The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Allan Quatermain Adventures (1885-1927)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Allan Quaterman Adventures were written by H. Rider Haggard and began with King Solomon’s Mines. Haggard (1856-1925) was a prolific, popular, and influential novelist whose works are still read with pleasure today.
Although Haggard spun the Allan Quatermain saga out into a total of eighteen novels and story collections, the central two novels in the Allan Quatermain Adventures are King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain (1887). (Properly speaking She is tied in to the Allan Quatermain Adventures but is the start of a separate series, the Ayesha Adventures).
King Solomon’s Mines is about how Allan Quatermain, a noted big game hunter and African guide, is hired by Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good to find Sir Henry’s missing brother Neville. Quatermain is known and trusted in the Natal, which is why Curtis and Good turn to him. Quatermain knows that Neville was looking for the legendary diamond mines of King Solomon, and Quatermain further knows where the mines are–or at least has a rough idea of their location, thanks to an old map. Quatermain agrees to accompany Curtis and Good on this trip, more out of boredom and the money he is offered than for any other reason. They hire a group of servants, one of whom, Umbopa, has great qualities and is clearly more than just another native bearer. After a long journey filled with suffering the group eventually reaches Kakuanaland, the kingdom in which the Mines are located, but they find that Kakuanaland is ruled by Twala, a cruel dictator, who is advised by the withered crone and witch Gagool. Quatermain, Curtis and Good then discover that Umbopa is actually Ignosi, the son of the rightful king of Kakuanaland, who Twala killed. Ignosi leads a rebellion against Twala and after a bloody pitched battle Ignosi is victorious. Gagool survives the battle and agrees to lead Quatermain, Curtis and Good to the Mines. In the Mines Gagool springs a trap on them, killing herself and a native girl who loved Good, but Quatermain, Curtis and Good manage to escape the trap, taking with them a pocketful of diamonds. The group returns to civilization and Ignosi vows to close the borders of Kakuanaland behind them.
In Allan Quatermain, Quatermain, Curtis, and Good reunite and return to Africa. Allan’s son Harry has died and Allan is sick of England and civilization and wants to embrace his savage side. The three travel into the interior of Africa in search of a perhaps-mythical race of white natives. Quatermain, Curtis and Good are accompanied by Quatermain’s old companion, the mighty Zulu warrior Umslopogaas. After another long and difficult trip, in which they fight against two hundred and fifty Maasai and survive a harrowing canoe trip past a venting volcanic jet, they discover Zu Vendis, a civilization of white Africans ruled by two queens. One of the queens, Nyleptha, is good. The other queen, Sorais, is not. Both Sorais and Nyleptha fall in love with Curtis, who is a tall, burly, blond-haired Danish/Viking type. Curtis falls in love with Nyleptha. Spurned and furious, Sorais declares war on Nyleptha. The civil war is brief but bloody, with an enormous pitched battle between the two queens’ armies. As Nyleptha’s army is triumphing Quatermain is told that assassins have been sent to kill Nyleptha. Quatermain and Umslopogaas ride hellbent, almost one hundred miles in nine hours, with Umslopogaas running the last twenty, and they reach Nyleptha only a short time before the assassins arrive. In one of the great battles in all of literature, Umslopogaas holds the stairway leading to the queen’s chambers against fifty men, killing them all but being mortally wounded in the process. Quatermain, who suffers a punctured lung during the battle between the queen’s armies, outlives Umslopogaas by only a month.
King Solomon’s Mines was not Haggard’s first novel, nor was it one which he spent a great deal of time working on. Haggard only spent thirteen weeks writing it, and (so the probably-apocryphal story goes) only began it on a dare from one of his brothers after Haggard read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and proclaimed that he could do better. Haggard’s brother John said, “Well, I’d like to see you write anything as good–bet you a bob you can’t.”1 Whether Haggard surpassed Stevenson in quality is debatable. But it is undeniable that Haggard surpassed Stevenson in sales. Allan Quatermain was written more carefully by Haggard and was nearly as successful as King Solomon’s Mines. These two novels, along with She, are Haggard’s most popular and have rarely been out of print in the decades since their initial publication.
The three are not just cracking good reads, but are also, in their own way, important novels.
