A Contribution To The ERBzine Library Project
by H. Rider Haggard
Review by R.E. Prindle
Part IV and End: Herself Portrayed
The idea of a twenty-two hundred year old woman patiently waiting for the reincarnation of a man she had murdered in that far off time is in itself an extraordinary concept. As an imaginative flight of fancy very likely Rider Haggard can be seen as its originator. Burroughs would borrow the notion twenty-seven years later in his The Eternal Lover when he reverses the sexes and has a cave man asleep for millennia wake to find his reincarnted woman. Since then variations on the theme have become quite common.
She, or Ayesha, was a powerful image of a woman. C.G. Jung saw her as the personification of his Anima theory. Haggard drew on many personal and historical details to create her. Ayesha was titled She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. As a child Haggard had a doll to which he gave that name. The doll must have represented his mother. If he invested characteristics of his mother into Ayesha then she must have been both warm and loving and cold and imperious. Over all one gets the impression that she was not particularly loving. Thus, Ayesha, while appearing to be in love with Leo/Kallicrates is nevertheless imperious, demanding and self-centered. In her only real display of afftection she kisses Leo on the forehead, as Haggard says, like a mother. As Haggard says of Meriamun in The World's Desire, her love was not so much for her lover but an expression of her own vanity.
Haggard represents her as a living corpse in white funereal garments, completely shrouded. She has a strange accoutrement in the serpent belt with two heads facing each other. This is close to the caduceus. Perhaps Haggard had no idea of what the symbol meant in 1886 but by 1890 he had come up with an explanation. In The World's Desire Queen Meriamun of Egypt keeps something she calls the Ancient Evil in a box. The Evil is a small blob. When she warms it in her bosom it grows. World's Desire pp. 144-45:
Thrice she breathed upon it, thrice she whispered, “Awake! Awake! Awake!”
And the first breath she breathed the Thing stirred and sparkled. The second time that she breathed it undid its shining folds and reared its head to her. The third time that she breathed it slid from her bosom to the floor, then coiled itself about her feet and grew as grows a magician’s magic tree.
Greater it grew and greater yet, and as it grew it shone like a torch in a tomb, and wound itself about the body of Meriamun, wrapping her in its fiery folds till it reached her middle. Then it reared its head on high, and from its eyes there flowed a light like the light of a flame, and lo! its face was the face of a fair woman- it was the face of Meriamun!
Now face looked on face, and eyes glared on eyes. Still as a white statue of the Gods stood Meriamun the Queen, and all about her form and in and out of her dark hair twined the flaming snake.
At length the Evil spoke- spoke with a human voice, with the voice of Meriamun, but in the dead speech of a dead people!
“Tell me my name,” it said.
“Sin is the name,” answered Meriamun the Queen.
“Tell me whence I came.” it said again.
“From the evil within me.” answered Meriamun.
“Tell me where I go.”
“Where I go there thou goest, for I have war and thee in my breast and thou art twined about my heart.”
This quote gives an idea of what the snake belt worn by Ayesha signifies.
Of signficance while Meriamun is dealing in magic Ayesha denies all connection with the art saying she utilizes nature. She doesn’t use the word science but nature; nature would include psychology. She herefore draws on natural processes discovered but not scientific processes exposed. Thus when she kills her rival Ustane she does it by untilizing electro-magnetism, somehow using her own electro-magnetism to negate Ustane’s thus extinguishing her life force. We have then an example of tele-kinesis- action at a distance. As I’ve noted in other essays tele-kinesis was amongt an array ofr mental powers thought to reside in the unconscious being investigated by the Society For Psychic Research. Thus Haggard, probably through Lang is up on the latest psychic developments.
The ability to kill by telekinesis places a moral burden on Ayesha. If one agrees that the use of such a power may be necessary the question arises of when it may be misused. It would seem that the killing of a sexual rival was an inappropriate use, so the warring good and evil heads of her snake belt refers to the moral dilemma Ayesha faces.
Her belt seems somewhat different than that of Queen Meriamun of The World's Desire. The latter having accepted the aid of the Ancient Evil was committed to evil being unable to remove the belt. There seems to be an element of volition remaining to Ayesha. She is not ‘possessed.’ Of course Ayesha began her life some thousand years after Meriamun so perhaps psychology was somewhat further evolved at that time or evolvedwith her over her two thousand year life span.
Indeed, a topic of discussion Haggard introduces shouldn’t be dimissed lightly. That topic is the age old discussion of whether good can come from evil and evil from good. This is indeed a dilemma as bad results can arise from good intentions and vice versa. There is a serious side here.
Ayesha is pure irresistable beauty. Once she shows her face no man can resist her. She glories in this power. In The World’s Desire of four years hence Haggard will separate good and evil making Meriamun represent evil while Helen, the world’s desire, is all good.
Holly is an interesting character who may be a back hand slap at the concept of evolution. Holly also makes this the story of a beauty and a beast. Holly is described as having a low forehead with a hairline growing out of his eyebrows, further his beard and his hairline meet. He is said to have a hugely broad chest and shoulders with extra long arms, perhaps down to his knees although this is not stated. What we have in Holly then is the Wolf Man combined with King Kong. Monstrous indeed.
In contrast Leo Vincey is a Greek god, a sort of Apollo. As Ayesha is irresistable to men Leo seems likewise to be irresistable to women. Indeed, he was married to Ustane within minutes of arriving in Kor. He appears to have sincerely liked Ustane even though on sighting Ayesha’s face he too loved her. Ustane was a rival for a portion of Leo’s affections so Ayesha cut off her electrical supply.
