Read an Excerpt
From Benjamin Ivry’s Introduction to King Solomon’s Mines
Haggard admitted he wrote King Solomon’s Mines in six weeks, a quickness that surprised his writer friends like Andrew Lang and Robert Louis Stevenson. The latter sent Haggard a letter cautioning him about excessive haste. Yet the famed Belgian-born detective storywriter Georges Simenon (1903–1989) often wrote entire books even faster. The French novelist Stendhal (Marie Henri Beyle, 1783–1842) typically completed novels in a matter of weeks. Speed in writing per se is not necessarily a threat to quality; adventure writers in particular can be like the journalists of whom the noted critic Karl Kraus (1874–1936) wrote, “They write worse when they have time.” Pacing was essential for Haggard, who claimed that writing a text fast helped to energize it, making it irresistibly readable. He described his approach with typical dash in his autobiography, The Days of My Life (1926; see “For Further Reading”): “Such work should be written rapidly and, if possible, not rewritten, since wine of this character loses its bouquet when it is poured from glass to glass.”
The speed of writing translates to speed of reading, with as few impediments as possible to the reader’s momentum. Although there are a number of exotic words in King Solomon’s Mines that require annotation, their frequency decreases as the book advances, and Haggard often provides his own, perfectly serviceable translation of local terms. As a result, the reader does not need to pause to understand the reference, but can plunge ahead to find out what happens next, which is essential for the enjoyment of a real page-turner like King Solomon’s Mines.
Despite Haggard’s speed and occasional carelessness about details, King Solomon’s Mines shows some real control of structural and stylistic elements, which is part of its lasting power. To cite one stylistic aspect used coherently throughout the book, Haggard used italics almost always to convey the horror of death, such as when an elephant picked up a servant “and tore him in two” (p. 62). In a cave discovered along his trip, Quatermain finds that a servant who was alive the night before is now “stone dead” (p. 96). These italics denoting urgent shock in relation to death recur throughout the story, like underlining in a letter excitedly dashed off to a friend.
One of Haggard’s goals, as expressed in “About Fiction” (Contemporary Review, February 1887), was to create an interesting book, as he felt the Anglo-American novel had declined into a series of dull domestic dramas. Haggard alluded to William Dean Howells (1837–1920), who wrote novels like A Woman’s Reason (1883), A Modern Instance (1882), and The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), as an example. By focusing on the imaginative and fantastic domains, Haggard aimed at exciting the reader in the way that he felt naturalistic nineteenth-century fiction had ceased to do. In this goal he succeeded brilliantly, as generations of readers have conceded.
In King Solomon’s Mines, with a dour feeling of fatalism, the elephant hunter Allan Quatermain agrees to join a dangerous treasure hunt. Quatermain is presented as an amateur author, whose first statement at the beginning of the book is one of modesty, of being aware of his book’s “shortcomings.” As narrator, Quatermain dithers over lore and legends that he might have included in King Solomon’s Mines had he “given way to [his] own impulses” (p. 5). Authorship as a form of discipline and control is also expressed at the end of the story, when Quatermain announces, “And here, at this point, I think that I shall end this history” (p. 317). The reader is reminded that the story does not end by itself; the writer ends it. Control and consciousness were keywords for Quatermain as an author—and quite possibly for Haggard as well.
Haggard’s protagonist Quatermain describes himself as a 55-year-old man who has survived the job of elephant hunter much longer than most of his colleagues. Quatermain explains at the start of his tale, “I am a timid man, and don’t like violence,” (p. 7) and near the end, after many heroics, he reiterates, “I never had any great pretensions to be brave” (p. 286). Such self-definitions are repeated throughout the book until the narrative itself begins to seem like a means of self-definition. The effort to write, as well as the events narrated, define the narrator.
There may not be much progression of character in King Solomon’s Mines, but Quatermain rings true precisely because of his lack of grandiose pretensions. Quatermain’s self-deflating tone may include something of Haggard’s own ironic self-regard. When Haggard traveled to Africa in 1914 and his photo was plastered on the local newspaper Natal Witness, Haggard noted in his diary that his image looked “exactly like that of the mummy of Rameses the Second,” a recently disinterred Pharaoh. This lack of vanity or vaingloriousness is unusual in a generation of writers on Africa that included such egomaniacs as Sir Richard Burton, translator of The Arabian Nights.