Monday 15 February 2010

'SHE' by H Rider Haggard



(First published 1887, this edition Coronet paperback,
Hodder & Stoughton 1980 ISBN 0-340-15100-5)

‘SHE Who Must Be Obeyed!…
SHE who must be loved!…SHE who must be possessed!’
(Hammer films movie poster)

This is an adventure that defines the term ‘fabulous’. A mythic exploit into weird fantasy that resonates beyond its pages, endures through its movie reincarnations, and has passed into an everywhere awareness. An epic foray across unexplored wilderness on a generational revenge quest. The lost city of an extinct race four-thousand years dead. An eternal heroine as beautiful as she is terrible. Hazards. Conflict. Horror and brutality, with a macabre gothic edge. Yet there’s a deliberately baffled history to this novel, a provenance that both authenticates, and distances us, from its truth. The introduction to ‘She’ is narrated by an ‘editor’ who first questions the veracity of the manuscript that follows. Is this ‘some gigantic allegory?’ he muses. Before expressing his belief that no, ‘to me the story seems to bear the stamp of truth upon its face’. But ultimately he defers the question for the reader to decide. He goes on to explain how the document first came into his possession. How, after briefly being introduced to the godlike Leo Vincey and the hirsute ugliness of Leo’s stepfather L Horace Holly, on the streets of Cambridge, the latter entrusts the manuscript to him, to do with as he pleases, as the mismatched pair are leaving to seek ‘wisdom’ in ‘Thibet’. Yet even these scant details, the editor acknowledges, have been deliberately amended to disguise the true identities of the protagonists, according to their instruction. Hence there are layers of imprecision to both establish the back-story of the supposed manuscript, while allowing the possibility that this is more than mere fiction, indeed, that it documents ‘the most wonderful and mysterious experiences ever undergone by mortal men’. This fictional framing device, seldom if ever thought necessary now… when the most outrageous fictions require no justification, was more usual when ‘She’ was first published in 1887. Then it was used to add gravitas to fantasy, to dignify something essentially frivolous, by investing it with quasi-academic credentials. Henry Rider Haggard uses exactly the same technique with ‘Alan Quatermain’ (1887), published the same year, supposedly written by Quatermain himself, with Haggard simply acting as ‘editor’. As if the creation of wonderful and enduring mythic archetypes is not achievement enough.
The cover of the 1980 Hodder & Stoughton paperback edition of ‘She’ is obviously intended to bring the Ursula Andress portrayal of Ayesha to mind, as she appears in the Hammer movie version of what the blurb not unreasonably claims to be ‘one of the greatest, most unforgettable stories of all time’. Although the actress had yet to be born when H Rider Haggard wrote of the ‘wonderful and awful loveliness’ of ‘She’. At the time of writing, large areas of Africa were yet to be explored. Indeed, it was a pivotal period in the quest for the source of the Nile. A time of Richard Burton and John Speake’s 1857 expedition from east Africa to Lake Victoria, of Speake’s second expedition with James Grant in 1862, the husband-&-wife team of Samuel White & Lady Florence Baker who discovered Lake Albert Nyanza in 1864, Stanley meeting Livingstone in 1871, and Stanley reaching the Mountains Of The Moon in 1887 after trekking up the Congo. After such wonders, surely it was not entirely unconceivable that the vast continent could harbour other secrets, hidden civilisations, or the lost remnants of ancient cultures? His six years of colonial service in South Africa had fuelled Rider Haggard’s imagination, providing source material for his fiction while enabling convincingly accurate detail to back it up. ‘A country like Africa is sure to be full of the relics of long-dead and forgotten civilisations’ claims Haggard, ‘nobody knows the age of the Egyptian civilisation, and very likely it had offshoots. Then there were the Babylonians and the Phoenicians, and other peoples.’ To add weight to his argument he specifically cites Persian ruins found near Kilwa on the east African coast, south of Zanzibar, close to ‘She’ terrain.

The West’s fascination with the ancient mysteries of Egyptology had first been stirred by Napoleon’s campaigns on the Nile in 1798. It would receive a further jolt in 1922 through Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhaten’s tomb, leading to the Universal cycle of ‘The Mummy’ films, replicated by Hammer, and then by the exploits of Indiana Jones. Rider Haggard anticipated much of this, capturing all the enduring mystery and menace of the Pharonic age pretty much intact, requiring little by the way of updating for the Ursula Andress movie. There had already been earlier attempts to film the novel, from a silent black-&-white venture with James Cruze in 1911, to 1925 with Carlyle Blackwell, and then again in 1935 with Randolph Scott. But with both Peter Cushing (as Holly) and Christopher Lee (as Billali), and Leo’s part taken by blonde John Richardson (who would appear with Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years BC’ a year later) the April 1965 version of ‘She’ was one of Hammer’s most ambitious projects. What plot-inaccuracies there are have more to do with David T Chantler’s screenplay compression, and the assumed need to introduce the bumbling comic-element of Bernard Cribbins than with any inadequacies on Haggard’s part. Cribbins plays Job, the ‘respectable round-faced’ Retainer appointed by Holly when he first accepts the responsibility of the five-year-old orphan Leo.

