H. Rider Haggard came to literary prominence with the publication of King Solomon’s Mines in 1885. Haggard self-consciously modeled the book on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which Haggard had read. He bet his brother that he could write an adventure story at least as good, and within a year Haggard had published the now-famous novel of adventure. According to some accounts, he wrote the book in under six months.
Virginia Brackett calls King Solomon’s Mines the “quintessential quest story” (Brackett 1). It includes the archetypal call to adventure (Sir Henry’s offer to hire Quatermain), the reluctant hero (Quatermain’s lack of desire to go until he knows his son will be provided for), a road of trials (the elephant hunt, the trek through the desert, and so on), the journey to the underworld (the white men’s burial in Solomon’s treasure chamber and their subsequent escape by going down further into the earth), a quest reward (the diamonds) and a return home (Quatermain’s likely retirement to England with Sir Henry and his own son Harry). Various aspects of the novel parallel Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, such as Quatermain’s primary motivation to see his son established as a successful man, the various challenges and speeches made before battle, and the single combat between Twala and Sir Henry Curtis. Clearly Haggard was evoking the epic past even as he was helping to develop a new genre of literature.
King Solomon’s Mines is considered one of the first “lost world” stories. Although the name comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, it is Haggard who first popularize the long-hidden city (in this case Kukuanaland) which is discovered by hearty adventurers. The evidence of a lost world comes to the fore beginning with the travelers’ discovery of “Solomon’s Road,” which Sir Henry Curtis assesses as actually predating Solomon himself. The Egyptian iconography, superior metalworking in the form of ceremonial chain mail and battle axes, and the bizarre sculptures within and without the Place of the Dead all lend a sense of ancient history being rediscovered by these modern explorers. Add to this the fact that the Kukuanas themselves cannot account for the building of Solomon’s Road or the statues which they revere as gods, and the past civilizations the expedition has come upon disappear back into the mists of pre-history.
The Kukuanas themselves act as a proto-“lost race” motif. Haggard will develop this further in She, but in King Solomon’s Mines, the Kukuanas stand apart from the Zulus, whom they only barely resemble, in their height and skin color, and apart from all European stocks for obvious reasons. A fictional creation of Haggard, the Kukuanas would be his first foray into the idea of a lost race separated for many generations from the rest of the world, who retains their own original practices, as well as a culture preserved from some ancient civilization that has been otherwise wiped out.