Posted by: Kirsty | March 3, 2009

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard (1885)

9536412_Haggard_KingSol.inddI warn you now that this won’t be a review so much as a rant, and a feminist rant at that. I thought it might actually be a thoughtful feminist critique of a classic novel, but no, I think it’ll just be a rant.

King Solomon’s Mines probably doesn’t need that much introduction to many of you. Classic adventure story featuring three white men (Allan Quartermain, Sir Henry Curtis, and Captain John Good) as they make the arduous trek to Kukuanaland, where they hope to find both Sir Henry’s brother and diamonds that will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. They take along three “natives” as servants, including the mysterious Umbopa, who as far as they’re concerned seems a bit uppity for a servant, but he’s loyal, so they deal with it. They face extreme heat, then extreme cold, and no one has ever survived the journey before, but lo, they do, and they end up in this lush and beautiful land. The natives try to kill them, so our heroes tell them they are from the stars and have magical powers. Lots of fighting, some royal intrigue, the white men get the diamonds and find Sir Henry’s brother on the way home.

This cuts the story down somewhat, but you get the gist. Blah imperial blah fighting blah big masculine men blah colonial blah. I didn’t enjoy it much, can you tell?

But aside from all the imperial ming that one might expect from a story such as this – including derogatory language about blacks, and the insistance that an inter-racial relationship can only mean trouble, albeit couched in slightly more delicate language (“the sun cannot mate with the darkness”) – the thing that really got me fired up was the ideas of gender contained within the novel.

There are only two female characters in the novel, other than those in the crowd scenes. One is Foulata, the doomed Kukuana beauty whom the heroes save from sacrifice, and who falls in love with Captain Good. She is an ideal figure of passive femininity: docile, loyal, unquestioning, and… well, frankly a bit fey and swoony. Of course, as I mentioned, her blossoming love for Good can come to nowt because of the racial difference, so she gets killed off by the other main female character, Gagool. Gagool is apparently ancient – the implication is that she is hundreds of years old – and is a witch-hunter and advisor to bad King Twala. Arguably she holds more power than anyone else in the book, having in the past got Twala to the throne instead of the rightful heir, and conducting her regular witch-hunts which end in mass slaughter. She is also the only person who knows the secrets of King Solomon’s Mines.

On one hand you could look at her as a powerful woman, but I think that would be missing the point of her. She’s evil. Really, properly, no-hope-of-salvation evil. In a novel which is so concerned with showing masculinity as its height I think this has to be significant. We know that H. Rider Haggard was no fan of the rise of feminism or of the idea of female emancipation back home, and indeed one could say that he is also rejecting the ideas of masculinity that were taking hold back in England at the time; the Ruskinian man who comes home from a hard day’s work to stand at the hearth and observe his adoring family. This idea of masculinity as domesticated, and to Haggard tamed, must have fed into his preferred portrayal of adventurous men who are excellent warriors and who form a close bond of friendship with each other. To use a word I keep seeing in magazines, these three men have the ultimate bromance.

And there’s the landscape. Someone commented in class last night that the landscape is inescapably female, and posited that this countered the black-and-white (if you’ll pardon the unfortunate phrase) view of femininity – the idealised feminine woman bestowed with admirable feeling and much physical beauty versus the wizened, evil old witch who has all the power. Yes, I think the landscape is obviously feminized. For one they keep going on about the two huge mountains called Sheba’s Breasts which has two snow-capped nipples. And quite aside from these two giant mammaries in the middle of the landscape, the land on the other side is beautiful, lush, and plentiful, which again would suggest the female, as opposed to the rugged male. However, I don’t think you can say that this does anything other than reinforce the ideas about femininity that we encounter in Foulata and Gagool. For one, the landscape in Kukuanaland strikes me as largely beautiful but ultimately passive, much like the idealised Foulata. The two exceptions to this are Sheba’s Breasts and King Solomon’s Mines.

Sheba’s Breasts and their snowy nipples are incredibly treacherous, and indeed the men and their servants nearly die of exposure while climbing them. They eventually find a cave in one of the nipples, in which they shelter for the night, but here they find both the dead body of a previous adventurer, and here one of their servants dies. I may, of course, be reading too much into this, but they are inside the nipples of a mountain called Sheba’s Breasts. Breasts and nipples would normally connote live-giving and nourishment, but instead two men have died in them. Meanwhile in King Solomon’s Mines they are entombed in the centre of the underground complex – in the womb, one might suggest – and it looks like they might die in there too. (They get out, unsurprisingly, because they are MEN!) So, ultimately, when the landscape isn’t being beautiful and passive, it’s trying to kill them. Much like Foulata and Gagool, the other women in the novel. Not to mention that legs were often regarded as phallic symbols, and here they are, walking all over the feminine landscape. I don’t think I need delve into that much further, do I?

And what do they find to eat while on Sheba’s Breasts? Melons. MELONS! *headdesk*

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Responses

  1. Hilarious. Up to Sheba’s breasts, my comment was going to be ‘I can’t say that I’m surprised’, but ‘snowy nipples’? Good god. Have you read Mysterious Kor? I keep coming across references to it with regard to Elizabeth Bowen.

  2. It really does talk about “snowy nipples”. There’s a map, too, with two breast-shaped mountains drawn on, complete with nipples. It’s astonishing.

    I haven’t read Mysterious Kor, no. I shall look it up.

  3. What a fun review! I always suspected that this was probably a rather silly book and you have just confirmed all my prejudices about it.

  4. The U.S. has breast mountains–the Grand Tetons. What is it about dudes and boobs? This is one novel I’ll NEVER read! Thanks, K.

  5. […] term “enormous nipples” must have been rather disappointed when they alighted upon a feminist mauling of King Solomon’s Mines. Hee hee […]

  6. I loved your post about it. Confirmed all my fears about the book,truly dreadful.Snowy nipples and melons though (!), hilarious.

  7. To further cement the idea about the feminity of the landscape, if the map is drawn out (as it is in the edition I have, but not on the online version I’m working with right now), turning it upside down produces a crude picture of a woman, with the aptly named breasts of sheba in the anatomical position, king solomon’s mines placed as a vaginal symbol, the main city (forgive me, I’m the worst with names) at the navel location, forgive me once again as I can’t quite remember what was placed in appendage regions, and the head was made up of the bad waters.

    Curiosly, have you ever read Haggard’s “She?” It has an altogether different perception of women (albiet still along the more evil side of things) focused around the main character “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed?”

  8. I enjoyed the book, myself. No, it’s not up to 21st century politically correct standards, but it’s a fun adventure with interesting characters.

    I think sometimes you have to take the author’s cultural context into consideration and accept it as a kind of time capsule, even if you find some of the viewpoints repugnant. Seeing everything through a particular lens, in this case a feminist one, is a very narrow way of looking at things.

    As far as the author’s views, I believe they were fairly progressive for the time. He may not have been in favor of universal suffrage, but in his novel Allan Quatermain, he writes a couple of interesting female characters who are powerful, intelligent, and admirable, though somewhat dualistic, as well.


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