Unlike Peter Cushing’s celluloid portrayal, Ludwig Horace Holly’s physical appearance, as he describes himself in the novel, is enough to convert one woman to ‘the monkey theory’ – Darwin’s recently published evolutionary ‘Origin Of The Species’. Yet the solitary misogynist is made Vincey’s guardian upon his father’s mysterious and apparently suicidal death. Holly is also given a sealed iron chest to be opened on his ward’s twenty-fifth birthday. The sealed box provides evidence of the Vincey bloodline and details the ancient revenge quest the child is to undertake. It explains how the family can be traced back to the Egypt of 339BC, and to Kallikrates, a priest of Isis, of Greek extraction. Fleeing with a princess, the lovers were shipwrecked somewhere along the African coast, where they encountered a powerful white queen of a savage people. It was She who was responsible for Kallikrates’ death. The name Vincey, it seems, passed down from the escaping princess, is a corruption of Vindex – ‘Avenger’, and pledges Leo to seek the revenge that earlier family members had failed to fulfil across the centuries since. Documents are reproduced in pictograms, in uncial and cursive Greek, as well as in Latin and Medieval texts, and a ‘facsimile of the Sherd of Amenartas’. A degree of creative research far more impressive than – say, Dan Brown’s tepidly reheated Papal heresies.
Science Fiction did not exist as a genre when Haggard was writing ‘She’. But many elements of it were already present. Although he was writing adventure fiction Haggard was well-aware of ‘how many things happen in this world that the common sense of the average man would set down as so improbable as to be absolutely impossible…’ Haggard is rightly regarded as a pioneer of Lost Worlds Romance, because back then, it was not necessary to leave the Earth to seek out new worlds. In the years following ‘She’, Conan Doyle would create his ‘Lost World’ of dinosaurs on a South American plateau, then Edgar Rice Burroughs would acknowledge his debt when populating hidden corners of Africa with innumerable strange cultures for Tarzan to adventure into – as well as Lost Civilisations on Mars, Venus and at the World’s Core. With Alan Quatermain, Haggard created his own ‘Indiana Jones’ action hero, and it’s Quatermain who encounters the first of the writer’s lost races – the Umslopogaas, the noblest of savages in the 1887 novel that bears his name. There would be other Haggard lost races, including ‘The People Of The Mist’ (1894). Just as there were also fictional cross-overs, bringing the strands of his mythos together, with ‘She And Allan’ (1921). He wrote straight historical fictions too, but as Science Fiction developed into its own separate literature-form, Alan Quatermain found himself a participant in the emerging genre by being thrown back in time after using a new race-memory drug, to inhabit the body of a palaeolithic man. More Science Fantasy than SF, it was subsequently run in the pulp magazine ‘Famous Fantastic Mysteries’ (April 1947) with fine Virgil Finlay line-art. Haggard also wrote the posthumously published ‘When The World Shook’ (1919) with collaborative assistance from Rudyard Kipling. It envisages the survivors of a prehistoric civilisation 250,000-years ago who awake from the same form of suspended animation described by Billali in ‘She’ as ‘the whole mountain is peopled with dead, and nearly all of them perfect’.

It was Quatermain’s explosive debut in Haggard’s fourth book – ‘King Solomon’s Mines’, which catapulted him to fame. Preceding ‘She’ by two years, it in many ways establishes the pattern. It too begins with a quest based on historical data. There is also a hazardous trek across African terrain to make initial contact with a hidden tribe, through which they progress to the final secret. ‘She’ takes that same structure, expands it, and escalates the fantasy-element. Its publication was announced by a serialisation in ‘The Graphic’ (between October 1886 and January 1887) which aroused anticipations. And it has never been out of print since. Unlike many mainstream novels of the period, it still reads compulsively easy. There is more moralising and philosophical discussion between She and Holly than a modern novel would carry. And there’s antiquated language too, in the ‘dost thou wonder’ style, although that can be excused by Ayesha’s own antiquity. The prose is also powered by the archaic charm of its descriptive prose, after a sleepless night ‘we might both of us have given away all the sleep we won that night and not have been much the poorer’. In the novel, despite Holly’s misgivings, Leo intends to fulfil the family obligation. Holly regards the prospect of good hunting – and killing a buffalo, as rich compensation for what he considers a foolhardy quest. Leo is also soon ‘thirsting for the blood of big game’. Attitudes repugnant to the modern reader. Haggard’s story-telling skill is capable of a sometimes haunting vigour, and in a curiously poetic passage he spies a ‘beautiful buck… limned upon a background of ruddy sky’. Haggard has the narrator rhapsodise on the magical fascination of the moment – after which he abruptly murders the creature! There are similarly visceral descriptions of nature red in tooth and claw, as when a lion is locked in a death-struggle with a crocodile.