First and foremost, King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain were significantly influential on the development of modern fantasy fiction. Haggard was read by and imprinted on Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and J.R.R. Tolkien, three of the primums mobile of modern fantasy literature. Scenes and motifs from Haggard can be found in the works of each. Ignosi is the Aragon-like hidden king, and the Diamond Mines are a proto-Moria, for example.2 Sir Henry Curtis was one of the models for Tarzan,3 as is (at a certain remove) Galazi from Nada the Lily.4 And the lost cities that Solomon Kane and Conan encounter owe not a little to Burroughs’ Opar and more broadly his depiction of Africa.5 It is safe to say that without Haggard, there would have been no modern fantasy fiction, or at least a radically altered genre of fantastic literature.
King Solomon’s Mines sparked the craze for Lost Race Stories. Stories about unknown lands and races had been written for centuries before Haggard, but there was no separate, recognized genre of Lost Race/Lost World stories until Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines. Although other nineteenth century writers were influential in various ways on modern fantasy (see: A Tale of the House of the Wolfings, The Story of the Glittering Plain), the motif of the Lost Race being culturally stuck in the past, a trope which Haggard established, was what later fantasy writers took most from the nineteenth century. Modern fantasy is overwhelmingly written with an eye to the past, recreating a historical moment (usually medieval Europe) in fictional form. Haggard began this, moving fictional fantasy worlds away from versions of Faerie and toward a version of the real world’s past.
Haggard was equally responsible for starting a craze of novels about Africa. Before King Solomon’s Mines there was only one English novel of any merit about Africa: Olive Schreiner’s Story of An African Farm (1883), a New Woman novel of domestic realism and Boer life in the African back country. But Story of An African Farm was only a minor success (and was somewhat controversial due to its feminist content), while King Solomon’s Mines was one of the best-selling novels of the nineteenth century. Africa held a great deal of appeal for English readers in 1885. Earlier that year the representatives of fourteen countries, including Great Britain, met in Berlin to establish the rules for dividing and exploiting Africa. In the mid-1880s Great Britain was acutely interested in the “scramble for Africa,” and many young men of the English middle class were becoming increasingly involved in imperial affairs overseas. The English had read missionary travelogues, such as David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels in South Africa (1857) account of his 1853-1856 journey across Africa, and had been reading accounts of English troops in action in Africa since the 1860s. The English were interested in Africa and wanted to read stories about it, and King Solomon’s Mines, with its unabashed heroism and open masculinity, satisfied this desire in a way that Schreiner’s domestic drama could not—at least, for male readers. As well, Haggard’s use of a real section of Africa as the setting for King Solomon’s Mines allowed readers to consult atlases and find the blank, unexplored area where Quatermain discovers the Mines. And, finally, King Solomon’s Mines came at a time when archaeological discoveries, from Schliemann’s excavation of Troy in 1870, to Carl Mauch’s 1871 discovery of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, to Brugsch’s opening of the Valley of the Kings in 1881, were electrifying Europe and bringing to light numerous lost and forgotten cultures.
Haggard is no great stylist, but he and his stories have a number of virtues which make them appealing even to modern readers. Quatermain is charmingly modest as well as a good narrator. The tone of the novels is conversational and fluid, except for the occasional long descriptive passage, such as the description of the palace of Nyleptha and Sorais. The dialogue is realistic and occasionally punchy. Haggard’s knowledge of and experience in Africa lends his writings not just verisimilitude but authority; even if the readers do not know that Haggard was an Africa hand, his treatment of Africa and the Africans is so assured that, as with Kipling and India (see: Kim), the reader tends to believe him automatically. The constant accumulation of homely African details lends weight and reliability to the narrative. Part of the verisimilitude of the novel comes from these details, specifically, the strenuous and painful exertions which Quatermain and his group undergo during their trips. Haggard vividly drives home the difficulties of traveling across Africa in the nineteenth century, the hunger, thirst, and disease which white explorers and travelers suffered from, and how long and arduous a trek was that the modern reader is likely to make in a day’s travel by car. Haggard is equally effective in making the point that travel in Africa was not just difficult but dangerous. Quatermain and his friends suffer great pains and nearly die several times, and their bearers perish in great numbers, killed by hostile Maasai or by natural pitfalls or through the attacks of animals.
But there are negative aspects to Haggard’s work, and though in some respects the popular perception of Haggard’s work is exaggerated through ignorance and a lack of exposure to the actual texts, other aspects of Haggard’s Quatermain stories and novels are truly regrettable.
Above all else is the matter of race. By twenty-first century standards Haggard and Quatermain and the Quatermain books are all racist. Natives are bought off with trinkets and empty shell casings. Quatermain and his friends assume, presume to, and are given places of privilege because they are white, even when in native kingdoms. The attitude of Quatermain and Haggard toward native Africans is paternalistic, to say the least, not least in the assumption that Quatermain knows better than the natives what the natives really need. Quatermain occasionally refers to African men as “boys.” Quatermain makes comments like “for a native [he was] a very clever man.”6 Quatermain, like Haggard, is a believer in races having innate traits.
