Waiting 2,000 years for your reincarnated lover to appear? “Someday my prince will come?” Narrator Horace Holly calls it constancy. I call it delusion. It’s that kind of book and I couldn’t help filling my kindle with nearly a hundred notes expressing exasperation and disbelief.
But She: A History of Adventure, written by H. Rider Haggard (author of King Solomon’s Mines) in 1887, is considered one of the earliest examples of fantasy and a significant influence on later authors, such as J.R.R. Tolkien. The influence is palpable.
The book is narrated by Horace Holly, a Cambridge professor, recounting an adventure he had with his ward, Leo Vincey. As a child, Leo Vincey was entrusted to Holly by his father, who also gave him a box containing manuscripts recounting an incredible story of two people, Kallikrates and Amenartas, falling in love in ancient Egypt and fleeing to be with each other. But the couple encounters a mysterious, powerful and beautiful woman, who falls in love with Kallikrates. But when he stays true to his wife, she murders him in a fit of anger. Amenartas then charges her son to revenge himself on the woman and his descendants have been working on it ever since, with the project often mounting to obsession.
Leo Vincey, as it turns out, is the latest descendant and although he doesn’t quite believe the story, he and Holly, and their faithful servant Job, set out to find the mysterious woman out of curiosity.
The book begins a bit slowly, setting the scene. Holly, Leo and Job are shipwrecked off the coast of Africa and encounter a tribe of people called the Amahagger. The Amahagger have a unique custom where a woman can chose her spouse by simply coming up to him and kissing him and when a young woman named Ustane embraces Leo, he returns her embrace and so in the eyes of the tribe, they are now man and wife. But Holly and Leo hear about a mysterious woman who rules over the Amahagger from within a mountain: She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, or Ayesha. She sends for the strangers, but Leo is taken ill, so Holly is the first person to meet her.
Holly Meets Ayesha – illustration from 1887, by E. K. Johnson
Ayesha, as it turns out, is nearly 2000 years old and has been waiting nearly that length of time for Kallikrates to return to her reincarnated. She’s absolutely convinced of this and just as convinced that this time around he will love her. Why? Because she is surpassingly beautiful. Men just look at her and start to eat their heart out. It’s almost like a disease. She makes Helen of Troy look like a hag.
It turns out to be fortunate that she’s waiting for her reincarnated lover, though. Not only is she impossibly beautiful, but impossibly powerful. She can zap you with a look, is impossible to kill (at least that is what Holly suspects) and supposedly possesses the wisdom of the ages…as well as the ambition. She definitely harbors notions of ruling the earth, which she has not yet undertaken because she wants Kallikrates on the scene.
Leo, of course, turns out to be that lover, or at least that is what she declares when she sees him, but she somehow ends up spending all her time with Holly (because Leo is ill for a good portion of the story). As soon as she meets Holly, Ayesha starts info dumping. I guess she’s been alone too long. And Holly is eager to lap it up, especially because of his interest in lost civilizations and philosophy. He’s actually more eager than Leo, who is not exactly the brightest bulb on the block. Even after she meets Leo and claims him as her love, she still does most of her talking to Holly. Leo remains more of a pretty face than an intelligent companion.
She is leading Leo and Holly through a mountain and over a chasm to the flame that brings – not immortality – but very long life and extremely good looks – E.K. Johnson
Ayesha is convinced that she is living a cosmic romance where her love must inevitably be returned through the ages, but the romance is all in her head. She sees a pretty man, kills him when he rejects her and then waits 2,000 years for him to show up again, building a narrative of romance in her head all the while. Then when she meets him, she unveils her face and he inevitably falls in “love” with her. Right after Ayesha killed his wife, Ustane. It’s like she messes with men’s hormones without actually touching their soul. They become obsessed with her and Leo becomes rather like a zombie.
When Holly and Leo first meet She, she is described as evil, a combination of snakelike Satan and Eve, but as the story progresses, the two of them increasingly make excuses for her. She did it all for love, after all. The character I ended up liking the most was Ustane, who really loved Leo and stood up to Ayesha, even though she knew she could not win. And although Haggard possessed all the racist attitudes of his era, she still manages to have more dignity and generate more human sympathy than anyone else.
She is racist, as well as anti-Semitic (there are frequent references to them as “Christ killers”). Haggard seems to endorse a theory of evolutionary and racial degradation. In the beginning of time, there used to be pure races of people. There were the “pure” Arabians. Ayesha is supposed to be one of the original Arabians (she’s as white as Snow White), who have since become racially impure. Leo looks like an ancient Greek, who have since become debased, according to Holly. The Amahagger are supposed to be a debased race of people, part African and part Arab. Even Holly, that bastion of Britishness, is frequently described as looking like a baboon.
And then there is the lost civilization of Kor, the ultimate example of a great and pure race of people. They lived where Ayesha now dwells, having come and gone long before she ever came to the ruins of their land. It is this part of the story that most makes me think of J.R.R. Tolkien; the lost civilization narrative. Now there are empty caverns in the mountain (Moria, anybody?), with remarkably lifelike mummified remains still to be found. Like Galadriel, She has a magic pool (except She says there is no such thing as magic). There is even an inscription scrawled on the wall, detailing the demise of the people of Kor (a plague did them in). The writer is the last living person in the mountain and as I read about it, I half expected him to mention drums in the deep: “they are coming.”
She is about to meet her demise by bathing a second time in the flame – apparently you can’t bath twice in it – illistration by E.K. Johnson
It is an interesting book and there are many striking images Haggard creates with words. But Ayesha annoyed me greatly and I had trouble caring for anybody other than Ustane, who sadly dies halfway through the book. And the racism was a bit much. I can see why the location of the story was changed when it was adapted to film. The 1935 version sets it in Antarctica, presumably so it could sidestep the racial dynamics of the book (they also probably didn’t want to portray the inter-racial relationship of Ustane and Leo).
I was planning on reading King Solomon’s Mines, too, but I’m not sure this book exactly increased my desire to pursue Haggard’s novels further. I’ll have to see.