Sunday, July 13, 2014


I just finished reading She by H. Rider Haggard (1887). I'd read it once before, when I was about seventeen. I remember ordering it from Dover Publications – before I discovered used Ballantine paperbacks, Dover was my main supplier of classic weird and fantastic fiction – based on the description in the catalog, which said something about ancient civilizations, reincarnation, and the supernatural. The novel was something of a revelation to me, and it now strikes me as strange that I never returned to it until this summer.

The main reason for this is, I suppose, that I found the book profoundly disturbing. It moved me in ways I didn't like. I remembered the details of the story pretty well as I began my second reading: there were no surprises, though I'm twice as old. The denouement remained just as shockingly horrifying as it ever had been, if not more so. I actually found myself reluctant to continue as I neared it. But, as I said, the plot held no surprises. What did surprise me was the sheer number of allusions to She that I'd missed in other books, books I'd read many times even before picking it up for the first time. More on that in a moment.

It's a Lost Race novel – perhaps the Lost Race novel – set in the wilds of equatorial Africa. Haggard, who lived and worked in Africa for a time, spins a convincing tale with marvelous verisimilitude and an eye for local detail. Here is no flimsy tissue of dialogue relying on the movies you've seen to supply the missing scenery. It's worth reading just for that. Call Victorian literature turgid and unreadable if you will. Perhaps the charge is just in many cases. But this book is, in my opinion, one of the great accomplishments of the period.

Its most enduring image is the terrifying veiled figure of She herself – Hiya (in the Arabic) or She-who-must-be-obeyed, the near-immortal queen ruling over the ruins of imperial Kôr – a woman whose very shape, down to the sinuous curve of her neck, is unspeakably evil, yet maddeningly beautiful. She variously plays the role of temptress, lover, dutiful wife, rival, mother, and fiend. Both Freud and Jung, I believe, cite her as an instance of the anima archetype.

As I said, though, what most struck me upon this second reading was a recognition of its pervasive influence. Without it there would have been no Tarzan or John Carter, no Narnia or Middle-Earth, at least as we know them.

