10 March 2012


Locus Focus: Take Sixty-Four

Last week, inspired by the Lenten season to look at desert settings in literature, I asked the question of why anyone would want to go into the desert . . . and found a couple of answers in the parched and purgatorial Camp Green Lake.

There's another great one in one of the best novels I read last year . . .

The Great Desert
King Solomon's Mines
by H. Rider Haggard

. . . There was no need to set a watch, for we had nothing to fear from anybody or anything in that vast, untenanted plain. Our only enemies were heat, thirst and flies, but far rather would I have faced any danger from man or beast than that awful trinity. This time we were not so lucky as to find a sheltering rock to guard us from the glare of the sun, with the result that about seven o'clock we woke up experiencing the exact sensations one would attribute to a beefsteak on a gridiron. We were literally being baked through and through. The burning sun seemed to be sucking our very blood out of us. We sat up and gasped.

"Phew!" said I, grabbing at the halo of flies which buzzed cheerfully around my head. The heat did not affect them.

"My word," said Sir Henry.

"It is
hot," said Good.

It happens to be very reasonable to go into the desert when the desert in question is lying in between you and the place where you really want to be. There's something about crossing an arid wilderness that really separates the men from the boys, whether this passage is a rite of adolescence or a rite of adventure.

The Great Desert that the three adventurers Allan Quatermain, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good must cross to find King Solomon's fabled diamond mines may be their baptism of fire, but it is only the first of two unforgiving extremes. What comes next is the intense cold of a mountain range they have to scale. "Fourteen or fifteen degrees below freezing-point" is bad enough for explorers coming to it from normal conditions; imagine what it is to our three adventurers, who have come to it from the oven of the Great Desert.

King Solomon chose his treasure-chamber well. There are few vaults as impregnable as the "walls" surrounding these fabled mines: a proud people ignorant of the riches in their mountains . . . a granite mountain range unscalable except for one obscure pass . . . and that first line of defense like no other, a desert with only one pan of bad water for hundreds of miles in every direction.

It's crazy that anyone gets through at all, but if you can cross that desert, the rest will be a relative walk in the park.

Image Source: King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

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