Thursday, April 5, 2012

She by H. Rider Haggard

She by H. Rider Haggard is the first of the H's for the challenge and one of the genre's definite classics.

Sir Henry Rider Haggard is probably best known for his African adventure story King Solomon's Mines and the hero of that Allan Quatermain. In terms of recognition She probably isn't that far behind.

It's quite obvious when reading the book that Rider Haggard was the inspiration for a number of later writers, especially Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan, Haggard is however a far better writer than Burroughs. He did have the advantage of actually having some first hand knowledge of the African landscape, having lived in South Africa for some time, unlike Burroughs who simply made it all up, partially from having read writers like Haggard.

The story is told in first person, the conceit being that the author was presenting a mass of manuscript sent to him by an acquaintance who goes by the name of Ludwig Horace Holly, although he is generally referred to as Holly. It is an account written by Holly of a journey with Holly's loyal manservant Job and Holly's ward Leo Vincey. Leo is the last member of an extraordinary family that has a history in the wilds of Africa and is this history that the trio attempt to uncover.

They find a lost tribe who practice human sacrifice and worship a goddess they refer to as She Who Must Be Obeyed. This is the She of the title. A member of the tribe; Billali, guides Horace, Job and Leo to the lost city of Kor where She dwells. She is Ayesha, one of Leo's ancestors. She has lived for over 2,000 years and has always waited for the reincarnation of her long dead lover Kallikrates. Owing to Leo's resemblance to his ancestor Ayesha believes him to be Kallicrates returned.

Ayesha's insanity, jealousy and power eventually leads to her demise and the destruction of Kor itself. Only Holly and Leo are able to escape alive to tell the story.

She is a number of things, it's an adventure, a fantasy and a romance. Psychologist Carl Jung believed it was a commentary on the female psyche.

I can't say I really enjoyed the book. I could appreciate Haggard's descriptions of Africa, but having read a bit of this sort of stuff as a kid it wasn't anything new to me, and I felt that the author's I read improved on what Haggard did. He does action quite confusingly and I found it hard to connect with the characters. With the exception of Ayesha, who was the villain of the piece, they were relatively passive. Job was irritating and when Leo wasn't unconscious he was so bland and one dimensional that he may as well have been.

A lot of Ayesha's speech, and she talks a lot, was spoiled by the fact that she spoke a form of medieval Arabic which was interspersed with a lot of thees and thous that were fairly unnecessary and didn't add to the story in any way.

Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan books are similar in terms of the action, interestingly enough in parts so is Philip Jose Farmer's hamfisted bit of erotica A Feast Unknown. Katherine Neville's brilliant The Eight also deals with the concept of immortality through longevity, although it contains an explanation of sorts as to why one of it's characters lives forever and remains young.

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