Wednesday, May 22, 2013

She (1887) by H. Rider Haggard

   H. Rider Haggard created one of the 19th century's most memorable characters with Ayesha, the horribly beautiful, tyrannical "She-who-must-be-obeyed" of this action classic. Ayesha was an immortal sorceress who ruled a degenerate lost civilization in Africa. With just a look at her face any man would be enslaved, and she had the ghastly power to kill with a glance. She had been waiting for hundreds of years for the reincarnation of her murdered lover to come back to her. This might seem a lot to ask, as She was the one who murdered him, but She knew he would come someday. That would be a dark day, for then She would leave with him for the outside world, and with her horrible power she could rule nations.
   The story begins with Horace Holly, a Cambridge College student who has the misfortune of looking like a neanderthal, receiving a visit from a dying friend, Vincey. This man asks Holly to take charge of his son Leo after he dies, and also follow some peculiar instruction's in his will. Holly, despite fearing for his friend's sanity, agrees. Soon Vincey is dead and Leo is growing up with Holly.
   When Leo is twenty-five, following the instructions of his dead friend, Holly gives Leo a mysterious casket to open. Leo unlocks it to discover ancient scrolls, a fragment of pottery called 'The Sherd of Amenartas' that is marked with many inscriptions and a letter from his dead father. It turns out that Leo is a descendant of Kallikrates, a greek priest of Isis who was murdered by a sorceress in a jealous rage. Kallikrates' wife escapes her wrath and lives to pass the story down to her son. The Sherd of Amentartus has been passed down from generation to generation of Leo's family, telling the story, and also revealing that the sorceress has the secret of eternal life. Leo decides to seek the truth of the story, and if possible, the secret of immortality. Holly thinks it is all nonsense but agrees to go along on the chance of shooting some animals in Africa. They are joined by Job, a rather typical example of the 19th century stock character of the loyal servant.
   After many trials and tribulations, including a shipwreck, they manage to encounter the Amahagger; savage natives that are under the rule of Ayesha. After some rather dangerous episodes with the Amahagger, including a viscous battle in which Leo is seriously injured, they are brought to Kor; the ancient ruins of a city where Ayesha dwells.
   Ayesha, appropriately enough considering her character, lives in a hollowed out mountain tomb filled with the corpses of a dead civilization. Here She has lived for hundreds of years, ruling the degenerate Amahagger. Swathed from head to foot in wrappings, her face covered with a veil, She is mysterious and terrible, her immortality and vast knowledge separating her from humanity. She uncovers her face for Holly, for whom She has grown fond, and he falls helplessly in love with her. Then she sees Leo, who has been recovering from his injuries, and is shocked to discover that he is the very man She has been waiting for. She plans on making him immortal too, and for them to leave for the outside world and eventually rule it. I will not mention the rest, as most people probably have not read it yet, and I have no wish to spoil it.
   The novel is a solid lost-world story as well as one of the greatest of Haggard's works. It is the character of Ayesha though that marks it as an immortal classic. There has been much debate on what inspired the Victorian Haggard to create such a powerful female character. The true genius of Ayesha is her complexity. She is not a complete villain despite the terrible things She has done, and by the end (and the ending is one of the most brilliantly ghastly ever written) one can sympathize with her.
   The novel is marred by some rather ugly anti-semitism on Holly's part, that sadly can be read as Haggard's own. It can be disconcerting how free the Victorians could express their bigotry. That said, it remains a great adventure novel that I highly recommend.


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