Well, this book is a ton of fun.
Haggard was enormously popular in his time; he and Robert Louis Stevenson were the two dominant adventure writers. (Trivia: this book is the response to a five-shilling dare from Haggard's brother that he couldn't write a book half as good as Treasure Island.)
It's enormously imaginative. Alan Quatermain is a brilliant character, a wiry and wily old Ulysses who describes himself as a coward. There's a scene near the end involving artificial stalagmites that's exhilaratingly evocative and creative (and creepy). And at the same time, you see a bunch of now-familiar bits appearing for the first time; it's impossible to miss the gleam of Indiana Jones in Quatermain's eye.
So why isn't Haggard as well-loved today as he was back then? It might be consistency; Stevenson has Kidnapped, Treasure Island and Jekyll & Hyde as three classics, and Haggard only has this and maybe She, which I haven't read. And Jekyll & Hyde is kindof on a level slightly higher than any of these pure adventure stories, as fun as they are.
But it's probably also due to Haggard's awkward views on race. This is a novel of the colonial era. It depicts white men exploiting native populations for treasure, and it has a reputation as racist.
Is it actually racist? Er...how's "not as racist as people seem to think" sound? Like I'm equivocating?
Okay, to get into this you're gonna have to : Quatermain and his men arrive in a fictional African nation and promptly exploit local politics to overthrow the local king and install one more friendly to their mission, which is to loot the kingdom of its treasure. They cheerfully present themselves as gods and take advantage of the locals' superstition, and it's quite clear that the natives need the intervention of the white gods to bring justice to their kingdom. So far, so bad.
On the other hand: they unknowingly bring with them the exiled, rightful ruler of the kingdom, who is in fact exploiting them in order to return to power. This guy knows perfectly well they're not gods, and is alternately amused and annoyed at their charades. He, and several other native characters, are presented as shrewd, tactically adept, dignified men. Quatermain's crew help him back to the throne and then leave, under stern orders that white people (and particularly their missionaries) are never to set foot in his land again. This, then, is clearly not a colonialist book. Both the locals and the whites are in accordance that continued white interference would be annoying at best and catastrophic at worst. Given the times, and that Haggard was himself part of the colonial infrastructure, one could argue that this is a pretty liberal view.
Haggard repeatedly compares this African society to European society: "In Kukualand, as among the Germans "'One,' counted Twala the king, just like a black Madame DeFarge," before doing something particularly ghastly (Ch. X). (Yeah, I kinda loved that [b:Tale of Two Cities reference.) In both cases, the message is that this is a savage, cruel land, and so is Europe. And listen to the tone of contempt in the king's farewell speech: "Ye have the stones; now you would go to Natal and across the moving black water and sell them, and be rich, as it is the desire of the white man's heart to be." (Ch. XIX)
It's not perfect. Quatermain's crew make the new king promise not to go indiscriminately slaughtering his people like the old one did, and he sortof grumbles about it, although you never have the impression he was planning on doing that anyway. The view here seems to be of an Africa that could use a little interference from Europe - but temporary and wise interference. So, y'know, that's not how Africa has ever seen it. But it's also not how many Europeans of the time saw it. Honestly, I was more troubled by Quatermain's tendency to shoot every animal he saw than by his behavior toward the locals.
That may have been more discussion of race than you really wanted, but I'm trying to rescue this book here. Like Heart of Darkness, it's troubling, but it's also better than its reputation. And it's so much fucking fun to read,
man. It's worth a little rehabilitation.