And yet Haggard and Quatermain are both rather progressive relative to their contemporaries. It is all too easy to judge previous generations by current standards, and doing so often prevents an evaluation and appreciation of writers of those generations on their own terms. Haggard and Quatermain are very good examples of this. Early in King Solomon’s Mines Quatermain says:
And, besides, am I a gentleman? What is a gentleman? I don't quite know, and yet I have had to do with niggers--no, I will scratch out that word “niggers,” for I do not like it. I've known natives who are, and so you will say, Harry, my boy, before you have done with this tale, and I have known mean whites with lots of money and fresh out from home, too, who are not.7
For a book written in 1885, this is an enlightened opinion. Both Umbopa/Ignosi and Umslopogaas are gentlemen, and Quatermain, Curtis and Good greatly respect them both. This respect for them, and the friendship between Quatermain and Umslopogaas, was a large part of the reason why King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain so surprised the English public when they were published. Haggard’s attitudes were seen by his contemporaries as quite liberal.
The reader who looks at King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain with a non-judgmental eye one can see other examples of Haggard and Quatermain acting in a more enlightened way than either is given credit for. Quatermain is respectful of the Zulus, for example, equating them with the ancient Danes. Being an old African hand, Quatermain knows that not all Africans are alike, and he differentiates between various tribes, describing, for example, the Zulus in one way and the Griqua in another:
The curator of the botanical gardens gave them to me. It is looked after by an old hunter of mine named Jack, whose thigh was so badly broken by a buffalo cow in Sikukunïs country that he will never hunt again. But he can potter about and garden, being a Griqua by birth. You can never get your Zulu to take much interest in gardening. It is a peaceful art, and peaceful arts are not in his line.8
This differentiation is the key to understanding Quatermain’s (and by extension Haggard’s) position on race. Each people, or “race,” has different virtues, just as the “race” of Englishmen have virtues specific to themselves. Quatermain does not think of all Africans as the same, but rather as Kafirs (Xhosa), Zulus, Kakuanas, and so on. Quatermain sees each as having separate virtues and flaws, just as he views Europeans. Quatermain is not blind to the flaws of the English; it is clear that Ignosi’s sequestering of the Kakuana from the white men, and Curtis’ total exclusion of all foreigners from the Zu Vendis, are good things to Quatermain and for Haggard, who see those kingdoms as just fine the way they are. The influence of Christianity and England on both kingdoms, in Haggard’s eyes, would be negative, not positive–hardly the position of an uncomplicated racist. Nor does Haggard see that much difference between the English and the “savage;” in Allan Quatermain he argues most effectively that the distance between the two is much smaller than the English would like to think. In several ways Haggard is a later version of James Fenimore Cooper (see: The Last of the Mohicans), albeit a much better writer. Both celebrate the virtues of the natives while mourning the destruction of their culture by encroaching whites. But Cooper approved of white Manifest Destiny, while Haggard’s ambiguity toward it shades into disapproval.
Haggard’s treatment of women is more problematic than his treatment of race. There are female characters in both King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain, but they are of secondary importance. Women as a whole are not central to either novel; both are manly books in which women are relegated to secondary or tertiary roles. Reading She gives further insight into what Haggard may have thought of women; suffice it to say that Quatermain’s derisory comment that “At any rate, I can safely say that there is not a petticoat in the whole history”9 of King Solomon’s Mines gives an indication of Haggard’s preferred milieu. The women in both King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain are either evil and scheming (Gagool, Sorais) or kind and soft and loving and willing to let the men lead them (Nyleptha).
Like Haggard, Quatermain is not what those unfamiliar with him believe him to be. He is definitely not the Great White Hunter stereotype, and while he is the father of Indiana Jones and every other Lost World explorer of the pulps, adventure fiction and the movies, Quatermain is far more unlike them than like them. He is not particularly daring; in his own words, “I am a timid man and dislike violence; moreover, I am almost sick of adventure.”10 He is not tall and muscular and athletic, nor is he young. And he is considerably more conscientious than many of the Quatermain imitators who followed him. The Allan Quatermain Adventures are in many ways late Victorian and Edwardian fantasies of imperial masculinity,11 but Quatermain himself is largely left out of the fantasy.
