King Solomon’s Mines: Book Review
King Solomon’s Mines was one of the first of the ‘lost world’ novels. H Rider Haggard published it in 1885 to immense commercial success. It has been hugely influential on the adventure genre ever since, the Indiana Jones movies being just one example of its continuing influence.
King Solomon’s Mines: Logline
In Victorian Africa, an ageing hunter guides an expedition to discover the fabled source of the biblical King’s wealth. Confronted by the brutal king and immortal witch who guard the treasure he has to use all his cunning to survive.
King Solomon’s Mines: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers The major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the mid-nineteenth century. Allan Quatermain is a hunter based in South Africa. He meets Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good, who are searching for Curtis’s brother, who disappeared whilst searching for the legendary King Solomon’s Mines.
By coincidence, Quatermain has a sketchy map of the mine’s location, given to him many years earlier. Curtis and Good ask Quatermain to guide them to the area.
Quatermain thinks the expedition is likely to lead to nothing but his death. Nevertheless, he agrees to guide it after Curtis offers to pay for his son’s education. Quatermain organises the expedition, taking on supplies, guns, and a Zulu guide, Umbopa.
The expedition travels to the edge of a desert. Quatermain’s map shows an oasis halfway across the desert, and a pair of rounded mountains known as ‘Sheba’s Breasts’. The expedition sets off on foot. Despite the map, they nearly die of thirst in the desert and cold in the mountains. Eventually, the expedition reaches the ancient road that leads to the mines, and finds it’s in good condition.
Travelling along the road, the expedition meets the inhabitants of the area, who call the country Kukuanaland. The King of Kukuanaland has ordered all strangers killed. Quatermain demonstrates his firearms and spins a tale about being “from the stars”, overawing the local people. They accompany the expedition to Kukuanaland’s capital, Loo.
Kukuanaland’s king is Twala, a violent despot. Twala murdered his brother to seize the crown and drove the king’s wife and son into the desert to die. His chief supporter is an ancient witch named Gagool who helps maintain a reign of terror in Kukuanaland.
Umbopa, Quatermain’s ‘Zulu’ guide, reveals that he is in fact the son of the previous king of Kukuanaland. He accompanied the expedition in the hope of returning to his homeland and regaining his inheritance as the rightful king. Quatermain and his friends agree to help Umbopa overthrow Twala.
Umbopa is heavily outnumbered by forces loyal to Twala. However, Umbopa uses superior tactics, and the rifles and fighting prowess of the expedition members, to defeat Twala. Twala is finally killed in single combat with Curtis. Victorious, Umbopa ascends the throne of Kukuanaland, promising a new era of justice and enlightened rule.
The witch, Gagool, reluctantly leads the expedition to King Solomon’s mines. Deep inside a mountain, she reveals a treasure room full of gold, diamonds and ivory. While the expedition members are admiring the hoard, Gagool attempts to trap them. She triggers a secret mechanism that closes a huge stone portcullis, but is herself crushed by the descending stone. Trapped in the treasure room, and with little food, water or light, the expedition prepares to die…
Quatermain realises that as the air is not running out, there must be a connection to the surface. The team regather their strength and search for a secret passageway. Eventually they find it and escape, although only with a few handfuls of diamonds from the vast treasure hoard.
The passage leads to the surface workings of the mine, where the exhausted expedition members collapse and are found by Umbopa’s men. However, in the mud of the mine-pit they’re unable to rediscover the secret passage and the way to the treasure room is lost.
Quatermain and his friends decide to risk a return through the desert to British territory. Making their way by a different route, they find Curtis’s brother stranded at an oasis. Back in Britain, even the tiny fraction of King Solomon’s treasure that they stole is enough to make them all rich.
King Solomon’s Mines: Analysis
Obviously, King Solomon’s Mines is a Victorian novel and steeped in the conventions and concerns of Victorian Britain. These imperialist, racist and sexist views are offensive to most people these days, but as I’ve noted in many of my reviews of other classics like She , The Riddle of the Sands and The Great Impersonation , if you want to enjoy the story you must make allowances for the views of the time.
The writing style in King Solomon’s Mines as with She varies between the overblown and the plain. To a modern reader, it can also seem clichéd. However, like a lot of very influential novels, the clichés in King Solomon’s Mines weren’t actually clichés when H Rider Haggard wrote the novel – they became clichés because the book was so phenomenally successful, creating its own genre – the ‘lost world’ novel.
The ‘lost world’ genre faded after its Victorian hey-day, partly because there aren’t any areas of the planet that are now truly terra incognita . There are periodic revivals though, in novels such as Lost Horizon , The Rose of Tibet and Congo . The lost world genre also went on to influence several others, being one of the prototypes of the science-fiction and fantasy adventure (with ‘lost worlds’ on Earth becoming alien planets in sci-fi).
King Solomon’s Mines has a Mission plot (see Spy Novel Plots ).
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
King Solomon’s Mines: Map
The map included in the novel shows Kukuanaland as forty leagues (about one hundred and twenty miles) north of the Lukanga river.
The Lukanga river is a real river. When H. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines it was in an independent kingdom called Barotseland, now part of Zambia. That places King Solomon’s Mines somewhere in the south of what was then the Republic of Kongo and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time the entire area was largely unknown to Europeans.
Reality: The Real King Solomon’s Mines
The biblical Solomon was king of Israel and renowned as one of the richest men in the ancient world. Archeologists believe more likely sources for his wealth than African gold and diamonds are the ancient copper-mines of the Timna Valley in Israel.
King Solomon’s Mines: My Verdict
A classic adventure story. Old-fashioned but still surprisingly readable.
King Solomon’s Mines: Movies
There have been many movies based on King Solomon’s Mines. The most notable is the 1950 version, staring Stewart Granger as Allan Quatermain. The movie plots are only loosely based on the novel.
King Solomon’s Mines: Sequels
H Rider Haggard wrote over a dozen follow on novels to King Solomon’s Mines. However as he killed his hero off in the second novel, Allan Quatermain , almost all of them are prequels.
Notable among the prequels, She and Alan, is a ‘franchise crossover’, where Allan Quatermain meets Rider Haggard’s greatest character, Ayesha, or ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’ from the novel She and its sequels.
Want to Read/Watch It?
Here’s the movie trailer:
As it is long out of copyright, King Solomon’s Mines is available for free on the Gutenberg Project here.
The movie of King Solomon’s Mines is available on Amazon US here
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