A triumphally-survived trek to the edge of a wealth-filled legend is always an attractive mix for young and not so young readers alike. Throw in a tragic elephant hunt, a war with massive carnage, and the discovery of enough diamonds to make it all worthwhile, and you have a boy's own adventure that is hard to put down.
Sir Henry Curtis, a wealthy Englishmen; Good, his steadfast companion; Alan Quartermain, guide and the tale’s narrator; and Umbopa, a mysterious and majestic native servant, set off in search of Curtis’s estranged brother. They travel to an inhospitable land that could easily win first-prize in any ‘heart of darkness’ contest. None believe that the formidable task ahead offers many opportunities for success. But readers and protagonists alike are not left without that most essential ingredient of any true adventure: hope! In this 1885 Raiders of the Lost Ark prototype, along with experience, courage, and the author’s licence to sprinkle in good measures of luck, everything needed to make 120-mile desert crossings, to scale 5000-ft mountain peaks, to overcome the wiles of a cruel king and his evil and ageless sorcerous, and to survive the shock of discovering the frozen remains of one who had already tried a similar trick, 300 years previously, is safely within reach.
When irreversible decisions are being made, we are told “…the unknown and the awful always bring man nearer to his maker.” On this journey, they also bring him closer to his neighbour.
In spite of the ostensive native-servant/white-master backdrop, in some way, this is a tale that offers a way-forward for interracial harmony. From the beginning, Umbopa, the future king, manifests -in a non-violent manner- his dignity to his white travellers; and as the story unfolds, the reciprocal acceptance of this dignity develops. But more than a grudging appreciation of equal ability and strength, the bridge that allows mutual respect to cross is self-giving. The conscious self-sacrifice of a native for one of the party on an elephant hunt sets the pace. Little by little, we realise that the destinies of each of the protagonists are dependent upon their ability to give themselves to each other. It is clear in the end that the success of the trip rests more on the establishment of true and lasting friendships than on newly acquired fortunes.
While the message is subtle, the action is not.
David Breen is a teacher working in New Zealand.