The absence of significant women in the Allan Quatermain Adventures, and consequently the complicated vision of masculinity, is of a piece with the Victorian adventure genre as a whole—a genre that, though selling very well, was in a deservedly disadvantaged position as far as the culture at large was concerned. As Martin Green writes, adventure fiction was at this disadvantage compared to the more popular domestic novel because the domestic novel could express “key values of the ruling mercantile class, and at the same time protest against the cruder expansive thrusts of the modern system—including imperialism and adventure.”12
Adventure fiction and its authors did not take this disadvantaged position lightly, and in fact fought, through the last fifteen years of the century and into the Edwardian years, to “wrest ‘the novel’ from both writers in the French naturalism vein and popular women writers of romance by displacing both with ‘King Romance.’”13 “King Romance” was Haggard’s nickname, after the success of King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain, and She, but the phrase also stands in for the very masculine adventures—romances in the old, traditional wording—that Haggard’s work came to typify. These romances not only lacked women as a whole, but propagated values that modern readers will find unpleasant (to say the least).
King Solomon’s Mines, for example, was a vehicle for a specific kind of imperialism:
King Solomon's Mines is a rhetorical attempt to purify an image of imperialism that many Britons found disturbing. In the second half of the novel. Haggard describes one of the most characteristic paradigms of imperial expansion—the overthrow of an indigenous ruler and the establishment of a rival claimant (one approved by the imperial nation) on the throne." By manipulating the conventional romantic structure. Haggard dissociates the paradigm's "appearance" as unwarranted intervention in the affairs of a foreign culture from what he considers to be its essential "reality"—the act of establishing order and justice in place of barbarism and the transformation of the identities of Briton and African that results from this act.14
This “imperialist romance”15 predates Haggard, but he helped “solidify the genre into its standard mold.”16 The imperialist romance has a certain internal ambivalence:
This ambivalence can be traced directly to the dual role of the nineteenth-century imperialist as both missionary and merchant. Europeans saw themselves as ambassadors of an enlightened civilization, but they also realized that they came to the unchartered regions of the earth to acquire wealth. Their very motives were schizophrenic. Consequently, although whites always appear as heroes in the imperialist romance, they often appear as villains, too.17
For all the preceding, though, King Solomon’s Mines continues to enthrall readers, and continues to be regarded as a classic, however problematic a one.
If there are some arguments to rehabilitate Haggard on modern terms, they do not show readily why King Solomon’s Mines remains a classic. That is largely to do with what he called “grip,” or narrative tension. It depends on the interplay of polarities, in particular those of loss and restitution (Sir Henry’s lost brother and Umbopa’s lost kingdom). This interplay appeals to primitive, atavistic emotions that, in themselves, transcend cultural differences. Black and white, African and European, we all want to jump back to our mutual caveman past now and then.18
Print: H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.
1 Roger Luckhurst, “Introduction,” King Solomon’s Mines (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2016), ix.
2 Melanie Hix’s “Mythologies of Power: H. Rider Haggard’s Influence on J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’” (Thesis, Oklahoma City University, 2000) is good at tracing the various influences of Haggard on Tolkien.
3 R.E. Prindle, “Edgar Rice Burroughs Meets H. Rider Haggard,” ERBzine, accessed Oct. 25, 2018, http://www.erbzine.com/mag28/2897.html
4 Richard A. Lupoff, Master of Adventure: The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 2005), 159.
5 Charles Hoffman, “Return to Xuthal,” in Darrell E. Schweitzer, ed, The Robert E. Howard Reader (Cabin John, MD: Wildside Press, 2010), 94.
6 H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines (London: Cassell and Company, 1887), 30.
7 Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, 9.
8 Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, 40.
9 Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, 9.
10 Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, 7.
11 See, for example, Joseph A. Kestner’s Masculinities in British Adventure Fiction, 1880-1915 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), although his judgment is less nuanced than is ultimately warranted.
12 Martin Green, Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 57.
13 Teresa Mangum, Married, Middlebrow, and Militant: Sarah Grand and the New Woman Novel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998), 52.
14 Jeff D. Bass, “The Romance as Rhetorical Dissociation: The Purification of Imperialism in King Solomon’s Mines,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 67, no. 3 (1981): 260.
15 Richard F. Patteson’s phrase, in Patteson, “King Solomon’s Mines: Imperialism and Narrative Structure,” Journal of Narrative Technique 8, no. 2 (Spring 1978): 112-123, a handy introduction to the subject.
16 Patteson, “King Solomon’s Mines,” 113.
17 Patteson, “King Solomon’s Mines,” 113-114.
18 Giles Foden, “Preface,” in King Solomon’s Mines (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007), v.