Occasionally I try to read fantasy classics, books that helped shape the genre. It’s always interesting to see where all the standard tropes originated from, and to see how some of these older novels have stood the test of time (if at all). So, with that in mind, I recently read H. Rider Haggard’s She. Apparently, since its 1887 publication, She has been one of the most popular novels in the English language. Haggard was something of a Michael Critchton of his day: very popular but generally lacking in serious literary merit. Anyway, Haggard belongs to one of the great periods of genre fiction, the late-Victorian era, an era which also gave us Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Haggard’s novels, chiefly King Solomon’s Mines and She, have bee enormously influential. He essentially created the “lost world” subgenre of fantasy/science fiction, along with the archeological adventure story. You can trace his influence from Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle to James Hilton’s Lost Horizon to Indiana Jones. Unlike King Solomon’s Mines, She also contains overt fantasy elements, since it deals with immortality and sorcery. Therefore, even Tolkien was influenced by Haggard (Tolkien’s character of Galadriel bears some resemblance to Ayesha, for example). The lost world genre was popular in early pulp adventure stories, and while it has basically faded away, modern day fantasy and science fiction still draw from it.
I won’t go into great detail about the plot, since it’s pretty familiar and better summarized elsewhere. Basically, the intrepid Horace Holly, accompanied by his ward, the studly Leo Vincey, and his comic relief servant, Job, embark upon an adventure into mysterious Africa. Leo’s father obtained evidence of a white, immortal woman ruling over a lost African civilization deep within the continent, and our heroes track her down. They eventually find the ruins of this civilization, and encounter a savage tribe of cannibals. Ruling over this tribe is Ayesha, or she-who-must-be-obeyed, a woman born over 2,000 years ago. Ayesha is so beautiful and bewitching that any man who gazes upon her instantly comes under her spell. It’s eventually revealed that Ayesha gains her longevity from a magical pillar of fire within a volcano; during the novel’s climax, this pillar also becomes her ondoing
Overall, She was an enjoyable read. Haggard isn’t exactly a prose poet, but the plot moves along efficiently and quickly. The narrator, Horace Holly, is a little more human than your typical pulp hero. For one, Haggard makes him physically ugly, similar to a baboon (he therefore is a little more relatable than his perfect blonde superman friend, Leo). Holly also possesses a good, self-depricating wit. For example, after engaging in a lengthy, philosophical internal monologue, Holly remarks, “I at last managed to get to sleep, a fact for which anybody who reads this narrative, if anybody ever does, may very probably be thankful.” The plot itself, involving the discovery of a lost civilization, has become commonplace, but it’s interesting seeing the trope’s origins.
However, despite its readability, I have some reservations. Moreso than his peers, Haggard’s novels carry a lot of baggage. There are heavy undercurrents of racism and sexism in his novels, especially in She. Authors like Doyle and Wells also shared these flaws, but, by nature of its plot, She brings them to the forefront. Since Haggard dealt with intrepid whites exploring Africa, the spectre British imperialism is omnipresent. It’s taken for granted that the Brits are culturally and morally superior to the African natives. She also brings up questions of Victorian sexism. The titular character, Ayesha, is something of the original femme fatale, using her charms to bewitch our hapless male characters. She also has been regarded as a reaction to the burgeoning feminist movement in Western society; Ayesha “embodies Victorian anti-feminist fears of New Women desiring absolute personal independence coupled with supreme power over men.” I think Haggard had some serious personal misgivings about female authority, apparently stemming from childhood experiences with an fearful nursemaid. You can see it in Ayesha, and also in the ancient matriach-sorceress in King Solomon’s Mines. Therefore, one has to constantly approach the novel with academic distance, keeping it in historical context. That makes reading it fascinating in its own right; you get a sneak peek into prevailing Victorian attitudes of race and sex. And indeed, She has attracted scholarly attention just for this reason.
Overall, I’m glad I read She, due to its historical importance. As far as late-Victorian novels go, it also is relatively readable today. However, the racist and sexist elements prevent me from calling it a timeless classic. I’d still recommend Arthur Conan Doyle or H.G. Wells over H. Rider Haggard.
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