Review: ‘The Treasure in the Forest’ by H. G. Wells

‘The Treasure in the Forest’ is a short story by the British science-fiction author H. G. Wells (1866-1946). It was first published on 23 August 1894 in the Pall Mall Budget before being included (as the final story) in his 1895 collection The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents.

Although this story is strictly neither science fiction nor fantasy, but is instead a straightforward adventure tale about a hunt for buried treasure, it’s worthy of discussion and analysis because – well, because it’s H. G. Wells, and there’s very little of his early fiction that doesn’t warrant closer attention.

First, here’s a brief summary of the plot. In this story, two men, Hooker and Evans, are travelling into the forest to find the treasure – gold ingots – that provides the story with its title. We piece together the history of the treasure through a kind of flashback in which Evans recalls how he and Hooker came to learn about it.

They heard three Chinese men talking about the treasure one night. The gold ingots were apparently from a Spanish ship travelling from the Philippines, which had run aground somewhere on the Asian coast. The shipwrecked crew had buried the gold for safekeeping, but then many had died from disease and the rest had left without the treasure.

This was two hundred years ago. A year before the events of ‘The Treasure in the Forest’, one of the three Chinese men, Chang-hi, had found the gold ingots and then reburied them carefully so they would be safe. Now, he is asking the two other Chinese men to help him to recover the treasure.

Hooker and Evans killed the three men and took Chang-hi’s treasure map which showed where the gold was buried. Evans recalls, via a dream, the grin on Chang-hi’s face when he had killed the Chinese man.

The rest of the story recounts how Evans and Hooker use the map to locate the treasure. Having travelled up the river by canoe, they walk deep into the forest where they spot something blue. It is the dead body of a Chinese man, lying face-down on the ground beside a hole he has dug. In the hole are the gold ingots: the treasure. Evans takes his jacket off and begins to place the gold bars on it. As he is doing so, he notices that several small thorns have pricked his fingers.

Not long after they’ve retrieved the treasure, Evans has difficulty breathing, before stumbling and leaning against a tree. His face is distorted with pain, and he dies shortly afterwards, imploring his associate to take the gold bars from him and put them back on his coat. As Hooker takes them, he, too, feels a thorn prick his finger.

Hooker realises that these thorns had been poisoned and then deliberately placed at the scene of the treasure, as Chang-hi’s way of ensuring that nobody else would take the treasure and survive. This is why Chang-hi had grinned as Evans killed him: he knew the fate that awaited the men. The story ends with Hooker feeling the ‘dull pain’ of the poison spreading throughout his body, as death slowly overtakes him.

‘The Treasure in the Forest’ has all of the ingredients one expects of a classic treasure-hunt tale: a map pointing the way to the treasure, peril and adventure, and, of course, some treasure at the end of it. It’s even set in an exotic location – somewhere in China or a nearby territory – while the heroes are presumably British, and perhaps English (Evans may be Welsh, one surmises).

Of course, white Europeans travelling to Asia and plundering it for treasure is one way of summarising the colonial mission, and such features certainly formed part of British imperialism.

So it’s possible to read ‘The Treasure in the Forest’ not as a mere adventure story about buried treasure but as a kind of warning about the dangers of seeking to take another person’s possessions by force. Evans and Hooker are prepared to kill in order to locate the hidden treasure, but they end up losing their own lives in its pursuit.

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