Before reading King Solomon's Mines I was reading Live Like A Narnian and in the back of the book, author Joe Rigney noted that Haggard's book was one of Lewis' favorite as a child. Lewis wrote both about the book and the movie version of it in his essay On Stories (available for free online) and I'll share what he said about it in just a minute. I tried not to pay attention to Lewis' thoughts until I had read the book for myself.
First, let's discuss the story itself.
In this book we follow along with three men - Allan Quatermain, Sir Henry Curtis, and Captain Good - as they seek treasure in Solomon's "lost" mines and also the missing brother of Sir Henry. They traverse the desert in Africa with the help of a few good (tribes)men and have quite a few spectacular adventures finding what they are looking for.
This story was first published in 1895 and was well-received by the public. Billboards and advertisements around London called it, "The Most Amazing Book Ever Written!" (Almost makes authors and potential authors a bit green with envy, doesn't it?) It is notable for being the first African adventure published in the English language and it is credited with creating a new category of book: the "lost world" genre. (Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King also falling into this genre.) Not bad for a book that was written as a result of a five shilling wager against his brother who bet that Haggard couldn't write a book half as good as Treasure Island, eh?! Publishers had trouble keeping up with the public demand for more copies. I think that's a sound win.
Modern readers of this book will, of course, notice how completely politically uncorrect this book is. Haggard describes elephant hunts that just about make one's stomach turn. He notes the love of ivory tusks which is sure to raise the hackles of more than one reader these days. Also, he addresses the African natives in terminology which we no longer use and which I found off putting at best. However, when you consider the fact that Haggard had traveled Africa extensively and had a great respect for Africans you might soften up a bit. While there is room to howl about vocabulary and labels, you also must quickly consider that Haggard did two things in this book which were unique to the time this book was written:
1. He made some of the Africans people of distinction and addressed them as "gentleman." He made them intelligent and not - as was common for the time - barbaric. He elevated their status, giving some of them prime roles into the story which was then unusual.
2. Also of interest, he created a biracial romantic relationship between a white man and a black woman. This had never been done before and is worthy of note.
This to say that King Solomon's Mines expresses much less racism than other books of the day and even "broke the mold" to some degree.
Now, the 1950 version of the movie is supposed to be a fairly good adaptation and I'm looking forward to seeing it although I think C.S. Lewis has greatly dampened my enthusiasm for it. Interested in hearing his take? Here you go:
"I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon's Mines. Of its many sins —not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went—only one here concerns us. At the end of Haggard's book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not 'cinematic' and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me. No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase of dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard's actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death)—the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard's effect is quite as 'crude* or 'vulgar' or 'sensational' as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one's experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten." C.S. Lewis, On Stories
I'll probably see the movie anyway. But I don't think I'm going to like the ending very much.
I am very glad that Sky chose this book for us to read last month. It's definitely a tale that will stick with me and I look forward to passing it along to my own kids when they are some bit older. For a moment in time, the pleasure of this book is mine and I'm happy.
If you didn't get around to reading it this past month, put it on your reading list and find some time for it in the future. It's a pretty engaging read.