Surprisingly, King Solomon’s Mines and the adventure novel genre have not come across my radar until recently. I greatly love Indiana Jones and old movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon. I have even enjoyed some outdoor adventures of my own. For whatever reason, none of these books were recommended or thrust upon me during my education. I have the interesting position of being a fan of the genre before reading it but also being an adult upon my initial reading.
King Solomon’s Mines is set in unexplored Africa in the late 1800s. Big game hunter, trader, and adventurer Allan Quatermain narrates the story. Quatermain, who is 55 during the tale, describes himself as tired of fighting and cowardly in general, yet he leads the adventure. Sir Henry Curtis, accompanied by his companion Captain Good, requests Quatermain’s assistance traveling into Africa to look for his missing brother.
Sir Henry’s brother, George, went missing after leaving on a quest to find the fabled King Solomon’s Mines and presumably the treasures held within. Quatermain has a mysterious old map that was said to depict the way to the mines but has never considered actually testing it. The three men and some local guides, including the faithful, Ignosi, set out armed with the map and plenty of guns to retrieve George.
From there, the rest of the story is spent on a long journey in wild and mysterious parts of Africa. While I was initially excited by the quest, once it got underway, it quickly became the opposite of glamorous. Much of the trip is plagued by hot temperatures and a lack of water. Despite looking for adventure and coming well equipped for trouble, the men are quickly overwhelmed by their environment. This obstacle was disheartening and not exactly what I expected from the adventure. To make matters worse, this trial seemed to last quite a while, and if the book were to be split into three parts, this would be part one.
The Hidden Natives
Next, the group comes upon the hidden land and kingdom of Kukuanaland, who have never seen outsiders like them. These people are entirely separated from modern society. They have known only their own influence and culture for hundreds of years. This is probably the most fascinating part of the book and contains a good deal of humor as the two diverse groups of men learn about one another.
Eventually, the men impress the Kukuanas and get to meet their king, Twala, and live for a time with the people. During this time, they witness the cruel practices of the king and the powerful influence of his strange witch-woman advisor Gagool. The adventurers interject themselves in his proceedings to stop murder and injustice, testing the king’s patience more than once. This would be part two of the book, and much time is spent with the men living among the Kukuana people.
The plot thickens as their guide, Ignosi, has a personal connection to Twala, which puts the men at odds with the king. The story becomes a political war drama during this part of the book. This, again, was not what I expected from an adventure novel aimed at young readers. I wouldn’t have minded it, but I imagined more Indiana Jones uncovering artifacts than war councils.
The story’s end is the men traveling to and finding King Solomon’s Mine. This is where the Indiana Jones-style adventure and tomb raiding finally take center stage. This part of the novel is thrilling, and I finally found myself in the adventure I was looking for. Unfortunately, this is only a portion of the book’s third part. It is no wonder, though, where much of the imagery we have in our adventure stories today comes from.
I liked the mystery and exploration aspects of the book. As the adventurers merely discussed and prepared for the trip, I grew increasingly excited. My imagination ran wild as we learned more of the truth behind the mine and eventually entered it. It seemed there were far-fetched yet explainable links to the distant past and possibly even the supernatural at play in the coming quest. The thrill of the unknown was compelling from the novel’s beginning, so later, when the story seemed to detour into survival from the environment, I grew impatient.
I enjoyed meeting the Kukuana people and learning all about their customs. This aspect of the story dives much deeper than you’d expect into the background of a fictional society of primitive people. While it wasn’t necessary to the story’s success, it certainly did add to it. Before the adventurers discovered any treasure, found any missing persons, or explored any ruins, they encountered an unknown civilization.
Further fantastical tales came to light in describing the hidden people and their customs, including the people’s history and beliefs regarding the yet explored mine. Gagool, the minuscule ancient witch-woman, was perhaps the most intriguing of the Kukuanas. Her mysterious background and seemingly supernatural powers combine the most remarkable aspects of the novel.
My chief complaint is not learning more about Allan Quatermain. He is the narrator and a character of some renown, but we don’t get to know his history very well in this book. His actions and thoughts are revealed in regards to the adventures at hand, but otherwise, he still remains something of a mystery. He is a famed hunter and even mentions an incident with a lion, but we don’t learn why he is famed or get to read the details of the encounter with the big cat. This framing of his character compared to the quest details makes the story more about the journey and action than the characters.
I didn’t like that two-thirds of the book was spent in places other than exploring the mine. The story’s intro builds up the ensuing adventure, but we get heavily bogged down with a walking trip across the desert. After recovery from the desert, we meet the fascinating Kukuana people but become embroiled in their political drama and resulting war. While these aspects were interesting for a while, I found myself constantly thinking ahead to when we would actually locate and explore the mine.
Lastly, I didn’t enjoy the racial insensitivity throughout the book. It is mostly in descriptions of the Kukuanas and for comparisons in status between the white adventurers and the black people they encounter. For example, despite all the incredible feats the men accomplished, one of the only things they were absolutely sure of was the impossibility of a black Kukuana girl being in a relationship with a white man.
I understand that the book’s racism is indicative of the time the book was written rather than something malicious. Still, my thoughts drifted to the weight of the words and how they detracted from the story’s fun as I read them. I also realized this racism is probably why I never was recommended the book as a child or tasked with reading it for school.
Overall, I am glad I read the book. I had never read anything like it, so most of the experiences were new to me. I believe that modern pop culture and reading the book in 2022 rather than 1950 played a significant role in its impact on me. I blame my love for the adventure genre for the book not leaving me wholly thrilled and in awe. I give King Solomon’s Mines 3 out of 5 giant diamonds and recommend it for fans of King Kong or those looking for an exotic getaway.