Of several truly dramatic scenes in this spectacularly well constructed story a very dramatic one is when Leo confronts his twenty-two hundred year old incarnation 0f Kallicrates. Haggard doesn’t dwell on Leo’s understanding of this strange phenomenon although from the potsherd and his father’s letter he must have been convinced of the truth. Strangely he doesn’t ask Ayesha for an account of this earlier life, nor how it was that she came to Egypt from Yemen to interfere in his romance with Amenartas.
Haggard and Lang were aware of the early history of Yemen from whence Ayesha as a pure Semite came. She was pre-Christian, although not pre-Jewish, of some ancient Arabic religious beliefs. How she got to Egypt is never disclosed or how she came into conflict with the Egyptian princess Amenartas for Kallicrate’s affections.
Ayesha merely confronts Leo as the neo-Kallicrates without any preparation. A year or so to get to know her and become accustomed to her face might have been nice. Although, Leo weas married within minutes of arrival in Kor and was apparently satisfied with his wife. He was a pretty adaptable guy.
At any rate Ayesha rushes him into immortality and while tomorrow may be a long, long time, eternity is even longer. One might want to consider a moment about a relationship of that duration. Nor does she adequately prepare Leo’s mind for the ordeal of fire that she wants him to go through to become immortal. Twenty-two hundred years of waiting had done little to improve her patience.
Haggard has put everything he has into this story. He was granted clear vision only once in his life and he took advantage of it. In later years he was frequently asked why he didn’t write another story as good as She. His reply was that such a story may only come once in a man’s lifetime. The concentration and focus probably will never return again. While Allan Quatermain, his third successive attempt to create a lost civilization was on the weak side I would argue that Treasure of the Lake come close to She.
So, the four of them set out for the place of the fire of life. Masterful effects. High in the mountains there is a gigantic balancing rock, a huge mushroom type cap balanced on a spire. It would seems that Zane Grey was also greatly affected by She as Riders Of The Purple Sage hews very close to She. A narrow ledge of rock extends out opposite with a gap of fifteen feet. To cross this gap with high winds howling through, a plank carried by the ever patient Job has to be lowered across the gap. No mean task I’m sure, with only one chance of getting it right. Once in place, thousands of feet above the gorge each has to walk from side to side; plus they have only a few minutes for all four to get over during a single beam of light from the setting sun.
Fortunately all four make it crossing the balancing rock to descend into a cave leading to the bowels of the mountain. There an eternal flame that ensures the life of the planet rumbles by every so often. Twenty-two hundred years before Ayesha had bathed in this fire which following esoteric doctrines had burned away her gross, earthly, moral impurities making her essentially, pure spirit.
A famous incident of the process is recounted of the goddess Demeter in her travels after the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades. Coming to Eleusis Demeter in her form of old crone was taken in by King Celeus and his wife Metaneira. As a reward for her kind treatment Demeter set about to make their infant son Demophon immortal. Thus each night she held him over the hearth fire to burn away his mortal impurities. Surprised one night by a startled mother, Metaneira, the process was disrupted so that Demophon retained mortal impurities and failed to attain to godhood.
In this sense then the fire that maintained the life of the Earth traveled a route through this mountain at the center of the Earth. It appeared something like Old Faithful at Yellowstone periodically. When it swept by, of one stood in the flame it burned away one’s mortal impurities leaving one, it is to be assumed, wholly Spiritual. All the materiality was gone.
Spirituality and materiality are still being discussed today. Some talk of Spirit as though it exists while the materialists aver that all so-called spirituality is a seeming effect of materiality. I am of the latter school of thought. Oneself is all there is, there is nothing more. The effect of spirituality is nothing more than a mirage created by intellect and consciousness which is entirely material. It is all reduced to psychology which is a description of material existence.
In Haggard’s story it is clear that Ayesha having lost her materiality to the flames is purely spiritual. This is going to cause her problems as she steps into the flames the second time.
The flame passes by while Leo dithers. Impatient for Leo to assume immortality Ayesha strips, as the flames will flame the material garments about her but not her body. As the flame comes around again Ayesha eagerly stands in its way. However having been once purified it is good for eternity. The second time is disastrous. Perhaps spiritually dessicated by the double dose Ayesha begins to wither devasted even in her death throes by her loss of beauty. Love in vain.
Job is so horrified he dies of fright leaving Leo and Holly alone.
The story for all intents is over but Haggard takes a dozen pages or so to get his heroes out of the caves and back to civilization.
Ayesha’s existence wasn’t extinguished. Her dying words were that She would return. Room left for the sequel which not surprisingly was called The Return Of She appeared in 1906.
Haggard hit the groove sharp as a knife in this incredibly well devised and executed story. One will find evidences of it strewn all through Burroughs’ corpus. Not least in his own character of La of Opar. La itself translates from the French as She, of course, so Burroughs even appropriates the name.
La is as ardent for Tarzan as She was for Leo/Kallicrates. Tarzan himself remains cold and indifferent to La throughout all four Opar stories finally abandoning her in Tarzan The Invincible.
She by Haggard is well worth three or four reads to set the story in mind and savor the wonderful and unearthly details
End of Review
The World's Desire e-Text
She (Zip File)
She (LibriVox Audio)
She (Full Books)
She Entry in Wikipedia
ERBzine 1969: LA, HIGH PRIESTESS OF BARSOOM By Den Valdron
ERBzine 1970: AYESHA OF BARSOOM, or LA, REVISITED By Den Valdron
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