She: The Ayesha Chronicles
Reviewed by Michael Cornett
By H Rider Haggard
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
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 seriesa 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.