Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 26, 2006


A History of Adventure

By H. Rider Haggard

Edited by Andrew M. Stauffer

Broadview. 359 pp. Paperback, $11.95

H. Rider Haggard's She (1887) has never been out of print in nearly 120 years. And for good reason: Its heroine haunts our imaginations as much as Helen of Troy, Faust, Frankenstein's monster or Dracula -- all of whom she occasionally resembles. From Wilkie Collins and J.M. Barrie to C.S. Lewis and Henry Miller, She has never lacked ardent admirers. Freud himself recommends Haggard's masterpiece in The Interpretation of Dreams , calling it "a strange book, and full of hidden meaning." Jung frequently refers to She as one of the most vivid literary representations of the Anima, the eternal feminine within us. Other critics have spoken of the book's "bewildering power," named it "the greatest effort of pure imagination in the English language," included it among "the great patterning works in fantastic literature." As Rudyard Kipling told the author, "You didn't write She , you know; something wrote it through you." The whole story, Haggard confessed, was set down, "at white heat, almost without rest," in a little over six weeks. Once read, it is never forgotten.

Within She 's pages, moreover, one may find the germs of half our more spectacular movies and bestsellers. An astonishingly handsome young man named Leo Vincey has been brought up and educated by the learned, ugly and even baboon-like Horace Holly. Just before committing suicide, Leo's father had insisted that his then 5-year-old boy be made to study ancient Greek and Arabic at university, and that on his 25th birthday he should open a small box that Holly must guard with his life. When the time is right, Leo and his guardian lift the box's cover and discover a broken potsherd covered with writing in various languages; it traces the Vincey family back into ancient times.

The earliest fragment, by "Amenartas, of the Royal House of Hakor, a Pharaoh of Egypt," speaks of "a magician having a knowledge of all things, and life and loveliness that does not die." This sorceress murdered the writer's beloved husband, Kallikrates, but Amenartas herself escaped and bore a son whom, in this testament, she implores to "seek out the woman, and learn the secret of life, and if thou mayest find a way to slay her." Generation after generation passes, but no one comes close to fulfilling the quest, until Leo's father. At the age of 19, as he writes in a letter found with the potsherd, he made his way south:

"On the coast of Africa, in a hitherto unexplored region, some distance to the north of where the Zambesi falls into the sea, there is a headland, at the extremity of which a peak towers up, shaped like the head of a negro, similar to that of which the writing speaks. I landed there, and learnt from a wandering native who had been cast out by his people because of some crime which he had committed, that far inland are great mountains, shaped like cups, and caves surrounded by measureless swamps. I learnt also that the people there speak a dialect of Arabic, and are ruled over by a beautiful white woman who is seldom seen by them, but who is reported to have power over all things living and dead."

As C.S. Lewis once said, "What story in the world opens better than She ?"

Soon Leo, Holly and their Cockney servant, Job, have set sail for Africa. Of their adventures -- shipwreck, a journey up a river that almost seems to take them back in time, capture by the yellow-skinned Amahagger tribe, and much else -- there is no need to speak. Every reader should enjoy these fresh. In due course, however, the small expedition is carried to mysterious Kôr, once home to a Great Race that perished from a devastating plague-cloud some 6,000 years previous. Kôr is now in ruins, the Amahagger dwell in the burial caves of the ancients, and over this kingdom of the living and the dead there has seemingly forever ruled a veiled queen known only as " She-who-must-be-obeyed ."

By the time the Englishmen reach Kôr, young Leo is near death from fever. But Holly is brought to the queen, who first appears to him swathed in a "soft white gauzy material" from head to foot so that he likens her to "a corpse in its grave clothes." When Holly wishes to view her face, she warns him: "Never may the man to whom my beauty has been unveiled put it from his mind." But Holly's curiosity is too strong, and his ugliness has hardened his heart against all women. What he discovers, however, is not mere radiant loveliness but "beauty made sublime," even though the "sublimity was a dark one -- the glory was not all of heaven . . . . Though the face before me was that of a young woman in perfect health, and the first flush of ripened beauty, yet it had stamped upon it a look of unutterable experience, and of deep acquaintance with grief and passion." When Holly sees She unveiled a second time, he falls at her feet and confesses that he would give his immortal soul to marry her. To which She answers: "Oh, so soon, oh Holly! . . . I wondered how many minutes it would take to bring thee to thy knees."

But his declarations hardly matter. For more than 2,000 empty years, She has been waiting for her beloved Kallikrates to return to her. Ayesha -- to give her real name -- has remained at Kôr, surrounded by ruins and the degenerate offspring of the Great Race, because she waits "for one I loved to be born again, and here I tarry till he finds me, knowing of a surety that hither he will come, and that here, and here only, shall he greet me." When the imperious queen is finally prevailed upon to cure the dying Leo, Ayesha casually glances at his face and reels back, as though struck by a blow, then simply breaks down. "There lies my lost Kallikrates, Kallikrates, who has come back to me at last, as I knew he would, as I knew he would . . . . Kallikrates, Kallikrates." Alas, Ayesha may have come too late to save him, but at this moment She truly begins her ascent into myth: "And if he die . . . once more must I face the weary centuries, and wait, and wait till the time in its fullness shall bring my beloved back to me."

She is the story of an immortal love, of a passion stronger than time itself. Having bathed naked in the fires of life, Ayesha has gained near-immortality, but for one purpose only: so that she can be reunited with the man she loved and tragically lost in a moment of anger. Over the years, " She-who-must-be-obeyed " has mutated into a force to rival Providence itself, a power beyond good and evil -- "Canst thou not understand, oh Holly, that I am above the law?" Time itself, she says, has no power over Identity, and her love extends beyond death itself, even into the afterlife. Reinforcing this theme of religious mystery, made even more prominent in Ayesha or the Return of She (1905), Haggard's story is pervaded by the imagery of death and reincarnation and by the language of Christianity. Is She a lamia, a revived corpse, a Lilith, a succubus ("her beauty was greater than the loveliness of the daughters of men"), a "beatified spirit," a goddess (with a diet of only fruit and pure water) or even a supra-human being, whose "brightness" is too much for mortal men to bear and who speaks with the authority of Christ: "Let thyself go, and trust to me"?

In numerous ways, She is far more than just a "a history of adventure." It feels shocking and transgressive, constantly touching on issues that haunt our culture even now: the theory of evolution (both physical and spiritual), the "woman question," reincarnation, racial theories, eugenics (at some point, " She-who-must-be-obeyed " breeds giants and, later, deaf-mute servants), colonialism, the relationship of Africa and Egypt, Jungian psychology, religion and morality, the corruptions of absolute power. When Ayesha tells an incredulous Holly that a native woman, who may be the reincarnation of Amenartas, will simply be destroyed, she explains: "Where is her sin? Her sin is that she stands between me and my desire."

Haggard's romance is, in truth, a great mystical poem of love and death, of love beyond death. The 19th-century work it most resembles is Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde."

This Broadview edition of She is part of an admirable Canadian series that reprints some of the best known and some of the more unjustly neglected classics of English literature. Andrew M. Stauffer's text is that of the first magazine appearance of Haggard's story, which allows us to experience its unfolding somewhat as its first readers did. Besides a fine introduction, he includes 75 pages of contemporary comment on the romance, as well as selections from Victorian writers on such subjects as archaeology and lost cities, race and empire, and the "New Woman." He also reproduces the original magazine illustrations. Still, the boldest innovation of the Broadview edition may lie in its cover art: There is no attempt to depict inconceivable beauty. Instead, a photograph shows us the unwrapped and deeply disturbing face of an ancient Egyptian mummy. ·

Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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