On the voyage to Zanzibar the traveller’s dhow is shipwrecked in a violent squall, coincidentally allowing them to happen upon a distinctively shaped promontory mentioned in the manuscript. Described in the unflattering mildly-racist language which was the common usage of the time, the outcrop has been artificially reshaped into the devilish ‘fiery and demoniacal’ face of an Ethiopian. Haggard uses a similar device to identify the location of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ as his protagonists struggle across the desert towards a mountain formation termed ‘Sheba’s breasts’. The adventurers, with Mohamed, the only other survivor of the storm, find themselves trapped on a dry spit of land surrounded by boundless crocodile and mosquito-infested marshes, but discover traces of ancient stonework there. Through the swampy remains of what they take to be an ancient canal they endure days of discomfort before being captured by the Amahagger, tall natives in leopard-skins. These ‘People of the Rocks’ – ‘Ama’ from the Zulu for people, ‘Hagger’ from the Arabic from stone, are led by the bearded Billali. They carry the team in ‘palanquin’ sedan chairs into the fertile crater of an extinct volcano, and into its artificial cave complex. The tribe are a matriarchal lost race, surrounded by and hidden from the world beyond by the impassable marshlands. But Holly’s suspicion of their captors is confirmed when the feast they are invited to participate in turns cannibalistic. Mohamed – the intended victim of a particularly vicious form of ‘hot-pot’, is killed in the ensuing skirmish. Until Billali intervenes to halt the slaughter.

At last the three – ‘the lion, the baboon and the pig’ (Leo, Holly and Job) reach the towering volcanic mass at the centre of what had been the ancient city of Kôr, and are led blindfold into the bowels of the mountain, through into the crater of another yet vaster volcano and the mighty cave complex hewn into it. These catacombs are the ‘dead old shadows of the dead’, the extinct prehistoric race ‘old before the Egyptians’ who had created Kôr. With Leo wounded in the fight and fevered from the long trek through the marshlands, but tended by the beautiful Ustane who has ‘claimed’ him, Holly goes on to meet She alone. The plot-escalation is well-paced, with a rising momentum of dread and a macabre gothic edge, expressed in the severed foot that Billali had retrieved from the burning corpse of his dead love. But leavened with humour too. Holly strides to meet ‘She’ while Billali crawls on all fours ‘after the fashion of an Irishman driving a pig to market’.

‘She’ is both terrible, and beautiful, the ‘Eternal Female’ inspiring awe and devotion in equal measure. A force ‘absolutely unshackled by a moral sense of right and wrong’. Leo’s life is forever changed by their liaison. On the point of his death from fever, Ayesha first glimpses him, and recognises him as the reincarnation of her long-dead lover, Killikrates. Her drugs cure him. Holly also admits his unworthy love for her. ‘She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed’ explains that ‘there is no such thing as Death, although there be a thing called Change’. In a poetic metaphor, ‘death is but life’s night, but out of the night is the morrow born anew’. Although essentially a figure of fantasy, she pointedly denies superstitious elements in favour of a kind of science. ‘There is no such thing as magic’ she declares, ‘though there is such a thing as knowledge of the hidden ways of Nature’. Later, Haggard takes the character of Ayesha, and develops her mythos through ‘Ayesha: The Return Of She’ (1905), placing her origins in a Greek colony planted by Alexander the Great in central Asia. Then he traces her Egyptian origins further in ‘Wisdom’s Daughter’ (1923). Another novel, written with his friend Andrew Lang – ‘The World’s Desire’ (1890), also draws on the pseudo-sciences of spiritualism and reincarnation. Partly a lyrical fantasy sequel to Homer, it tells of Odysseus’ final voyage to seek Helen in Egypt, only to discover that she is an avatar of Ayesha. Haggard’s innovatory ideas would be carried over into subsequent fantasy, sometimes directly attributed, as when Neil R Jones writes in his “The Jameson Satellite” (‘Amazing Stories’, July 1931) about H Rider Haggard ‘who depicted the wondrous embalming practices of the ancient nation of Kôr in his immortal novel ‘She’ wherein Holly, under the escort of the incomparable Ayesha, looked upon the magnificent, lifelike masterpieces of embalming by the long-dead peoples of Kôr’. While reincarnations in media-forms unknown to Haggard were to assure Ayesha of a different kind of immortality. She’s real now, in ways that Haggard would not recognise, through comic-book editions, and movies. Elsewhere the phrase ‘She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed’ enters conversations with no regard to its origins, something maybe picked up from TV’s ‘Rumpole Of The Bailey’? Although Rumpole’s creator, John Mortimer, was certainly familiar with H Rider Haggard’s work.

