The original “White Man Goes To Africa” adventure, H. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines on a bet—wagering his brother five shillings he could write a novel half as good as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Although many publishers initially rejected the novel, the success it found when it was finally released pretty much ensured that he won that bet.
The story begins the way you would expect a roleplaying campaign to unfold. Allan Quatermain is approached by aristocrat Sir Henry Curtis and his friend Captain Good, needing help in finding Sir Henry’s brother, last seen travelling into the unexplored interior, searching for the fabled King Solomon’s Mines. Quatermain agrees to lead the expedition in return for a share of the treasure, and they take along a native who seems more regal and well-spoken than most porters of his class.
While the story begins straightforward enough, the adventure grows into one of a much grander scale. And while you’d be tempted to look at how it influenced something like Indiana Jones, I ended up recognizing a different story being swayed by it, because this story involves lost royalty, ruthless despots, great battles, and ancient evils.
As I read King Solomon’s Mines I came to believe that J.R.R. Tolkien must have read this book as a child. It was published several years before he was born, but no doubt would still have been popular in Tolkien’s youth. There are a number of interesting correlations one can make between the events and characters of this story and both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
For example, Quatermain is not portrayed as an invincible hero. He is instead a very believable and humble character (even cowardly at times) who doesn’t make a big fuss about his skills with a rifle. There’s a bit of Hobbit in him there, but of course Hobbits are meant to epitomize that part of the English attitude that both Haggard and Tolkien seem to hold as best. In terms of plot elements, he not only joins the party on a long and gruelling quest in exchange for an equal share of the treasure, but he is also knocked unconscious just as a climactic battle gets underway, not unlike Bilbo before The Battle of Five Armies.
The character of Gagool, who might be hundreds of years old, moves and talks much like Gollum—cowardly, vicious, pathetic, and easily cowed into helping the heroes when cornered (and just as likely to stab them in the back later). There’s even a passage that sounds reminiscent of how Gollum, faced with impending doom, laments about only wanting to have a nice fish to eat and a hole to hide in (though in Gagool’s case it’s wanting to feel the sun on her face).
Ignosi, a lost prince in hiding returning to his kingdom, bears similarities to Aragorn. He is not a two-dimensional character who’s left on the sidelines until the white folk can return him to his throne. You feel that Ignosi grows into his role, much like Aragorn does, from a Ranger of the North to King. The story even seems to take the same attitude of royalty being in the blood, since Ignosi has never been king, yet acts and behaves regally, as if he was born to it—something often commented on about Aragorn.
However, it was hard not to be annoyed by some elements of the story. No less than three times there are direct references to “the sun shall not mix with the moon,” making no bones about interracial relationships when it comes to Captain Good and the native woman Foulata. No Jungle Fever for Haggard—at least, not in this book. This can be seen as being more about Quatermain acknowledging the social realities of the era more than any personal belief, but those “sun and moon” references really bothered me.
However, you can argue a progressive attitude in the book as well. Haggard’s depiction of the natives is proud and noble, and never shows them as “backwards.” Quatermain refuses to use the N-word (note the book was written in 1885), and states that many Africans are far more worthy of the title of “gentleman” than the Europeans who settle or adventure in that continent.
The only depiction of the white man imposing their worldviews on the natives occurs when they get the future king to agree not to have anyone put to death without trial. That’s about it. It’s clear that Ignosi’s people are going to keep to their own ways, and in no way is it suggested that this as a bad thing.
Another annoyance is that the climactic duel to defeat the evil king is not handled by Ignosi, but rather one of Quatermain’s party. Sure, there’s an explanation for it, but to use roleplaying parlance, it feels like Ignosi was an NPC and the GM needed a reason to make sure one of the players got the EPs.
This is a book that is at once a joy and a bit uncomfortable to read. But sometimes a story needs to be appreciated through the lens of history and forgiven of its sins, or at least looked at in the proper context. Haggard was, after all, a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling (they corresponded quite a bit) and Kipling has also had his works reexamined with a more skeptical eye under modern sensibilities. But at its core, King Solomon’s Mines remains a ripping yarn and a great adventure.
Here is a direct link to the book for you to download or read online for free… legally! King Solomon’s Mines
Originally Published in KODT #242