Case in point: the figures of Jadis and Galadriel are, I realized, modeled on She. Consider, for instance, the following passage, from Holly's first interview with She in her sepulchral "boudoir":
"Dost thou wonder how I knew that ye were coming to this land, and so saved your heads from the hot-pot?"
"Ay, oh Queen," I answered feebly.
"Then gaze upon that water," and she pointed to the font-like vessel, and then, bending forward, held her hand over it.
I rose and gazed, and instantly the water darkened. Then it cleared, and I saw as distinctly as I ever saw anything in my life – I saw, I say, our boat upon that horrible canal. There was Leo lying at the bottom asleep in it, with a coat thrown over him to keep off the mosquitoes, in such a fashion as to hide his face, and myself, Job, and Mahomed towing on the bank.
I started back, aghast, and cried out that it was magic, for I recognised the whole scene – it was one which had actually occurred.
"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. That water is my glass; in it I see what passes if I will to summon up the pictures, which is not often."
Who could not be reminded of "The Mirror of Galadriel" in The Fellowship of the Ring? She, or Ayesha, as she is truly called, goes on to exult in her beauty when asked to unveil by the curious Holly:
She lifted her white and rounded arms – never had I seen such arms before – and slowly, very slowly, withdrew some fastening beneath her hair. Then all of a sudden the long, corpse-like wrappings fell from her to the ground, and my eyes travelled up her form, now only robed in a garb of clinging white that did but serve to show its perfect and imperial shape, instinct with a life that was more than life, and with a certain serpent-like grace that was more than human. [...] I have heard of the beauty of celestial beings, now I saw it; only this beauty, with all its awful loveliness and purity, was evil – at least, at the time, it struck me as evil. How am I to describe it? I cannot – simply I cannot! The man does not live whose pen could convey a sense of what I saw. I might talk of the great changing eyes of deepest, softest black, of the tinted face, of the broad and noble brow, on which the hair grew low, and delicate, straight features. But, beautiful, surpassingly beautiful as they all were, her loveliness did not lie in them. It lay rather, if it can be said to have had any fixed abiding place, in a visible majesty, in an imperial grace, in a godlike stamp of softened power, which shone upon that radiant countenance like a living halo. Never before had I guessed what beauty made sublime could be – and yet, the sublimity was a dark one – the glory was not all of heaven – though none the less was it glorious. Though the face before me was that of a young woman of certainly not more than thirty years, in perfect health, and the first flush of ripened beauty, yet it had stamped upon it a look of unutterable experience, and of deep acquaintance with grief and passion. Not even the lovely smile that crept about the dimples of her mouth could hide this shadow of sin and sorrow. It shone even in the light of the glorious eyes, it was present in the air of majesty, and it seemed to say: "Behold me, lovely as no woman was or is, undying and half-divine; memory haunts me from age to age, and passion leads me by the hand – evil have I done, and from age to age evil I shall do, and sorrow shall I know till my redemption comes."
Drawn by some magnetic force which I could not resist, I let my eyes rest upon her shining orbs, and felt a current pass from them to me that bewildered and half-blinded me. [...]
"Rash man!" she said; "like Actaeon, thou hast had thy will; be careful lest, like Actaeon, thou too dost perish miserably, torn to pieces by the ban-hounds of thine own passions. I too, oh Holly, am a virgin goddess, not to be moved of any man, save one, and it is not thou. Say, hast thou seen enough!"
"I have looked on beauty, and I am blinded," I said hoarsely, lifting my hand to cover up my eyes.
"So! what did I tell thee? Beauty is like the lightning; it is lovely, but it destroys – especially trees, oh Holly!" and again she nodded and laughed.
Here we have the vision of what Galadriel might have become had she succumbed to temptation when Frodo proffered her the Ring at the end of that chapter. "All shall love me, and despair!" are her words. And indeed, the rumor of the Witch of the Golden Wood among the Rohirrim is not unlike the legends of She in the outside world. So it seems to me that the ultimately humble, self-effacing beauty of Galadriel is intended as a counterpoint or rejoinder to the awful splendor of Ayesha.

Other echoes abound. Sam Gamgee bears a close resemblance to Job, the adventurers' manservant, and serves a similar role. The vast sepulchers that honeycomb the sheer cliffs surrounding the caldera in which Kôr lies remind one of Moria. The city itself, ringed as it is by precipices and reached by way of a tunnel that flows with a subterranean stream, is similar to Gondolin.

Then, too, we have the figure of Jadis (later the White Witch) in The Magician's Nephew, the (ahem) sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia. The inexorable power Ayesha exerts over Holly and Leo is lampooned in the infatuation of Uncle Andrew for the witch-empress brought by his nephew to Victorian England. In fact, the whole humorous episode of Jadis' rampage through London seems inspired by Ayesha's intention of returning to England with Leo and establishing herself as the goddess-empress of the earth.
I instantly informed Ayesha that in England "blasting" was not an amusement that could be indulged in with impunity, and that any such attempt would meet with the consideration of the law and probably end upon a scaffold.
"The law," she laughed with scorn – "the law! Canst thou not understand, oh Holly, that I am above the law, and so shall my Kallikrates be also? All human law will be to us as the north wind to a mountain. Does the wind bend the mountain, or the mountain the wind?"
"And now leave me, I pray thee, and thou too, my own Kallikrates, for I would get me ready against our journey, and so must ye both, and your servant also. But bring no great quantity of things with thee, for I trust that we shall be but three days gone. Then shall we return hither, and I will make a plan whereby we can bid farewell for ever to these sepulchres of Kôr. Yea, surely thou mayst kiss my hand!"
So we went, I, for one, meditating deeply on the awful nature of the problem that now opened out before us. The terrible She had evidently made up her mind to go to England, and it made me absolutely shudder to think what would be the result of her arrival there. What her powers were I knew, and I could not doubt but that she would exercise them to the full. It might be possible to control her for a while, but her proud, ambitious spirit would be certain to break loose and avenge itself for the long centuries of its solitude. She would, if necessary, and if the power of her beauty did not unaided prove equal to the occasion, blast her way to any end she set before her, and, as she could not die, and for aught I knew could not even be killed, what was there to stop her? In the end she would, I had little doubt, assume absolute rule over the British dominions, and probably over the whole earth, and, though I was sure that she would speedily make ours the most glorious and prosperous empire that the world has ever seen, it would be at the cost of a terrible sacrifice of life.
I would wager that The Magician's Nephew originated in part as a recasting of She. The ruined civilization of Kôr was changed to the post-apocalyptic world of Charn. The figure of Ayesha became Jadis, but here it was the woman herself who destroyed the civilization, whereas She came upon its ruins from without. The power of She over the adventurers is mirrored by Digory's (and, more overtly, his uncle's) infatuation with Jadis, while the failure of Polly to be impressed with the witch parallel's Ustane's defiance of her immortal mistress for love of Leo. And Jadis' attempt to make herself queen of the world through terror and her power of "blasting" plainly had its origin in this passage of Haggard, which, fortunately for Queen Victoria, failed of its promise.

