Somehow, with a new Indiana Jones movie on the way, it's fitting to bring up Mr. H. Rider Haggard. A prolific author, Mr. Haggard more or less single-handedly spawned the adventure story genre of which Indiana Jones (today) reigns supreme. Mr. Haggard's stories are pulpy, and torturously Victorian, but at his best... wow.
You'll probably recognize King Solomon's Mines, Mr. Haggard's best-known work -- though it hasn't been adapted lately (I think the last movie was in the early 90s?). SHE is a little less well known, a little less adventurous, a little less Indiana but darker and more intense. Like any good work of literature, there are some intellectual and ethical themes that run through the novel, and like any good reader, I couldn't care less: this is an adventurous tale of Victorian explorers swept up in the aftermath of an ancient love triangle. The sober Horace Holly and his manful young ward, Leo Vincey, follow an ancient inscription into the wilderness of Africa, pushed by fate to meet.... SHE.
The title character steals the show. Picture a woman so beautiful that she wraps her body entirely in gauze, for no man's heart can resist the merest glimpse of her. For two thousand years, this shrouded queen has ruled a petty African tribe amidst the ruins -- and corpses -- of a long-dead civilization, waiting patiently, terribly, for the rebirth of her ancient lover.
This is Ayesha, a dread and unforgiving ruler who can strike death with a simple gesture: She-who-must-be-obeyed.
Try whispering her name out loud: She-who-must-be-obeyed.
Mr. Haggard's command of language is marvelous. Ayesha's speeches must be read aloud. True, for the modern reader, the descriptions and conversations can be frighteningly dense, but I would argue the novel is well worth the effort it takes to untangle the Victorian prose. (Keep in mind, of course, that some words -- pitiful and awful, for example -- may have an archaic meaning; SHE was published in 1887.)
Mr. Haggard specialized in these types of novels; the white explorer trekking deep into the Dark Continent. Today, perhaps, it would seem corny. (Thankfully, the novels are not racist even if the Noble Savage stereotype does get tiresome.) His influence on modern literature is quite impressive: I feel that Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and H.P. Lovecraft (At the Mountains of Madness) both built upon the brooding adventures typical of Mr. Haggard's novels. And as long as I'm dropping names, why not throw out Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?
I recently started thinking about this novel again because I came across the name "Ayesha" in a book of names. (Which I was reading for, um, no reason.) I was startled to see the definition as "feminine" - if true, this would lend a perhaps sinister tinge of misogyny to the novel. The Infallible Source of All Knowledge also gives the meaning as "life" or "she who lives", in Arabic, which is more suited to her character. But which did Mr. Haggard intend?
Finally, I must indicate that the novel does have some sequels. Ayesha: we meet Ayesha again. In Tibet. ... right. Moving on: She and Allan. Because the main character of the wildly popular Allan Quatermain series has to have somehow run into Ayesha. ... right. (Alas, I haven't read it yet.) Next! Wisdom's Daughter: the story of Ayesha's youth. It should have been interesting to a die-hard fan (yours truly!), but alas, it was so incredibly boring that even I couldn't finish it.
Well, that's the way it goes with sequels. H. Rider Haggard wrote something like a hundred novels. You know -- you know -- that most will be bad. But some few are so incredibly wonderful, and She is most certainly one of these.
Your library will carry SHE, as well as all the major booksellers.
(Note: this article was originally posted Feb. 15, 2002 at The Crossroads. It has been edited and expanded.)
Support Books Under the Bridge
Shop at Amazon.com