H. Rider Haggard's She

Jul 29 2008 Published by under Adventure fiction, Fantasy fiction

Before Indiana Jones, there was Allan Quatermain, elephant hunter and adventurer/explorer of Africa. Quatermain was the creation of H. Ridger Haggard (1856-1925), and was featured in the novels King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain. Haggard's work was informed by his own experiences working for the British government in one of their South African colonies, and his works are still in print to this day, though not as widely read as they once were.

I recently finished reading Haggard's other famous adventure/romance, She (1887), in preparation for another lengthy survey of weird fiction, and I thought I'd share some thoughts on the novel.

The "She" of the title refers to a legendary white queen of an isolated African tribe, though her full title is, "She who must be obeyed" (she's also named Ayesha, but that's not nearly as impressive sounding). The novel tells the tale of a trio of adventurers who risk life and limb to travel in search of her.

For those who have been following my descriptions of and/or reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' works such as his Barsoom series or his Pellucidar series, She is written in the familiar form of a first-person narrative passed along to Haggard himself. The narrative was written by one L. Horace Holly and describes his trip with his adopted son Leo and his servant Job in search of Ayesha. Years earlier, an old friend of Holly's had shown up on his doorstep late one night with a bizarre story -- and an even more bizarre request. On the verge of death, the friend asks Holly to adopt his son Leo and raise him in his absence. On Leo's twenty-fifth birthday, they open a box left to him and attempt to decipher its mysterious contents. Those contents lead the three men into the wilds of Africa in search of the lost tribe and its mysterious queen; along the way, they encounter storms, wild animals, disease, and hostile natives. At the end of the trail, however, waits one of the more intriguing characters in adventure fiction.

Haggard's adventure stories are somewhat more gritty and slow-paced than the works of Burroughs: here is much more focus on the brutal reality of traveling in an unforgiving wilderness. This isn't to say that he isn't capable of truly bizarre flights of fancy; for instance, Ayesha and her people live in a massive collection of caves that served as the catacombs for a long-vanished civilization. When Ayesha holds an evening celebration for the visiting adventurers, they wonder how they will be able to see the performance in the dark.

'Thou wilt presently understand,' said Ayesha, with a little laugh, when Leo asked her; and we certainly did. Scarcely were the words out of her mouth when from every point we saw dark forms rushing up, each bearing with him what we at first took to be an enormous flaming torch. Whatever they were they were burning furiously, for the flames stood out a yard or more behind each bearer. On they came, fifty or more of them, carrying their flaming burdens and looking like so many devils from hell. Leo was the first to discover what these burdens were.

'Great heavens!' he said, 'they are corpses on fire!'

I stared and stared again -- he was perfectly right -- the torches that were to light our entertainment were human mummies from the caves!

Ayesha herself is a fascinating character: supernaturally beautiful and apparently immortal, she lives in the tomb of an ancient civilization, wrapped in funereal sheets to hide her beauty from her servants. She waits for the reincarnation of her one true love, who she murdered herself, to find her again. She is both wise and cruel: 'good' and 'evil' are not concepts she concerns herself with, only actions which benefit her or harm her.

She also has powers that would seem outside the realm of nature, but interestingly Ayesha herself does not see it that way:

'Nay, nay; oh, Holly,' she answered, 'it is no magic; that is a fiction of ignorance. There is no such thing as magic, though there is such a thing as a knowledge of the secrets of Nature.'

Once the adventurers have found Ayesha, the novel settles into a collection of melancholy and philosophical musings, as Ayesha explains her views of the world and introduces Holly to the sad history of the lost civilization whose tomb they inhabit. I won't describe the details of the story beyond this, suffice to say that there are lovely descriptions of the lost civilization and a number of dramatic turns to the tale.

The tale of 'She' has been an influential one, and eight movie versions of the novel have been made, the most memorable of which was the 1965 version starring the original Bond girl, Ursula Andress. The character has also turned up in psychoanalysis, being referred to in the works of Freud and Jung. For instance, from Freund's The Interpretation of Dreams, after describing a dream of his own, he writes,

The following was the occasion of the dream. Louise N., the lady who was assisting me in my job in the dream, had been calling on me. 'Lend me something to read,' she had said. I offered her Rider Haggard's She. 'A strange book, but full of hidden meaning,' I began to explain to her; 'the eternal feminine, the immortality of our emotions...' Here she interrupted me: 'I know it already. Have you nothing of your own?' -- 'No, my own immortal works have not yet been written.'

...

The further thoughts which were started up by my conversation with Louise N. went too deep to become conscious. They were diverted in the direction of the material that had been stirred up in me by the mention of Rider Haggard's She. The judgement 'strangely enough' went back to that book and to another one, Heart of the World, by the same author; and numerous elements of the dream were derived from these two imaginative novels. The boggy ground over which people had to be carried, and the chasm which they had to cross by means of boards brought along with them, were taken from She...

Haggard's Ayesha is a character that is fascinating to both adventure-lovers and psychologists alike! The novel itself is a beautiful read, albeit a bit slow at times. Those interested in the origins of adventure fiction definitely need to give it a read. I'll be coming back to other tales of Haggard in the near future.

3 responses so far

  • stuwat says:

    The Allan Quatermain books are a great read and are indeed similar in many ways to the adventures told by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I seem to recall reading some of them more than once and would gladly put them back on my list of books read. For a similar historical adventure, try The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.

  • Wade Walker says:

    The "flight of fancy" about burning mummies for fuel probably didn't originate with Haggard -- apparently it was a common meme going around in the mid 1800's, though it doesn't seem to have ever happened on a large scale. See the Straight Dope article at http://www.straightdope.com/columns/020222.html for some interesting details.

  • stuwat: Thanks for the comment! As it turns out, I just read The Lost World a few months ago, when I stumbled across a cheap copy on my way to the airport. It is well worth the read.

    Wade: Interesting! I should have remembered this, as I have a copy of "The Innocents Abroad" on my bookshelf (though I haven't read it for some time). Haggard likely heard such stories during his own stay in Africa and incorporated it into his fiction. There's something about his take on mummies as fuel - using them as torches at a celebration - that strikes me as particularly ghastly.