Island at the Top of King Solomon’s Mines

Re-reading King Solomon’s Mines for today’s class, I was suddenly struck powerfully by a sort of deja vu. Not about the novel itself, since I’ve read it quite a few times, both for courses and otherwise. Nor even about the novel’s massive influence on Western pop culture set in Africa, which is the reason my students are reading it. Was it something in Frederick Selous’ writing, or Theophilus Shepstone’s, since Haggard had ties to both? No, that wasn’t it.

Suddenly I had it. I’d recently re-read an old copy of Ian Cameron’s The Island at the Top of the World, originally published as The Lost Ones in 1961. It was a copy that I’d had since I was a kid, when I read it a few times and really enjoyed it. (Never saw the Disney film based on the book, but my old copy has stills from it on the cover and back.)

It hit me all of the sudden: Cameron’s adventure (involving an expedition to find the secret graveyard of the whales in the Arctic, which leads to a hidden civilization of Norsemen) doesn’t just take some inspiration from Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. As I read the two books in parallel, I realized that Cameron’s book verges on plagiarism in several sections, especially in the beginning. The names are changed, the setting is Arctic Canada, but it’s close to a word-for-word reproduction at the start of the story.

Cameron turns out to the pseudonym of a writer who penned a number of fiction and non-fiction works under several names, very much the journeyman type who kept bookstores stocked with paperbacks in the 1950s and 1960s. So I don’t think his reusage of Haggard matters much in ethical terms. On the other hand, it’s yet another part of the machinery of cultural reproduction: if we find the structure and tropes of Haggard’s writing around every corner across the 20th Century, this kind of direct recycling is a part of how and why that happened.

I was also curious about whether anyone else had ever noticed the direct relationship between these two second-order adventure novels, and yes indeed, here it is in a discussion of fan-fiction, in a very pertinent and important observation about how fan-fiction is not at all a new practice, nor one dependent on digital communication. There’s just more of it, and a much wider diversity of non-commodified and commodified remixings now than in the past. As Tirathon suggests in his post, anybody worried about reusage of popular culture today should have been far more worried in the past.

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