Adventure activates the imagination, and kindles the fires of creativity. Experiences intensely lived–even vicariously–have a way of forcing the mind into new patterns; they slash through the tangled undergrowth of our overgrown routines. The masculine soul has a deep need for adventure, conquest, and the plunge into the unknown.
Some of the books which have made the most profound impression on me, and which have influenced me the most, are what might be called pulp novels or stories. This I am not ashamed to admit. The stories of H.G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, and A. Conan Doyle were some of my first exposure to reading when I was very young. These writers helped shape my worldview.
Sadly, the contemporary scene of English letters is lacking in figures of such stature. There is no modern George Bernard Shaw, no modern H.G. Wells, no Samuel Johnson, no H.L. Mencken. But this is a topic for another time. We return to the matter at hand.
I wanted to use this article to talk about the novels of H. Rider Haggard. More than any other fiction writer, he ignited in me the lust for travel and adventure as a child. And I’m still dealing with the consequences of this influence today. By a good stroke of luck, a close relative gave me a copy of one of Haggard’s books when I was very young. Little could she have known the effect on me!
His adventure stories of African exploration, ancient secrets, and swashbuckling action have (to me) never been equaled. I will discuss here three of his books.
King Solomon’s Mines
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For me, this is the greatest adventure novel ever written. First published in 1885, this one has it all: near-death escapes, diamond mines, hunting expeditions, battles, perilous journeys, sinister enemies, and dungeon imprisonments. It started a whole new genre of “lost world” types of books. (You can find it by clicking here or on the cover image above).
The plot: Sir Henry Curtis wants to enlist adventurer Allan Quatermain (a hunter based in Africa) to help him find his lost brother, who had been searching for King Solomon’s fabled diamond mines. Quatermain just happens to have an old map, given to him by a dying Portuguese man in the desert, that supposedly shows the location of the mines.
After adventures too numerous to relate, they fall into the fierce land of Kukuanaland, a warrior society that has never seen white men before. This sets in motion an incredible series of adventures that have to be read to be fully enjoyed. But the characters here are actually very well-drawn: the evil King Twala (reminding us of many modern despots), his sinister hag “advisor” Gagool, the noble Ignosi (the rightful king), and the irrepressibly optimistic Allan Quatermain. Even now, all these years later, I almost feel like I was there.
We also are treated to incredible images of battles fought, elephant hunts (surely the best account of an elephant hunt ever written), and even one striking image: dead kings preserved in a cavern by being encased in the mineral deposits left by dripping waters.
This is a book that needs to be read. Don’t bother seeing any of the six film versions. All of them are pitifully inadequate. If I had the resources, and if I had the ability, I would capture this book on film for all time in a way that it deserves.
She: A History Of Adventure
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Published in 1887, this is one of the best-selling works of all time. (Click on the cover above or here). As I re-read it today, it contains much of interest regarding the nature of youth, feminine vitality, and the self-destruction that follows from vanity.
The plot: the discovery of an ancient manuscript (the “Sherd of Amenertas”) hints at the existence of a mysterious and incredibly ancient “white queen” still ruling in the interior of Africa. This beautiful woman–named Ayesha or “she who must be obeyed”–has preserved the secret of immortality. Ayesha is whispered to be over 2,000 years old, yet still preserves an incredible beauty and intelligence.
Our adventurers, of course, have to find the elusive queen in Africa. She inhabits the lost city of Kor, under a dormant volcano and nearby labyrinthine ruins. Fantastic dialogue and adventures ensue, leading everything to a shattering climax. Endlessly imitated, this book mixes gothic horror, adventure, and exploration.
More African adventures here, in a book published in 1887 and meant to capitalize on the success of King Solomon’s Mines. We have the return of the characters of Henry Curtis and Quatermain himself, as they get involved in various intrigues, battles, and hunts in the east coast of Africa among the Maasai peoples.
These three books are powerful intoxicants to those of us who thrill to ancient secrets, adventure, gothic horror, and moral parables. Modern man needs to cultivate his imagination now more than ever, in a way that is free from stifling political correctness and feminine commentary. These books deliver on every level. Do yourself a favor and read them.
Read more in Thirty-Seven: