I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading She by H. Rider Haggard. Haggard manages to convey the allure of the eternal feminine without resorting in the least to crudeness, while combining the intelligence of Conan Doyle with the verve of some of Jack London’s best. I recommend this book to any one who– while enjoying a good fantasy-adventure yarn– also relishes humor, erudition, and philosophy.
The novel drips and oozes with the Victorian Era in which it was written and set. Haggard’s style represents the transition from the pompous verbosity of Henry James to the more slangy and tight-lipped prose of Dashiell Hammett. He is a story-teller first and foremost, no apologies. I keep circling back to a comparison with Doyle, but only if Doyle had more passion and power of poetic description, as well a stronger sense for the dramatic tension which can pump a mystery up from a puzzle to an obsession.
Our story’s narrator is a man last-named Holly. Holly tells us himself that he is no beauty queen; he is ugly and hairy and stoutly built. He also comes across as someone educated and thoughtful, with a philosophical bent. Mildly, though firmly, Christian, he nevertheless appreciates the mythologies of other peoples.
His adopted son, Leo –whom Holly adores– is in several ways Holly’s opposite. Leo is young, tall, averagely intelligent, inexperienced– and perhaps the most beautifully formed man in the world (which proves a not unimportant detail in the story).
Holly and Leo set out an adventure having to do with a mystery concerning Leo’s biological father. They are assisted on their trip by Job, a quite Victorian domestic– someone who would only appear out of place downstairs at Downton Abbey because of his tendency toward uncouthness. Job is a no-nonsense sort of bloke, and is intensely loyal to his long-time employer. Because of the socio-economic divide between them, Holly and Leo are not quite friends– there is always a formality separating them– but they come about as close to friendship as a pair of manly, orthodox Englishmen of their day can come without whittling at that strict dividing line between the classes, a line which both men appear to respect as a matter of principle and/or long-ingrained habit. I’m not sure if author Haggard is just in-character as Holly of if we glimpse of sense of Haggard’s own, era-normal prejudices, but servant Job never comes off quite as brave, quite as intelligent, quite as noble as his master.
The quest of our adventuresome trio leads them into the un(-European-)explored heart of 19th century Africa. It is there that Leo’s dead father felt existed “a spot where the vital forces of the world visibly exist.” Holly, whose own stout heart is long-overdue for an adventure away from his life as a mild-mannered university educator– agrees to the make the voyage with his adopted son, not just because he feels he must go along to protect him, but because his experience has shown him that… “people are apt to petrify, even at a University, if they follow the same paths too persistently.”
Once in Africa– Holly, Leo, and Job of course are captured by a secret tribe (the Amahagger– a name curiously reminiscent of our author’s own) existing, as it were, outside of History. Here, the women rule, and uninvited visitors (and truthfully, visitors are never invited) are, well, eaten. Holly makes light of the cannibalism with the jest, “in our country we entertain a stranger, and give him food to eat. Here you eat him, and are entertained.”
As far as the matriarchal nature of the society, one of the male elders of the tribe explains that, in actuality, the women only rule until “they grow unbearable”– which occurs about every second generation, at which time the menfolk rise and “kill the old ones as an example to the young ones.”
The semi-open minded Holly (and I say, “semi-” because, though Holly does not take an overly judgmental stance toward foreign ways, the reader feels that there is absolutely zero chance that our narrator would ever throw-over his own religion or English customs)– but as I was saying, Holly responds to his collision with a alien sense of ethics by observing that morality is “an affair of latitude and religion, and what is right in one place [is] wrong and improper in another.”
The delayed introduction of the titular character, She, is deftly handled by Haggard so as to build-up the most possible suspense before her grand entrance. Orson Welles would’ve killed to play the part of She in a movie version!
She, whose name is short for “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed,” is a mysterious jungle queen, held in awe by the tribe which serves her. She is a woman of great wisdom, and possesses unsurpassed beauty– a beauty so intense and overpowering that no man can hope to resist her, his merely cognitive powers easily overpowered by his deeper, masculine biology. Luckily for our boys, She almost always appears veiled– which only adds to her mystery.
When she does, at one point, drop her veil for Holly, whom she has taken a Platonic shine to, she theatrically declares (ala Cate Blanchett in Fellowship Of The Ring): “Behold me, lovely as no woman was or is, undying and half-divine. Memory haunts me from age to age, and passion leads me by the hand– evil have I done, and with sorrow have I made acquaintance from age to age, and from age to age, evil I shall do, and sorrow shall I know til my redemption comes.”
Later, in a confessional aside to the reader, Holly will admit that “we could no more have left her than a moth can leave the light that destroys it.”
And destruction is, indeed, a looming possibility for our fellows. As She (whose real name is Ayesha) ominously warns: “Beauty is like the lightning. It is lovely, but it destroys.”
One of the mysteries swirling around this near-deity of woman is that she, so Holly is told, has ruled the Amahagger people for countless generations, never growing older. Though some believe She is immortal, one young lady who befriends the group shares her own theory with the Englishmen: that She secretly chooses a husband from time to time, and as soon as a female child is born, the husband is put to death and the daughter is raised to take the place of the queen. One suspects that this could also be a reason Ayesha always appears veiled– perhaps she is not, from generation to generation, the same woman. Alas, as Geoffrey Rush might put it, “it’s a mystery”– one you’ll have to read the book to discover– or at least you won’t get it from me.
What really raises the novel She from other adventure tales of its day– or of any day for that matter– is the amount and quality of philosophy Haggard manages to squeeze into the story. It is in fact this philosophizing, together with my affinity for Haggard’s prose stylings, that catapults this quest narrative toward the top of my list of favorite fictions. Additionally, there is a mysterious, subversive psychological aspect at work here. There is, surely, no explicit psychological message conveyed; nevertheless, there is something about the method of presentation, taken together with the locale and the subject matter, that gives the general impression that one is being led down the spiral staircase of the subconscious, that somehow– this trip into the heart of Africa, this face-to-face meeting with the pure power of eternal feminine, this invitation to re-evaluate stone-tablet morality, this wrestling with immortality– is surreptitiously unfastening the leash of our endungeoned id.
My own guess is that Haggard was not trying to perform any such kind of psychological voodoo, but that such serendipitously occurred. And not everyone may feel it. But for those with ears to hear, I do think there is a deeper whispering running like an underground current beneath this whopper of a tale.
Added to all of this, is the sympathetic treatment Haggard is able to give the morality of She. When Holly voices concern over She’s disregard for taking human life if that human life gets in her way, She responds that if Holly’s objections were taken seriously, than life would be “one long crime,” for day by day…
“…we destroy that we may live, since in this world none save the strongest can endure. Those who are weak must perish; the Earth is to the strong, and the fruits thereof.” […] “We run to place and power over the dead bodies of those who fail and fall.”
Continuing, She observes that we do not know the ultimate outcomes of any of our deeds…
“…for out of crimes come many good things, and out of good grows much evil. The cruel rage of the tyrant may prove the blessing of thousands who come after him, and the sweetheartedness of a holy man may make a nation slaves. Man doeth this and doeth that from the good or evil of his heart, but he knows not to what end his sense doth prompt him, for when he strikes he is blind to where the blow shall fall, nor can he count the airy threads that weave the web of circumstance.”
One sensibility that She possesses which resonates better with the modern middle-class is her view on Love. She may do things appalling to the bourgeois morality, but she does them, ultimately, for Love, a Love “which makes all things beautiful” and which “breathes divinity into the very dust we tread.”
Indeed, when Holly– who is undoubtedly enthralled to She– seeks to justify her methods, he contends that She, in her great wisdom, has surpassed lowly human ethics and has realized that “there is but one thing worth living for, and that is Love in its highest sense, and to gain that good thing, she was not prepared to stop at trifles.”
She has, in a sense, established her own personal religion, and she disdains the organized mass-religions of the world, which she sees as superstitions arising from the “terror for the end.” She considers these sorts of religion as a subtle form of “selfishness.” When Holly describes to her the Christian notion of “Hell,” She’s responds with a psychological interpretation, asserting that this “Hell” is in reality the abode of the “unsatisfied passions” where the “terrors of the mind” come “to mock and haunt and gibe and wring the heart forever and forever” with the vision of hopelessness.
She’s own religion is firmly entwined with the belief in reincarnation. “All we who live have thus lived before,” she says. “Only we know it not because memory writes no record, and earth has gathered-in the earth she lent us.” For She, each life-span is only “one page in thy book of being.”
Perplexingly to me, She contends that Identity persists through all these reincarnations despite the loss of memory. “Time has no power against Identity,” she declares, “though Sleep the merciful hath blotted-out the tablets of our mind, and with oblivion sealed the sorrows that else would hound us down from life to life, stuffing the brain with griefs til it burst in the madness of uttermost despair.” Personally, I can not imagine an Identity persisting without memory, even within a single life-time, much less over numerous ones.
Ayesha (“She”) has a pragmatic, sexually oriented view of society. She sees human interactions as “a great mart” in which “all things are for sale to him who bids the highest in the currency of our desires.” For men, the “currency of desire” is often “a woman’s beauty”… And what can woman’s beauty be bought by? Why, gold of course, and everyone’s happy. Women get their gold, and men get to possess, if just for a moment, the complementary, feminine beauty which they intrinsically crave. All else is mere ambition, which our narrator Holly informs us is “but an endless ladder” where the last rung is ever “unreachable” and where “height leads on to height.”
Holly’s belief in God does not in any way make him an optimist concerning the human condition. And he is a man too full of feeling to wear the mask of stoicism or the numbing, blinding garments of apathy. No, Holly’s metaphysics definitely lean toward the martyr’s passion side of the spiritual spectrum… “The lot of man born of the flesh,” he says, “is but to endure midst toil and tribulation, to catch the bubbles blown by Fate, which he calls pleasures, thankful if, before they burst, they rest a moment in his hand, and when the tragedy is played out, and his hour comes to perish, to pass humbly whither he knows not.”
In another passage he remarks… “a stony-hearted mother is our earth, and stones are the bread she gives her children for their daily food. Stones to eat and bitter water for their thirst, and stripes for tender nurture.”
Ayesha, herself– She Who Must Be Obeyed– knows that ultimately, even for her, “all things end in silence and in ashes.”
Intimations of immortality pervade She. Ayesha is unafraid of the idea of a more-or-less eternal life here on Earth, whereas the thought mortifies Holly. “It is a well-known fact,” he states, “that very often, putting the period of boyhood out of the argument, the older we grow the more cynical and hardened we become; indeed, many of us are only saved by timely death from moral petrification, if not from moral corruption.”
Holly believes that as one grows older, one becomes more and more burdened with life’s hardships… “Who would so load up his back with memories of lost hours and loves, and of his neighbor’s sorrows which he cannot lessen, and with wisdom that brings not consolation?”
That Other, Secret Worm
“It is hard to die,” Holly says, “because our delicate flesh shrinks back from the worm it will not feel and from that Unknown which the winding-sheet curtains from our view. But harder still, to my thought, would it be to live on, green in the leaf and fair, but dead and rotten at the core, and to feel that other, secret worm of memory gnawing ever at the heart.”
Death, for Holly represents a reprieve from the building suffering… “For while the flesh endures, sorrow and evil and the scorpion whips of sin must endure also; but when the flesh has fallen from us, then shall the spirit shine forth clad in the brightness of eternal good.”
Part of Holly’s fear of immortality is the greater likelihood that, with each passing year, a person could actually obtain the Truth… For Holly, the underlying nature of reality and the fundamental purposes of God are things too big, too awesome for the fragile human frame to contain. “The mind wearies easily when it strives to grapple with the Infinite,” he says, “and to trace the footsteps of the Almighty as He strides from sphere to sphere, or deduce His purpose from His works.”
The Wisdom gathered from too long a life would be, for Holly, a curse, not a blessing… “Too much wisdom perchance would blind our imperfect sight, and too much strength would make us drunk, and over-weight our feeble reason til it fell and we were drowned in the depths of our own vanity.” He contends that the shallow human “vessel” is soon filled, and if could contain even one-thousandth part “of the unutterable and silent Wisdom that directs the rolling of those shining spheres, and the Force which makes them roll, pressed into it, it would be shattered into fragments.”
Holly asserts that “truth is veiled because we could no more look upon her glory than we can upon the sun.”
Ayesha does not have as much faith in humanity’s ability to absorb wisdom over time… “How little knowledge does a man acquire in his life,” she tells Holly. “He gathers it up like water, but like water it runs between his fingers, and yet, if his hands be but wet as though with dew, behold a generation of fools call out, ‘See, he is a wise man!’ “
Holly, on the other hand, believes that, after long life, people would possess the Socratic wisdom to know how much we don’t know… “The more we learn, shall we not thereby be able only to better compass-out our ignorance?” This, however, is not necessarily a good thing, since our tragic plight would become even more obvious to us… “Would not our wisdom be but as a gnawing hunger calling our consciousness day by day to a knowledge of the empty craving of our souls?”
EXAMPLES OF THE HAGGARD STYLE:
Lastly, I want to provide a few excerpts from Haggard’s book in order to display what I mean when I contend that Haggard stands halfway from that bridge leading from the prose of the 19th century to that of the 20th. Additionally, Haggard’s mode of expression, much like Winston Churchill’s later, is naturally imbued with the images and rhythms of the King James’ Bible.
Describing the waves during an ocean storm, he writes: “There they were, boiling up in snowy spouts of spray, smiting and gnashing their crests together like the gleaming teeth of hell.”
Haggard can sometimes write more lyrically than most modern so-called poets. Here’s a paragraph that I’ve broken down into verse-like pieces, from Chapter Four: The Squall…
quieter and yet more quiet grew the sea, /
quiet as the soft mist that brooded in her bosom,/
and covered up her troubling/
as in our tempestuous life/
the transitory wreaths of sleep brood upon a pain-racked soul, /
causing it to forget its sorrow. //
From the east to the west sped those angels of Dawn, /
from sea to sea, from mountain-top to mountain-top, /
scattering light from breast and wing. /
On they sped out of the darkness, perfect, glorious; /
on, over the quiet sea,/
over the low coast-line, and the swamps beyond, and the mountains above them; /
over those who slept in peace and those who woke in sorrow; /
over the evil and the good; /
over the living and the dead; /
over the wide world and all that breathes or has breathed thereon.”
Another lyrical passage occurs at the end of Chapter Seven: Ustane Sings… “When I am gone from thee, my chosen… when at night thou stretchest out thine hand and canst not find me, then shouldst thou think at times of me, for of a truth I love thee well, though I be not fit to wash they feet. And now let us love and take that which is given us, and be happy; for in the grave there is no love and no warmth, nor any touching of the lips. Nothing perchance, or perchance but bitter memories of what might have been. Tonight the hours are our own; how know we to whom they shall belong tomorrow?”
And one of my favorite lines comes from She, herself: “Soft shall we live, my love, and easy shall we go.”
By the way… If your edition of She contains an introduction by Margaret Atwood– make sure to SKIP it ! Luckily, I did just that, so as my critical appraisal of the novel would not be influenced before-hand. When I went back and read it, I found that Atwood not only gives away, quite specifically, the entire plot of the book, but manages to spoil the sequel as well !