Saturday, May 16, 2009
Let’s Have an Adventure!
Taking a bet from his brother that he couldn’t write a book as good as Treasure Island, H. Rider Haggard wrote and published King Solomon’s Mines in 1885. Such a strange book it was that publisher after publisher rejected it. It became a smash hit.
As for that strangeness, King Solomon’s Mines is of a genre that is strange no more, an adventure into a Lost World.
The story follows three Englishmen as they trek deep into East Africa in search of the legendary diamond mines of King Solomon. The journey is initiated by Sir Henry Curtis, who is accompanied by Capt. John Good, recently retired from the Royal Navy. Sir Henry is looking for his younger brother, George, who had disappeared while searching for the mines. While on a steamer from Cape Town to Durban Curtis and Good meet Allan Quatermain, a well-known big-game hunter. Upon learning of their mission, Quatermain reveals that he has an old hand-drawn map to the mines that he’d acquired years ago from a Portuguese “at a place called Sitanda’s Kraal, and a miserable place it was, for one could get nothing to eat there, and there was but little game about.” This man, José Silvestre, told a story about an ancestor’s struggle and misfortune in a search for Solomon’s fabulous wealth. That ancestor made the map that Silvestre gave to Quatermain just before he expired.
That is the map, or rather a copy of it, that Quatermain used to guide Curtis and Good deep into the African interior. But not before a bargain had been struck. Curtis agreed 1) to an up-front fee of £500, 2) to pay all expedition expenses and 3) that “any ivory or other valuables” they got would be split between Good and Quatermain. He further agreed (4) to provide for Quatermain’s son, Henry, should Quatermain die or be disabled. Having struck the bargain, Quatermain arranged an expedition, and off they went adventuring deep into the heart of the African continent.
The details of those adventures – an elephant hunt, desert treks, mountain climbing, a big battle, underground scrambling – are remarkable enough. But that’s not what I’m writing about. For one thing adventures lose all their fun and vigor in summary. More particularly, the adventures are a setting for something else.
What is that something else? Social relations. I want to focus on the relations among the central trio of characters and between those characters and the Kukuana, a fictional people who inhabit the region where Solomon’s mines are located.
Curtis, Good, and Quatermain are all men of good character; their relationship is one of informal egalitarian fellowship. One for all, all for one. None of them has a particularly distinguished position in English society. Yes, Sir Henry has a title and some wealth, but he has no power nor any visible occupation. He’s a man of leisure and a splendid physical specimen of the big-chested yellow-bearded sort. Capt. Cook was retired from the navy because he failed to win promotion to senior rank; he seems to be at leisure as well, at least until he finds a way of making a living. But he’s not so fine a physical specimen, being “dark, stout, and rather a curious man to look at. He was so very neat and so very clean-shaved, and he always wore an eye-glass in his right eye.”
As for Allan Quatermain, he’s short, bristle-haired, and lives at the margin of English society. He doesn’t live in Britain at all, though his a son is in medical school in London. Quatermain has lived his life in Africa and has a considerable reputation as a hunter and crack shot, but no other distinction and no wealth.
These three are accompanied by a number of native Africans in several capacities, one Umbopa chief among them. He joined the expedition as Sir Henry’s servant:
“My name is Umbopa. I am of the Zulu people, yet not of them. The house of my tribe is in the far North; it was left behind when the Zulus came down here a ‘thousand years ago,’ long before Chaka reigned in Zululand. I have no kraal. I have wandered for many years. I came from the North as a child to Zululand. I was Cetewayo’s man in the Nkomabakosi Regiment, serving there under the great Captain, Umslopogaasi of the Axe, who taught my hands to fight. Afterwards I ran away from Zululand and came to Natal because I wanted to see the white man’s ways. Next I fought against Cetewayo in the war. Since then I have been working in Natal. Now I am tired, and would go North again. Here is not my place. I want no money, but I am a brave man, and am worth my place and meat. I have spoken.”
I was rather puzzled by this man and his way of speech. It was evident to me from his manner that in the main he was telling the truth, but somehow he seemed different from the ordinary run of Zulus, and I rather mistrusted his offer to come without pay. Being in a difficulty, I translated his words to Sir Henry and Good, and asked them their opinion.
Sir Henry told me to ask him to stand up. Umbopa did so, at the same time slipping off the long military great coat which he wore, and revealing himself naked except for the moocha round his centre and a necklace of lions’ claws. Certainly he was a magnificent-looking man; I never saw a finer native. Standing about six foot three high he was broad in proportion, and very shapely. In that light, too, his skin looked scarcely more than dark, except here and there where deep black scars marked old assegai wounds. Sir Henry walked up to him and looked into his proud, handsome face.
“They make a good pair, don’t they?” said Good; “one as big as the other.”
“I like your looks, Mr. Umbopa, and I will take you as my servant,” said Sir Henry in English.
