Thoughts for Ukraine — Review of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines


This book published in the late 19th century (1885) is listed as part of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die, which is how I came across it. The book like so many others is in the public domain and accessible through Project Gutenberg.

Because it was published in 1885, there may some language that some readers find offensive in describing the fictionalized world of Kukuanaland located in an unchartered territory on the continent of Africa. However, unlike so many modern writers, Haggard did not include salacious material such as gratititous sex scenes, profanity (including the oft overused “f” word), nudity and violence. So there is a tradeoff.

King Solomon’s Mines and its main character (Quartermain) is loosely based on the travels and exploration of Frederick Selous. Quartermain accompanies two other men (Henry Curtis and Captain Good) in a harrowing journey across the desert and over a ridge of mountains to Kukuanaland in search of Curtis’ brother, believed to have been lost during a prior expedition and for diamonds. Accompanying them are two servants, one of which dies along the way. The other, Umbopa is the long lost and believed to be deceased son of a former king of Kukuanaland. The king was killed by the now reigning king, Twala. Umbopa and his mother were hunted, escaping into the desert eventually ending up years later with Umbopa (after changing his name) meeting up with Quartermain.

After reaching Kukuanaland, and seeing the horrors of indiscriminate death visited upon his people by Twala and his witchy croon, Gagool, and Twala’s son, Scragga, Umbopa reveals himself first to the men who traveled with him and then to select others of the tribe as the rightful king of Kukuanaland. A war results. Umbopa (now Igosi) is victorious.

This is where Haggard started speaking to me about the horrors of Putin’s unjust war.

Igosi recounts the war (CHAPTER XIV. THE LAST STAND OF THE GREYS) in a haunting war-like cry which has striking parallels to Putin’s war and the Ukrainian dogged response.

“Now,” he began, “now our rebellion is swallowed up in victory, and our evil-doing is justified by strength. “In the morning the oppressors arose and stretched themselves; they bound on their harness and made them ready to war. “They rose up and tossed their spears: the soldiers called to the captains, ‘Come, lead us’—and the captains cried to the king, ‘Direct thou the battle.’ “They laughed in their pride, twenty thousand men, and yet a twenty thousand.

“Their plumes covered the valleys as the plumes of a bird cover her nest; they shook their shields and shouted, yea, they shook their shields in the sunlight; they lusted for battle and were glad. “They came up against me; their strong ones ran swiftly to slay me; they cried, ‘Ha! ha! he is as one already dead.’ “Then breathed I on them, and my breath was as the breath of a wind, and lo! they were not. “My lightnings pierced them; I licked up their strength with the lightning of my spears; I shook them to the ground with the thunder of my shoutings. “They broke—they scattered—they were gone as the mists of the morning. “They are food for the kites and the foxes, and the place of battle is fat with their blood. “Where are the mighty ones who rose up in the morning? “Where are the proud ones who tossed their spears and cried, ‘He is as a man already dead’? “They bow their heads, but not in sleep; they are stretched out, but not in sleep. “They are forgotten; they have gone into the blackness; they dwell in the dead moons; yea, others shall lead away their wives, and their children shall remember them no more.

“And I—! the king—like an eagle I have found my eyrie. “Behold! far have I flown in the night season, yet have I returned to my young at the daybreak. “Shelter ye under the shadow of my wings, O people, and I will comfort you, and ye shall not be dismayed. “Now is the good time, the time of spoil. “Mine are the cattle on the mountains, mine are the virgins in the kraals. “The winter is overpast with storms, the summer is come with flowers. “Now Evil shall cover up her face, now Mercy and Gladness shall dwell in the land. “Rejoice, rejoice, my people! “Let all the stars rejoice in that this tyranny is trodden down, in that I am the king.”

After the war’s conclusion and the death of Twala, Quatermain’s observations

“It was heart-rending to lie and listen to their cries for those who never would return; and it made me understand the full horror of the work done that day to further man’s ambition.” (CHAPTER XV. GOOD FALLS SICK)

“I remarked that Ignosi had swum to power through blood.” (CHAPTER XV. GOOD FALLS SICK)

In a cave where the diamonds are found, Quartermain, Curtis and Good are in a cave believing themselves to starve to death (only to eventually find a way out).

“That to our left was serene in countenance, but the calm upon it seemed dreadful. It was the calm of that inhuman cruelty, Sir Henry remarked, which the ancients attributed to beings potent for good, who could yet watch the sufferings of humanity, if not without rejoicing, at least without sorrow. ” CHAPTER XVI. THE PLACE OF DEATH.

“The crashing of all the artillery of earth and heaven could not have come to our ears in our living tomb. We were cut off from every echo of the world—we were as men already in the grave.” CHAPTER XVIII. WE ABANDON HOPE.

“There around us lay treasures enough to pay off a moderate national debt, or to build a fleet of ironclads, and yet we would have bartered them all gladly for the faintest chance of escape. Soon, doubtless, we should be rejoiced to exchange them for a bit of food or a cup of water, and, after that, even for the privilege of a speedy close to our sufferings. Truly wealth, which men spend their lives in acquiring, is a valueless thing at the last.” CHAPTER XVIII. WE ABANDON HOPE.

And finally a prayer for Ukraine — “While there is life there is hope” as “[s]urely some merciful Power guided our footsteps[.]” CHAPTER XVIII. WE ABANDON HOPE.