Saturday, June 5, 2010

Allan Quatermain - H Rider Haggard

Allan Quatermain is the sequel to King Solomon's Mines which I read last year. Quatermain is a big game hunter & explorer who gained great riches in the adventure of King Solomon’s Mines. Three years have passed, Allan’s son has just died, & he’s feeling sad, lonely & old as he contemplates the rest of his life. His companions from the earlier book - Sir Henry Curtis & Capt John Good - are bored with money & a quiet life. They want to return to Africa & Allan tells them of a fabled lost land inhabited by white men deep in the African jungle. They all decide this is the perfect antidote to their restlessness.

The adventure really begins once they reach Africa & team up with Umslopogaas, the Zulu warrior who was involved in the search for King Solomon's Mines. They are told that a man had stumbled into a mission station run by Mr Mackenzie on the Tana river near Mt Kenia, telling a story of this lost land of white men. He was treated well there for a time until the priests decided he was a devil & then he barely escaped with his life. He was at his last gasp by the time he found the mission & died soon after, leaving behind a beautiful sword, unlike any sword of European manufacture. Quatermain & the others go to Mackenzie’s mission & learn all they can about the mysterious traveller. The mission is almost a paradise on Earth. Perfect climate, gorgeous gardens & a kindly missionary & his family tending to the local people with kindness. The mission is well-defended from hostile tribespeople but it’s less safe outside the mission walls. Our heroes are involved in an exciting raid on a neighboring tribe to rescue young Flossie MacKenzie who has been kidnapped while out looking for a rare plant specimen. Haggard writes well, the action is rapid & full of tension as Quatermain & the others plan a pre-emptive attack to prevent Flossie’s execution.

All this is just the preliminary to the adventures on the way to this lost land, Zu-Vendis, which include a long, terrifying journey through an underground cavern over a volcanic core that threatens to boil them to death & an attack by a vast horde of giant black crabs. They finally come through the cavern into a vast lake where they find the lost land of Zu-Vendis. Here they make a bad beginning by killing some sacred hippopotami in an attempt to impress the locals with their superior weaponry. The people are much more impressed by Good appearing in his full dress uniform as a Commander of the Royal Navy. I have no idea how he managed to bring all his regalia along on such a journey when practically everything they owned was lost, stolen or abandoned at some point, but, an English gentleman of the navy obviously must have his priorities straight & it has the desired effect. They are welcomed more warmly after they rescue a young woman from death & they are soon installed at the court of the two beautiful sister Queens of the land, Nyleptha & Sorais. The all-powerful priests are not happy to see these strangers settle in for a long stay, charming the Queens & fascinating the locals. Curtis & Good soon find themselves falling in love with their beautiful royal hosts & the scene is set for civil war & treachery.

This is a rip-roaring adventure story but with a bit of a dull patch in the middle when our heroes get to Zu-Vendis & Allan spends far too long for my liking describing everything about this new civilization in great detail. King Solomon’s Mines was a shorter book & moved along at a cracking pace. Haggard apparently wrote it in 6 weeks. Allan Quatermain is still worth reading. Allan is a wonderful narrator & they have some very exciting adventures. I could forgive Haggard his little bit of sociological padding. Capuchin Classics have just reprinted Allan Quatermain. Capuchin are another wonderful small press bringing unjustly forgotten, out of print books back into circulation.

King Solomon’s Mines led me on a bit of a Boys’ Own Adventure reading path last year. I had read it as part of my 19th century reading group. It’s not a book I would ever have chosen myself, which is another good reason for me to belong to this group which has greatly widened my 19th century horizons. It was such a great read that I wanted more adventure & found myself reading The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, The 39 Steps & Greenmantle by John Buchan, Kidnapped & Catriona by Robert Louis Stevenson. Although I’ve read a lot of Victorian & Edwardian fiction, I hadn’t read any of these before & it was a lot of fun. One of the joys of reading, for me, is this possibility of following up serendipitous tangents & paths. One book always does lead to another.

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