As Quatermain had suspected, Umbopa was not who he seemed. He was, in fact, Ingosi, rightful ruler of the Kukuana people. Along with his mother, he was exiled at the age of three when his father was murdered.
The Kukuana were a fictional people living in the African interior near Solomon’s mines. The society was a hierarchical one ruled over by a single hereditary king and fielding an army of roughly 60,000 soldiers. By the standards of contemporary Europe it was not a particularly large society, but it had enough “heft” to make a considerable impression on Quatermain, Curtis, and Good.
I won’t go into the details of just how our trio made their way to Kukuanaland, nor of how Umbopa came to reveal his true identity, much less of how they managed to secure the loyalty of a large portion of the army so that they could lead a rebellion against the current king, a despot named Twala. Suffice it to say that the Kukuana accepted our trio as quasi-magical beings from the stars and that their presence on Ingosi’s side was critical to his success. Naturally the trio took leadership roles in the battle that deposed Twala in favor of Ingosi. Had they chosen to remain among the Kukuana they would have had leading roles as friends and advisors to this ruler, a man who had only days before been their servant. That is to say, these men who had no particular power or distinction in British society could have had considerable power and influence in Kukuana society simply by virtue of having befriended the king. They chose, instead, to walk away in search of the diamonds in King Solomon’s mines.
They found the mines, of course, and, after considerable trial and tribulation, of course, made their way out with only a fraction of the loot, albeit enough that Quatermain and Good were well-situated for life. Not only that, but they found Sir Henry’s brother and made him rich as well. In due course they returned to England and took up lives as gentleman, even Quatermain, who decided to leave Africa to be near his son.
What stands out above all else is the fellowship among these three Englishmen, and the expeditious and honorable manner in which they made their way through this adventure. Once servant Umbopa reveals himself as heir-aspirant Ignosi, our men were glad to give him due respect, advice, and support. One would expect no less a story from a scion of British imperialism such as H. Rider Haggard, himself an experienced Africa hand.
We would be mistaken, however, to see King Solomon’s Mines as only a colonialist tract. For one thing, Haggard often shows genuine sympathy with and appreciation for many black Africans. The bond between Ignosi and the three Englishmen is real. A colonialist adventure, yes, but something else as well.
I suggest we see the hierarchical Kukuana society and, in particular, its ranks upon ranks of interchangeable soldiers, as a much-disguised proxy for the hierarchies of industrial Britain and for the thousands of anonymous farmers, laborers, clerks, and bureaucrats toiling away in the lower and middle ranks of those hierarchies. Such as these, after all, are the people who are reading King Solomon’s Mines. When they see Twala, the usurper, execute soldiers without trial nor even any stated reason, they are witnessing, in extreme form, the injustices which many have experience in their own lives. And when they see Curtis, Quatermain, and Good walk away from Kukuanaland after restoring order, they are witnessing something that they cannot do in their own lives, walk away from the hierarchies.
It would be too much to say that King Solomon’s Mines is an attempt to reconcile two forms of social organization, small-scale egalitarian fellowship and large-scale command-and-control hierarchies, for there is no reconciliation. There is only a juxtaposition and a statement of strong preference for one form of organization over the other. Does this then make King Solomon’s Mines into a critique, or a protest?
If so it is the age-old romantic protest against the constraints of civilization. Yet this particular protest would not have unfolded as it did if Quatermain and Curtis had been unable to find a lawyer to draw up the papers that formalized Curtis’s commitment to Quatermain’s son. They needed British law for that. Nor could it have happened without the rifles that demonstrated their martial superiority over the Kukuana. For that they needed British industry.
Two years later Rider Haggard took another crack at it, publishing Allan Quatermain in 1887. Good, Curtis and Quatermain had tired of living as English gentlemen and decided to return to Africa, this time in search of a mysterious civilization of white people deep in the heart of Africa. After suitable adventures, including a successful dawn attack on a band of Masai who had captured the young daughter of a Scottish missionary, they found their way to the lake-side city of Milosis, capitol the Zu-Vendi.
The Zu-Vendi were indeed white. They were ruled by sister queens, Nyleptha and Sorais. Both fell in love with Curtis, but he loved only Nyleptha. His declaration of love precipitated a civil war between Sorais’s forces and Nyleptha’s. With the help of our trio – and a noble Zulu named Umslopogaas – Nyleptha wins.
Curtis remained behind as her King-Consort while Good set about building a navy. Having been badly wounded in the climactic battle, Quatermain was bed-ridden; he occupied his time writing the story of this adventure. No sooner had he finished than he died. Presumably the other two also died among the Zu-Vendis.
As for Rider Haggard, he wrote more Allan Quatermain novels, prequels all. In 1956 Walt Disney opened Disneyland, one quarter of which was devoted to Adventureland; it featured a Jungle Cruise enlivened by marvelous electromechanical animals. Late in 2008 archaeologists announced that they had discovered the remains of King Solomon’s Mines, not in Africa but Jordan, not diamonds, but copper.
