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She: The Ayesha Chronicles
By H Rider Haggard

Reviewed by Michael Cornett
Rating: none given

The title "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed" has been applied to such people as Mrs. Rumpole, Margaret Thatcher, and this reviewer himself; but it has its origins in a character created in 1886 by British author H. Rider Haggard.  It was his third novel (after bestsellers King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quartermaine); and it spawned a sequel, two prequels, and countless film versions.  The novel was She, a fantasy-adventure set in Africa that has become a literary classic.

A summary of the events in She would sound hopelessly clichéd by now, but this was the novel that defined those clichés. The novel's narrator, academic Horace Holly, presents his adopted son Leo Vincey with a legacy left by Leo's true father, which was to be presented when Leo reached the age of twenty-five.  The legacy is an ancient Greek document telling of a strange city and an evil woman who murdered Leo's ancestor (a priest of Isis named Kallikrates) when he would not return her love.  The author of the document (an Egyptian woman named Amenartas) begs her son to avenge his father.  Each descendant of Kallikrates has passed this document on to his son; but no one has found the city and avenged the millenia-old murder.

Holly, Leo, and their servant Job set off for Africa and, after numerous perils, arrive at the crater of an extinct volcano housing the city of Kor, capital of a long-dead civilization - now inhabited by the barbaric Amahagger tribe and ruled by a mysterious woman known as "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed".  Her real name is Ayesha. Ayesha is the same woman who murdered Kallikrates and has waited two thousand years for him to return to her.And when she sees Leo, an exact double for Kallikrates, she knows he has come back.

Ayesha is a very scary woman. Intensely wise, brilliant, and blindingly beautiful, she possesses enormous psychic ability: she creates images through telepathy, turns a woman's hair white with a touch, kills with a gesture, and briefly reanimates the mummy of Kallikrates.  She takes the three explorers with her to the caves beneath Kor, where burns the Flame of Immortality which enabled her to live for two millenia to see Kallikrates again.  Almost everyone knows what happens next; but if you don't, I'm not going to tell you.  Suffice it to say that four go down into the caves and two come back up.

After 110 years, She is still very readable.  Holly is a great narrator, never talking down to the reader and respectful to the natives he meets.  Ayesha herself stands as one of the great all-time characters: imperious, powerful, almost megalomaniacal, but with glimmers of humanity.  She's main weakness is Ayesha's passion for Leo, portrayed in the book as a vapid, stupid young man caught up in events he doesn't even begin to comprehend.  Readers over the years have felt that Holly would have been a better match for her; and this reviewer has always agreed.

There have been many film versions of She, the most notable being a deliriously campy version from 1935, with Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, and Nigel Bruce.  Another version was made in 1965, with Ursula Andress, John Richardson, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee.  An oddball sequel, The Vengeance of She, was made in 1967, scripted by "Modesty Blaise" creator Peter O'Donnell and featuring John Richardson (again) as Leo Vincey and newcomer Olinka Berova (of meager talent and ample endowment) as a girl who may be Ayesha reborn.

In 1904, Haggard published his first follow-up to the enormously popular She - this was, Ayesha: The Return of "She".  Led by a series of dreams and visions, Leo and Holly trek to central Asia, spending twenty years traveling in the steppes and mountains, until finally arriving at the mysterious valley of Kaloon.  The valley is inhabited by descendants of a troupe of Greeks who followed Alexander the Great to India and then got lost; and it is ruled by the Khania Atene, the reincarnation of Amenartas (remember her?). The people of Kaloon are in conflict with the priests of Isis who inhabit an underground temple in an active volcano and are ruled over by the mysterious veiled woman Hesea.  Atene conceives a violent passion for Leo; but once they meet Hesea (who is Ayesha reborn), all hell breaks loose.

Ayesha is somewhat weaker than the original novel, but still interesting.  The Asian setting is different from Haggard's usual Africa; and it influences the narrative significantly.  It's also much more mystical than its predecessor, with much ruminating on reincarnation, spirit-vs.-flesh, etc., etc.  The character Ayesha is still morally ambiguous - loves Leo (vapid as ever); cares about the poor in the valley; but, at the same time, plots world conquest, with Leo as her king.  Things end tragically; and an end is put to the story here.

In 1921, Haggard wrote the first of two prequels to the saga and had Ayesha meet his other popular character, Allan Quartermaine.  She and Allan takes place years before the events in She, when Allan (on a quest put on him by an African witch doctor) stumbles into a struggle between Ayesha (and the tribes loyal to her) and a tribe led by the rebel Rezu, who has also bathed in the Fire of Immortality (but only partially).  Allan is recruited by Ayesha to be her general, leading her troops in a rousing battle against the enemy.

She and Allan is a weak entry in the series—a whole new theology is presented for the inhabitants of Kor; there's lots of unnecessary comic relief; and the last few chapters get mired in a morass of mystical mumbo-jumbo that taxes even the most determined reader.  The most interesting part is learning more about Ayesha's background and exactly why she's pining away for the vapid "himbo" Kallikrates.  (It's all a curse put on her by Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.)

Finally, the last entry in the series was published in 1922.  It was Wisdom's Daughter: The Life and Love Story of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.  It's Ayesha's autobiography; and by now only the most determined fan could read it.  Ayesha is best viewed from a distance; close up, she's a bore. Vain, egomaniacal, and arrogant, Ayesha desperately needs to get over herself.  She claims that her mother died after giving birth to her so she would not give birth to a child less beautiful.  Ayesha rambles around ancient Arabia, Egypt (where whe becomes a priestess of Isis), and Sidon (where she single-handedly topples an empire); and she always expects to be worshipped and adored.  At least Haggard consistently maintains her personality.  Wisdom's Daughter is actually a well-written book about a character that is extremely tiresome.

My advice to the casual reader is to read She and stop there.  Die-hard Haggard fans may enjoy reading all four, if they can get their hands on them.

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