Three Novels by H. Rider Haggard:
King Solomon’s Mines
These books made me feel bad.
First, I had some serious white guilt issues. I don’t go in for that normally; I have read Mark Twain’s Huck Finn several times, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as well, not to mention the uncomfortable To Kill a Mockingbird. I read them, all three of those and others, out loud to my students. I admit I skip over the N-word: because I am of the opinion that, while an ideal world would lack any racial terms, or would at least have removed from the terms all power to hurt, we don’t live in that ideal world, and that word coming out of my white face as I stand at the front of the classroom with power over my students – that is not a powerless word, that is not a word that I can be sure won’t hurt anyone. But otherwise, I don’t mind reading either the silly caricatures of minorities, or the swaggering white titans (Whitans? Or all three words, and make it Swhitans?) who bestride the world like a colossus. While I want to include people of color in the authors my students read and that I read, I am not against reading a dozen great novels by dead white men. I am comfortable with being a honky.
But this book (It was all three novels in a single collection) made me uncomfortable. It was more to do with the unquestioned superiority of the white men than the savagery of the Africans; sure, the Africans were savages, described as ignorant, violent, often childish, having outlandish costumes and going in for cannibalism (With the completely absurd description in She of the tribe’s use of a heated metal pot, clapped over the head of the intended victim who is thus both tortured and killed, and then turned into stew. And they called it the Hotpot. And the goofy white character, the servant guy who played the role of Stan Laurel or Lou Costello or Kramer or Chris Farley – the guy who panics all the time – was constantly terrified of the Hotpot. “Don’t leave me alone with the savages! They will give me the Hotpot!” How do you say that with terror in your voice? I just couldn’t take it seriously.), but the bigger problem was the way the white men took over the ancient African societies they came across, simply assuming they had greater ability to lead. And not even for the usual reason of needing to bring Jesus to the heathens; no, this was usually because they had greater knowledge of guns and of how to win a battle. Which I think is, first, no good reason to assume power, and second, nonsense, at least in terms of battle: modern warfare uses modern weapons, and when you take away said modern weapons, the idea that a group of honkies who have never been in the area could lead their men to victory simply by virtue of their whiteness is absurd. Yet that is exactly what happens in both Allan Quatermain books (and it annoys me every time I see that name, because there should be another “r”), particularly King Solomon’s Mines, where the battle includes tens of thousands of African soldiers. Led by the white men to victory, just because they were white men – because the battle plan is “Get the high ground and send our best troops against their weakest.” Boy, thank god the crackers were there to explain that! No way that African civilizations that have existed for millennia could have figured that out without help. And guess who the mightiest single warrior is: well, there is much made of a particularly hardcore Zulu chieftain who travels with them; but right by his side is the biggest, strongest white man, who is better in hand-to-hand combat than people who have spent their lives doing just that – but, after all, he is British.
And then there was the penis factor. Not only did the whites win because they were whites – and in both She and Allan Quatermain, the rulers of the hidden African kingdoms were white people, mysteriously existing in the heart of Africa – but the men were worshiped as masters of all things because they were men. In King Solomon’s Mines, the rival rulers were men, so this was less of an issue; but in Allan Quatermain, there is a pair of sisters who are co-rulers of an ancient kingdom of great wealth and sophistication; and the minute that the Englishmen get there, the two queens both fall in love with the hunkiest of the three Great White Hunters; he chooses the whiter queen – the blonde one, of course; the one with the darker hair is both sluttier and witchier than the gooder, purer, whiter sister – and she not only marries him, she immediately swears to obey him in all things, stating categorically that he is her lord and he makes her feel safe and taken care of by his mighty manly parts. The queen, this is. Lifelong ruler of a hereditary monarchy, a completely self-sufficient kingdom that has been cut off entirely from the modern world. And she’s freaking swooning and mincing and clinging. Pathetic. Meanwhile, her badass witchy sister – also clearly the sexy one, though Haggard assiduously avoids even the hint of sex in all three books – denied the personal domination of the hunky honky, settles for the other white dude (Quatermain himself is somewhere around 70 in this book, and though there’s no particular reason Haggard couldn’t give him the virility claimed by all old white dudes who pretend they can have a real relationship with a hot wife half their age [TOTALLY NOT DIRECTED AT THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES], I thought it a sign of marginally good taste that Quatermain is never considered a love interest.) who is fat and too old for her and entirely unattractive, not to mention annoying; but hey, he’s a white Englishman, so clearly a catch, right? Even for a queen? Sure, I guess so. She dies (Sorry for the spoiler – but you knew she couldn’t win; she’s the bad sister. The not-blonde one.) impaled on a ceremonial spear, which is totally not phallic. Totally not.
I have to say, I did like She. The goddess in that book is a genuinely strong female character. There is too much focus on her love life, as she chose immortality so that she could survive to see her true love reborn, which happens after a mere 10,000 years or so; but the goddess-queen character (Named She by her subjects, essentially like She Who Must Not Be Named, out of a perfect sense of awe) is the most interesting person in the story and, I thought, the most sympathetic, as the dude who is her love reborn has some ridiculous fling where he “falls in love” with a woman who nurses him when he is sick, even though he can’t communicate with her: she is humble and subservient and loyal to him, whom she loves because, errrrrrrm, because he’s a very handsome man, I guess, and so she becomes his ideal woman and he loves her. Sure, whatever. I thought he should have gone with She, who wielded power and wrath and majesty, along with being so achingly beautiful that the misogynistic protagonist falls in love with her after a single sight of her without her usual veils on, which led to a nice conflict between the white characters. I also liked the ending, and the strong implication that human power is nothing in the face of the mysteries of the universe. And there is this unbelievably warped element: the society exists inside a mountain that was hollowed out by an Atlantean-style vanished race of supermen; they still exist inside the mountain, because they had complicated and extensive burial preparations for their dead, which included a perfect form of embalming that leaves their bodies in perfect condition apparently forever: but it also makes them highly flammable. And She, the immortal goddess-queen who inherited and still rules their kingdom – uses them as torches. Their body parts. Regularly. It was gloriously twisted.
Overall, I see the draw of Haggard’s books; he wrote outstanding adventure and action scenes, from battle scenes to suspenseful travels through mysterious caves and rivers and jungles. The characters do at least inspire a response, even when it’s irritation or outright hatred. He had some really cool ideas, and amazing descriptions; I liked reading his words, which were interesting and often lovely. But seriously: tone down the Great White Hunters, like, ten notches, okay? Sheeesh.