As I am getting older, it gets more and more obvious that I can't possibly read all the books in the world (or see all the movies there were made, hear all the music recorded, etc) - the fact that gradually gets even more complicated as with the passing of the time I realise what I remember are simply impressions, how certain pieces affected me, so occasionally I go back and re-read old favourites, just to find them completely different than the first time around. However, I do my best to discipline myself into checking out what I perceive is important, even though I am vaguely familiar with the titles in theory. The perfect example is this fantastic old adventure classic that in reality I have never read before - I knew about it, I knew the author, but somehow it never came my way. So the time has come. And I needed a break from what I was reading previously.
Old and rusty it might have been, but "King Solomon's Mines" is still a powerful, magical experience that keeps the reader's attention some 130+ years after original publication. Literary ancestor of every Indiana Jones-like character who came afterwards, it follows adventures in exotic lands (in this case, heart of Africa and certain Kukuanaland), it bursts with action and is filled to the brim with genuinely thrilling, unforgettable scenes. Some might object to outdated colonialist attitudes of the time but please do take in account the historical context, when exactly novel was written and you understand that Haggard was not half as racist as people today claim - in fact, he divides his characters not so much between the colour line as between heroes and antagonists. Black warriors are noble, strong and brave, while some other characters are deliciously scary and stay carved in our memory long after we finished the novel.
Interesting thing is that supposedly main character Allan Quatermain is not really a hero here - he just happens to be the person narrating the story, but for all purposes he is simply a accidental addition to adventure (search for a missing person who disappeared while searching for King Solomon's Mines) - often, in the middle of the fights he would duck, curse and hide, while his fellow companions would do the physical part. In this, he resembles mythical Odysseus who had brains, while others used brute force. Initially the book rubbed me all wrong with its description of elephant hunt - but once I got over what was perfect Victorian fantasy, the things really start cooking and eventually I got completely swept away into witch hunters, elaborate fight scenes and dark mountain tunnels. The farewell between heroes and Umbopa was very well written and it got me even a little bit teary.
"Go now, ere my eyes rain tears like a woman's. At times as ye look back down the path of life, or when ye are old and gather yourselves together to crouch before the fire, because for you the sun has no more heat, ye will think of how we stood shoulder to shoulder, in that great battle which thy wise words planned, Macumazahn; of how thou wast the point of the horn that galled Twala's flank, Bougwan; whilst thou stood in the ring of the Greys, Incubu, and men went down before thine axe like corn before a sickle; ay, and of how thou didst break that wild bull Twala's strength, and bring his pride to dust. Fare ye well for ever, Incubu, Macumazahn, and Bougwan, my lords and my friends."
Well, I'll be darned if this was not excellent and very powerful, specially if you previously went trough everything they went together. It is really unforgettable and I perfectly understand why this basically old adventure novel continues to live on, because Haggard (who was far from haggard, looking as some adventure hero himself) somehow managed to write genuinely thrilling adventure with timeless quality. And I love the novel's dedication: to all the big and little boys who read it. Which I found very affectionate and true, because of this I loved the novel even before I start reading it. Just a perfect, perfect escapism.