Very interesting stuff Bill. I was on the panel of a literary event in Edinburgh a few months back (with Roger Luckhurst and China Miéville) in honour of the archetypal ‘Lost World’ adventure: Conan Doyle’s Lost World. My take on that book wasn’t a million miles away from your take on this one; I didn’t deal so much with the representation of social relations, but I do think that what these books do is imaginatively reconfigure England in utopian ways ... and that what’s significant about this is that it represents (I think) a radical revisioning of what Utopia means. I blogged my thoughts here, and will now quote myself:
The enormous success of Doyle’s tale points to a shift in the cultural logic—in the cultural function—of utopian narrative. In More’s 16th-century narrative, utopia is presented as a preferable to actual European society because it is better ordered; because it has better laws, and because they are better implemented. Utopia, in other words, is construed as a function of rational legality. In Doyle’s 20th-century novel, on the other hand—and despite the fact that the late C19th- and C20th- was massively oversupplied with self-consciously utopian narratives all predicated upon the same Morean premise—Doyle’s novel figures utopia in quite another way: as a place that offers precisely escape from law, from the restrictions of civilization. The cultural logic of utopia itself shifts from being the perfect embodiment of rationality to being the perfect escape from rationality. It is the place where you can escape both civilisation and its discontents; you will see exciting new things, experience dangers (ie thrills), indulge your violence (kill a whole population if you like) and return rich beyond the dreams of Croesus.
It is, in fact, precisely because it is a necessary component of this new utopian logic that Doyle’s utopia is a place of danger, hardship and even physical pain. This speaks not to any masochism in Doyle’s utopian imagination, but rather to the extent to which The Lost World must necessarily position itself in opposition to the cultural construction of comfort. But the great utopias of the twentieth-century (and by ‘great’ I mean: broadly successful, culturally ubiquitous, imaginary spaces after which millions yearn, to which they hunger to travel, which they prefer to their own mundane lives) are Lost Worlds in this mode. The key example, I suppose, is Tolkien’s Middle Earth; a similar balance of the exotic and the (English) familiar; a similar balance of danger and comfort; but above all a simmilar sense (here coded as ‘magic’) of a release from rationality.
That’s what actually happened to ‘utopia’ in the twentieth-century: it went to New Zealand.
Most interesting Adam, most interesting indeed. The appeal of rationality becomes rather blunted when it shows itself in the form of office buildings full of pencil-pushing functionaries and factories full of widget-mongerers.
Given your utopian take it’s interesting that the lost world in Allan Quatermain was conceived as one where our adventurers would take up residence rather than return to England to live in comfort on their wealth. Here’s what Sir Henry says in an addendum to Quatermain’s manuscript that he penned after Quatermain himself had died:
Since then things have gone very well with us. Good has been, and still is, busily employed in the construction of a navy on Lake Milosis and another of the large lakes, by means of which we hope to be able to increase trade and commerce, and also to overcome some very troublesome and warlike sections of the population who live upon their borders. Poor fellow! he is beginning to get over the sad death of that misguided but most attractive woman, Sorais, but it is a sad blow to him, for he was really deeply attached to her. I hope, however, that he will in time make a suitable marriage and get that unhappy business out of his head. Nyleptha has one or two young ladies in view, especially a daughter of Nasta’s (who was a widower), a very fine imperial-looking girl, but with too much of her father’s intriguing, and yet haughty, spirit to suit my taste.
As for myself, I should scarcely know where to begin if I set to work to describe my doings, so I had best leave them undescribed, and content myself with saying that, on the whole, I am getting on very well in my curious position of King-Consort—better, indeed, than I had any right to expect. But, of course, it is not all plain sailing, and I find the responsibilities very heavy. Still, I hope to be able to do some good in my time, and I intend to devote myself to two great ends—namely, to the consolidation of the various clans which together make up the Zu-Vendi people, under one strong central government, and to the sapping of the power of the priesthood. The first of these reforms will, if it can be carried out, put an end to the disastrous civil wars that have for centuries devastated this country; and the second, besides removing a source of political danger, will pave the road for the introduction of true religion in the place of this senseless Sun worship. I yet hope to see the shadow of the Cross of Christ lying on the golden dome of the Flower Temple; or, if I do not, that my successors may.
There is one more thing that I intend to devote myself to, and that is the total exclusion of all foreigners from Zu-Vendis.
There you have it, a white feudal utopia in the heart of Africa. Can Middle Earth be far away?
And then there’s Disneyland. Walt didn’t conceive it in day; it was the result of a decade or more of thinking and tinkering and, when you think of it, really was designed as a little utopia, one for the whole family. And Walt’s unrealized plan for EPCOT – Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – was deeply utopian.
As for New Zealand, I’ve just finished On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, by Brian Boyd of the University of Auckland. Think of it as a utopian effort to reframe literary studies on a naturalist model.
I’ve just finished She (1887). The subtext seems more ascent-to-the-godhead than utopian.