This is very long post and the first part of two. I have sent a much shorter version of this essay to Fantasyliterature.com so you could check there in a few days if you don’t have the patience or the time for this.
H. Rider Haggard published She in 1887. He was coming off the acclaim and financial success of King Solomon’s Mines. Haggard later remembered the moment he delivered the manuscript. He tossed it on a table in his agent’s office. “Here,” he said, “Here’s what I’ll be remembered by.”
130 years later, She is a memorable, if strange, read. It is an action-adventure seen in a fun-house mirror. Some of that’s intentional. Some of it can’t be.
The book was categorized according to the vocabulary of the time as a Romance: an adventure novel with unusual or fantastical elements. King’s Solomon’s Mines is the book Haggard is best remembered for; but She is the book most scholars love, and this is because there is so very much to write about, so much of the national character and psyche—not to mention Haggard’s own personal psyche—on display here.
The story starts with our first-person narrator, L. Horace Holly, telling us a little bit about himself. Holly describes himself as ugly—ape-like, he says, with bandy legs, over-long arms and thick black hair that grows low on his forehead. He is a committed misanthrope and misogynist, telling the story of young woman he once courted, who stood with him before a mirror and said, “If I am Beauty, who are you?”
Through a series of events, Holly becomes the guardian of five-year-old Leo Vincey, and a strange iron-bound chest. When Leo turns 25, they are to open the chest together. Money is also provided to Holly, for living expenses.
Leo is as golden and beautiful as Apollo, the physical opposite of Holly. As the boy matures, and he and Holly are “out walking” on the Cambridge campus, several people refer to them as Beauty and the Beast. On Leo’s twenty-fifth birthday they open the chest, to find a pot-shard inscribed in Greek and some translated documents. The shard and documents tell a story about an Egyptian princess, Amenartas, who fell in love with Kallikrates, a Greek priest sworn to Isis. The two fled to Africa, where they encountered a hidden kingdom ruled by a white queen. The queen also fell in love with Kallikrates, and killed him when he spurned her for his first love. Amenartas (who inscribed the shard) fled, and later bore a son. This was the start of the Vincey lineage.
Leo and Holly resolve to go to Africa to try to find the remains of this hidden kingdom. By now, Holly is in his mid-forties, and Leo a strapping twenty-five-year-old. You would think that Leo would take the lead in an adventure story, but this is not the case. When their ship founders in a storm off the coast of Africa, Leo is promptly knocked out and it is Holly, their man Job and a crewman named Mohamed who row to safety in a smaller boat. As an action hero, and later as a romantic hero, Leo has many of the qualities of a golden retriever. He is pretty, he is energetic, he sleeps a lot, is indiscriminately friendly and has a short attention span.
The party soon realizes that it is traveling, not up a natural waterway, but a canal, and soon they meet the Amahagger. This strange tribe worships a distant queen named She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, who has commanded them to bring any white men to her. The tribe, or clan, does not look African—some, Holly says, are yellow, like Asians—and Holly tells us their women are equal to their men. They are matrilineal, and women choose their own mates or husbands. A fine strapping girl with chestnut hair named Ustane promptly claims Leo, and Leo does not object.
Holly becomes friends with Ballili, an Amahagger elder, who explains the whole “women are equal” idea in more detail:
‘We worship them,’ he went on, ‘up to a certain point, till at last they get unbearable, which’ he added, ‘they do, about every second generation.’
‘And then what do you do?’ I asked with curiosity.
‘Then,’ he answered, with a faint smile, ‘We rise, and kill the old ones as an example to the young ones, and to show them that we are the strongest.’
For most of us, that is not a definition of equality.
Job refuses one of the women’s advances, and, in vengeance she arranges for the cannibalistic murder of Mohamed, the lone black African in the story. Holly and Leo go to the aid of their comrade. In the ensuing melee, Ustane saves Leo’s life before Ballili arrives to break things up and take the travelers to meet She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.
The enigmatic queen lives in a honeycomb of chambers carved into the side of dormant caldera, the crypts of the fabled city of Kor. En route, Leo, who was wounded in the fight, succumbs to a fever and spends much of this portion of the book unconscious, with Ustane at his side. It is Holly who is first introduced to “She,” it is Holly who first sees her unearthly beauty, and it is Holly who first hears her tale of love.
She—or Ayesha, as she prefers—is a stunningly beautiful white woman who looks no older than thirty; yet has lived more than two thousand years if her tale is to be believed. She fell in love with Kallikrates, killed him out of jealousy and has waited in these caves until he is reincarnated. Leo is that reincarnation.
Ayesha is imperious and cruel, sentencing the Amahagger cannibals to death by torture. She is learned and curious, not having left these caves for two thousand years. She is a brilliant chemist, a philosopher, and scholar, translating for Holly the text the ancient citizens of Kor left on their walls because she taught herself their language. Unconscious Leo may be love of her millennia-long life, but it’s Holly she talks to. They talk a lot. Clearly, Holly is much a much better choice of consort for this wise and ancient queen, except for the whole love-of-her-life thing, and Leo’s gilded good looks.
Once Ayesha sees Leo, she recognizes the truth. Ustane, who has by the standards of her people, and of “She” herself, a legitimate claim to Leo, is merely a speed-bump on the road to timeless love. Ayesha, a creature of many powers, (not magic, she tells Holly, just powers he can’t understand,) plans to share the secret of her long life with Leo and Holly. Then, immortal, Leo and Ayesha will rule the world. Both men doubt that they can persuade Ayesha out of this plan. Leo thinks he can function as a conscience for her, but Holly, older and more experienced, has already seen the corrupting influence Ayesha has had on his adopted son.
The final chapters play out in the deserted city of Kor and deep in the heart of another mountain, in a hidden chamber with a mysterious fountain of light that seems to come from the center of the earth itself. No mere human can stop Ayesha, so the universe itself takes a hand.