The idea of erotic love persisting from incarnation to incarnation is central the plot of She. Lovers are portrayed as finding one another again and again, over tens of thousands of years, while the universe continues to die its slow death of entropy. The narrative takes on a truly cosmic perspective. Quoth Ayesha:
"My life has perchance been evil, I know not – for who can say what is evil and what good? – so I fear to die even if I could die, which I cannot until mine hour comes, to go and seek him where he is; for between us there might rise a wall I could not climb, at least, I dread it. Surely easy would it be also to lose the way in seeking in those great spaces wherein the planets wander on for ever. But the day will come, it may be when five thousand more years have passed, and are lost and melted into the vault of Time, even as the little clouds melt into the gloom of night, or it may be to-morrow, when he, my love, shall be born again, and then, following a law that is stronger than any human plan, he shall find me here, where once he knew me, and of a surety his heart will soften towards me, though I sinned against him; ay, even though he knew me not again, yet will he love me, if only for my beauty's sake."
Of course this reminds me of another great work in the canon of great British fantasy, namely, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson. She goes on thus:
"Tell me, stranger: life is – why therefore should not life be lengthened for a while? What are ten or twenty or fifty thousand years in the history of life? Why in ten thousand years scarce will the rain and storms lessen a mountain top by a span in thickness? In two thousand years these caves have not changed, nothing has changed but the beasts, and man, who is as the beasts. There is naught that is wonderful about the matter, couldst thou but understand. Life is wonderful, ay, but that it should be a little lengthened is not wonderful. Nature hath her animating spirit as well as man, who is Nature's child, and he who can find that spirit, and let it breathe upon him, shall live with her life. He shall not live eternally, for Nature is not eternal, and she herself must die, even as the nature of the moon hath died. She herself must die, I say, or rather change and sleep till it be time for her to live again."
Any reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs will see many influences on his work as well, from the Lost Sea of Korus to the hidden realm of Lothar. Indeed, the Sword-and-Planet subgenre is an offshoot of the Lost Race subgenre, which owes its origins to the unfortunate annihilation of all blank space on terrene maps.

I've said little about the metaphysical import of She and its place in the upheavals of late Victorian society, but about that each reader will have to make up his own mind. It's definitely worth a read, and any lover of heroic fantasy should give it a try, as well as the best of Haggard's other works, including King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain. These are two others I read in adolescence but haven't returned to. I've promised my wife that we'll read KSM together once we finish our current project, forming as it does an excellent compromise between our tastes in reading (Victorian for her, heroic-fantastic for me), so perhaps I'll be reflecting on it in a couple months.

Apparently Haggard went on interminably writing sequels (and crossovers!), but I've never heard of anyone who read them. Among all the noble traits he bequeathed to his descendants, I suppose that is the one unfortunate one. The sequel to She – Ayesha (1905) – I also read, but definitely did not care for. It attempts to rehabilitate Ayesha, but I prefer her in all her domineering terror, as she is in She.

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