With a vivid cinematic sense of spectacle a savage Amahagger dance is illuminated by the ‘awful and hideous grandeur’ of torches made of burning human corpses, where the rivalry between Ustane and Ayesha climaxes. Ustane defies She. In a mental battle of wills She kills her, with little more than a pointed finger. In a powerful sense of recurring cycles of time this reflects how She originally murdered Killikrates, jealous of his love for Amenartas. The Egyptian princess who is Leo’s distant ancestor. Despite his affection for the loyal Ustane, Leo is irresistibly drawn by Ayesha’s sorcery, ‘as a needle follows a magnet’. She takes him to see the identical body of the dead Killikrates in the chamber where She has slept beside the body of her murdered love for two-thousand years. She plans to make Leo ‘not immortal, indeed, for that I am not, but so cased and hardened against the attacks of Time that his arrows shall glance from the armour of thy vigorous life as the sunbeams glance from water’. She offers Holly this form of immortality too. Initially he refuses, fearfully falling back on a Christian mythology he’s already denied. Flesh, no matter how long it survives, will eventually die, he argues. But the spirit survives for eternity. At the last moment, however, he’s poised on the brink of giving way to the temptation of living forever.

To achieve her desire, so that she and an immortal Leo can return to, and rule Britain, they journey together across the floor of the crater, through the desolate ruins of the ten-thousand year-old city, into the shafts of a tunnel and across a precarious rift into the bowels of the volcano itself. The Hammer movie diverges from the novel in a number of ways. For them, the lost city is called ‘Kuma’, perhaps to avoid Sid James-style mispronunciations of ‘Kôr’? Haumeid (André Morel), the father of poor murdered Ustane, leads the vengeful Amahagger to attack Ayesha’s loyalists in a climactic battle. Then Leo fights Christopher Lee’s Billali – her fanatical priest, who seeks immortality for himself. But Ayesha kills him too! Yet the final death-scene, in which She steps naked into the Spirit of the Flame of Life, only for it to destroy her, remains intact in all forms of the story. And to SF historian David Kyle the ending of Haggard’s story ‘when the immortal heroine withers amidst the strange, previously revitalising cold flame and has her beauty transformed into hideousness, is one of the unforgettable high moments in fiction’ (‘A Pictorial History Of Science Fiction’, Hamlyn 1976). To Holly, her demise, caused by her re-immersion in the flame, is ‘worse than a thousand natural deaths’. So intense that Job dies of shock. After that climatic moment, the ‘wily old barbarian’ Billali assists their escape from Kôr, across the marsh barrier to eventually reach the Zambesi and home. Their lives irrevocably altered by their experiences. At the close of an adventure that defines the term ‘fabulous’, Holly wonders if ‘She’ will return? He’s inclined to believe that she will, ‘a story that began more than two-thousand years ago may stretch a long way into the dim and distant future…’

‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (1885)
‘She’ (1887) – serialised in ‘The Graphic’ issues October 1886 to January 1887
‘Allan Quatermain’ (1887)
‘The World’s Desire’ (1890)
‘The People Of The Mist’ (1894)
‘Ayesha: The Return Of She’ (1905)
‘When The World Shook’ (1919)
‘She And Allan’ (1921) - prequel
‘Wisdom’s Daughter’ (1923)

‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (1950) with Stewart Granger
‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (1985) in a lively version directed by J Lee Thompson, with Richard Chamberlain taking foxy damsel-in-distress Sharon Stone to seek the fabled diamond mine and help her search for her missing father.
‘She’ (1911) black-&-white venture with James Cruze
‘She’ (1925) silent film with Betty Blythe and Carlyle Blackwell, made with the active participation of H Rider Haggard
‘She’ (1935) with Randolph Scott, Nigel Bruce and Helen Gahagan, an oddity in that it’s not set in Africa – but in the Arctic!
‘She’ (1965) with Ursula Andress, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

1 comment:

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I did not know what to expect from the title. The story was quite original which is always refreshing. An active imagination is definetly required to sustain this book. Some of its elements border on the fantastic which may not suit everyone. However I enjoyed it very much.