend university, and after he failed the army entrance examination, his no doubt desperate family shipped the then teenaged Haggard off to Natal, South Africa, where he got a job as secretary to the colony’s governor. Probably to everyone’s surprise, Africa agreed immensely with the backward young man Haggard advanced in his work. More important for the future of adventure literature, he witnessed wars, mixed with a wide variety of people, and hunted the continent’s big game. And he heard about the diamonds, discovered only a few years before his arrival.

In antiquity, the only known sources for the heartbreakingly hard stones were Indian mines, such as those near Golconda depicted in this post's illustration. They were incredibly rare, and too expensive to be possessed by any but royalty. The 19th century African discovery changed that, making diamonds not only current news, but riches even members of the middle class could aspire to.

It’s probable King Solomon himself didn’t have any diamonds among his treasures, given differences of opinion as to whether the jewels whose name in the Bible is translated in English as “diamond” actually were that purest form of carbon. But Haggard’s inspired pairing of the recent diamond rush with the legendarily wealthy king gave his 1885 story instant cachet.

As the tale opens, professional big game hunter Allan Quartermain is returning by ship from Cape Town to his home in Natal when he falls into conversation with two other passengers, Sir Henry Curtis and half pay Royal Navy captain John Good. Curtis and Good are searching for Curtis’s brother, who disappeared mysteriously into the African interior after meeting Quartermain and hearing a legend that the mines which produced King Solomon’s wealth were located in that continent.

Quartermain admits hearing a story about the mines, and passes on a scrap of map given to him by a failed prospector. At first reluctant, Quartermain finally agrees to guide Good and Curtis in a search for Curtis’s brother. Among the servants the trio hire for the journey is a strange young man calling himself Umbopa, who came to the country as a child and now wants to return home.

After a harrowing journey, with more killings of elephants than modern readers will enjoy hearing about, the group reaches twin mountains marked on the old map as “Sheba’s Breasts” (a titillating description for Victorian readers), and finally to a wonderful land beyond the mountains, in Umbopa’s words, “a land of witchcraft and beautiful things; a land of brave people, and of trees, and streams, and white mountains, and of a great white road.”

Umbopa’s real name, he divulges, is Ignosi, and he is the disinherited king of the country of the diamond mines, returned to claim his own inheritance.

It takes a war of the kind Haggard had witnessed in Zululand to reinstate the king, with the help of Quartermain, Curtis and Good. But Curtis’s lost brother is nowhere to be found, and the only diamond the adventurers have seen is a single uncut one in the king’s traditional crown. Where is the lost brother? And where, oh where, are the diamonds? And who is the mysterious, evil, and incredibly ancient sorceress Gagaoola, a possible forerunner of the equally ancient, mysterious and possibly evil She, who Haggard would immortalize in a later book?

(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes a March of thrills with H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, and what came after.)

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