I think I’ve read this book before, as a child. I certainly saw the film as a child. The only scene I remember from my first reading of the book was Captain Good going around for half the story with a half-shaven face. For the rest of the story it was like reading it for the first time.
But re-reading a book after a lifetime of experience and acquisition of knowledge makes a difference to what you notice, and the significance of things that passed you by when reading it as a child. For a child, it was a straightforward adventure story; the heroes got into difficulties and dangers, and they got out of them. Reading it as an adult, the historical and political background moved to rthe foreground.
The book was published in 1885, and the action of the story seems to have taken place in 1883-84. The protagonist and narrator, Allan Quatermain, was living on the Berea in Durban then. And my great great grandfather, Richard Vause, was also living there, and was mayor of Durban at the time — he died the following year, in 1886. That gives a new and personal interest to the story. I didn’t know that when I first read the book. Yes, I knew I had an ancestor who had been mayor of Durban at one time (acually five times), but had little idea of the dates until I began researching family history.
Quatermain also mentioned fighting in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, and escaping from the Battle of Isandlwana (which the Zulus won pretty decisively) because he was sent back with some wagons — precisely what happened to my great grandfather, Wyatt Vause. Perhaps H. Rider Haggard himself lived on the Berea, heard the story from my great grandfather, and decided to incorporate it into his book;
Allan Quatermain also mentions having been an elephant hunter, and describes in some detail how elephant hunters travelled in those days — the kind of wagons they used, the features they looked for in buying them, and how they travelled. That sort of thing is rarely mentioned in contemporary primary sources — letters and diaries and news items and the like. The people who wrote those things assumed their readers knew about them. But a writer of fiction, who knew most of his readers would be in the UK and would be unfamiliar with them, takes care to describe them in some detail. My wife Val’s great great grandfather, Fred Green, was an elephant hunter in what is now Namibia and Botswana, and so those little details throw light on his life too.
In many ways the story is fantasy. It describes a country unknown to outsiders. In the 20th century, when most of the world was mapped, it was no longer possible to do that, and so such fictional countries were moved to other planets and other galaxies and became science fiction. But in other ways the story is not like that — the people in the strange country are hypothetical relatives of the Zulus, and speak a dialect of Zulu, so the travellers are able to communicate with them.
It is also a typical fairy story — the exiled prince who returns to overthrow the wicked usurper and reestablish justice in the land.
And there is also a darker side to the story, which takes place on the cusp of the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa. From about 1880 onwards the New Imperialism gave rise to an ideology of imperialism, which was racist at its root. While racism was not unknown before, it became much more ideologically driven after the rise of the New Imperialism, and a consciousness of ethnic superiority was actively promoted in the imperialist powers. Children’s literature abounded with it, and it was taught in schools.
There are some echoes of this in King Solomon’s Mines. Allan Quatermain disapproaves of the budding romance between one of his white companions and a young black woman. While in Natal, Quatermain is upset and annoyed when “natives” speak in a too-familiar manner with white men. In the fictional African kingdom they travel to, he describes the local inhabitants in terms of a somewhat grudging equality. At times I wondered whether Haggard was doing this consciously or unconsciously. Could he be consciously trying to show the changes in Quatermain’s attitude to black people the further he travelled from colonial Natal, as part of his character, and as a result of the influence of his less racist companions? But what is certain is that after 1885 there was a sharp increase in racism as part of the ideology of British Imperialism.
So re-reading the book was interesting for various reasons — as filler material for family history, but also as a mirror reflecting changing attitudes in the British colony of Natal in the 1880s.