H. Rider Haggard's She
Donald A. Wollheim
Don Wollheim had one of the largest collections of antiquarian fantasy & science fiction ever gathered under one roof. That a large number of his books now sit in my stockroom a few kept for my personal collection is an unhappy reminder that everything any of us acquire in this life will in time be scattered, no less so than the dust of our bodies. There have been very few people in a century as knowledgeable about antiquarian fantasy as was Don, & his article on Haggard & She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is one of the most perceptive, though only a few people will have spotted it in an old Airmont Publishing paperback edition of She. For those few who require more introduction than this, Don Wollheim's other life achievements included the founding of DAW Books, the editing of numerous & signal anthologies, the nurturing of dozens of authors for the generations following his including myself, & the authoring of adult & children's science fiction adventures.
"My empire is of the imagination," says the white goddess of the lost city of Kor at one point in this novel, &, so saying, sums up the primary element that has fascinated three generations of readers of H. Rider Haggard's She. For She is a classic of the imagination, a milestone & foundation stone of a whole sector of fantastic novels upon which others have built & still build novels of wonder. The sector is that of the lost land, the lost race, the wonder that lies over the next mountain or beyond the farthest sea.
The empire of the imagination is a vast & boundless universe, but it has sectors that can be defined in general terms. There is, for example, the area of interplanetary adventure where scenes & events on unexplored worlds are described. There is the area of future civilizations, the plane of Utopias & nations-to-be & guesswork about where do we go from here. There is the area of other dimensions; the sector of microcosmic discovery; the ocean of undersea adventures; the archipelago of unusual inventions; & the wonderland of what-might-have-happened-if. But possibly one of the most deeply rooted in the human imagination is that of the lost race.
For lost lands & unknown peoples have tantalized humanity since the first city arose out of the first men for where there are men, there is wonder. And where there is a mountain, there is an eternal curiosity about what is on top of it & what lies on the other side. In the world of several thousand years ago, that world wherein all our cultures have their origins, men lived in narrow little communities & knew very little more than the names of their nearest neighbors. Travelers, for there have always bene travelers, would come through now & then & spin wonderful stories of the other places they had been, tell of strange cities & unusual peoples. And so legendry arose & folklore & the desire to go to see these wonders that lay East of the Sun & West of the Moon.
The driving urge to explore did move men, & these tales played a strong part. So gradually the boundaries of the world were advanced & men learned more & more about their neighbors & about the actual world. Yet wherever they went, there was always another frontier, another land of mystery to be investigated. Such being the nature of men, there were always treasures to be sought, gold & diamonds & statuary, magical marvels, &, yes, even love to be found somewhere "back of beyond." Thus arose the legend of the lost city of gold whose ruler was a woman of supreme beauty, eternal youth, & impenetrable witchery.
This ancient vision which can be found in many a Greek & Roman legend, in many a tale from Ancient India or American Indian campfire, did not achieve its place in the columns of modern English literature until 1886, when H. Rider Haggard's novel She first appeared serially in a British magazine, & in 1887 in its first book edition. What till then? Why, because everything has to start somewhere & even the imaginative novel as we know it today had its origins only in the last century. There had been many books of fantastic adventure & fantastic voyages over the previous centuries, but the shape & form of what we call "modern" novels did not truly take shape until the past hundred or so years.
The legend takes many forms according to the times. For our time, it was She that put the legend in its present perspective. As a result, She became the classic it has since remained. It is a novel that generation after generation has found unforgettable, & from which many other writers have since drawn inspiration.
It does not give anything away to say that She is the story of the quest of two Englishmen through unexplored Africa to seek a legendary lost city whose ruler was a white woman reputed to be both a witch & immortal. Africa in the Nineteenth Century was still the Dark Continent that last great mass of the world to have unexplored pockets which defied the foot explorer, & races & tribes still uncharted & unconquered. The conquest of Africa was the big political arena of the now vanished empires of Europe where Imperial Germany, Victoria's England, & Imperial-&-Republican France contended to plant their banners on new peaks & over alien peoples.
That Henry Rider Haggard should have been the one to write this classic would only have been natural, for he was among those young Englishmen who went to Africa during the height of those days of conquest & colonization. BOrn in 1856 in Norfolk, England, the son of a barrister, one of seven brothers, he did not get the advanced education necessary to qualify for a good position at home. Instead, at the age of nineteen, he became secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Natal in South Africa. There he remained in various posts, & there he married, & it was not until the Boer Rebellion of 1881 that he returned home to England.
In those years, Haggard became well grounded in the lore & wonder of Africa, acquiring a great knowledge & deep appreciation for the native races & their lore & legendry. Quite widespread among the tribes were stories of witch queens & warrior-goddesses. One such source for She is the striking real-life parallel of a small tribe called the Lovedu in the Transvaal, whose ruler in 1880 & for years afterward was a very light-skinned woman reputed to have great magical powers, who lived in seclusion & was served only by mute servants. Though Haggard never visited this tribe, he could not have helped hearing of it. In addition to that story, there was also the remarkable discovery in his time of the lost city of Zimbabwe a vast series of ruins deep in the jungle of Rhodesia of whose history & builders nothing at all is known.
So that when Haggard, back in London, sitting around his law office with little to occupy his time, was in quest of a novel to write, it is not perhaps strange that these legends worked their spell on him. She was not his first fantastic novel that was King Solomon's Mines but it was a close follow-up, & became a success equally as great as that other tale of unknown Africa.
H. Rider Haggard went on to write many more novels of the ancient past & of explorers who dared to traverse the unknown areas of Africa. The hero of King Solomon's Mines, Allan Quatermain, was featured in a regular series of novels & became in his day almost as well-known as Tarzan was to become a third of a century later.
To me, it has always seemed that there have been three series which have embodied the lost-land-&-white-explorer theme which have amassed followers & that these three series mark three different phases of the art of telling this kind of story. First, there was Haggard, whose novels show a very precise & accurate knowledge of real Africa & real Africans, who builds upon his wonders with great persuasive & extensive detail so as to create a conviction of truth even among the most skeptical. Readers of the Nineteenth Century were less given to accepting miracles at face value than those of the Twentieth.
Those raised on Haggard tend to scoff at novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also took Africa for his province of wonders, beginning in 1914 with Tarzan of the Apes, & following this with a string of novels which made Tarzan a word known everywhere. I have found that those who started by reading Burroughs do not take happily to Haggard, for Burroughs' Africa was created primarily out of his own imagination; his natives are more stereotypes than actualities, & he made only the slightest efforts to establish the background for his lost cities & forgotten races. Once used to Burroughs' fast-moving & vivid storytelling, the older master's work seems almost too weighty. Yet after Burroughs, there was a period in which a ghastly series called Bomba the Jungle Boy, written by a pseudonymous author called "Roy Rockwood," was popular & sold in the millions of copies. I have met some unfortunates who had been weaned on Bomba & these readers had trouble enjoying Burroughs & Haggard would be altogether impossible for them.
Such is the sequence, with She the fist & foremost of these novels. She-who-must-be-obeyed, the immortal white queen of a lost city, is possibly Haggard's greatest creation. Her origins lie in mythology, but what was their significance for Haggard himself? In his biography, he speaks of a particularly hideous rag doll hidden in a closet with which a nursemaid used to threaten him when he was a very small boy. Young Henry used to call this terror-doll She-who-must-be-obeyed! Perhaps it was from that almost forgotten memory of his childhood that he dredged the phrase when he was writing She in a heat of inspiration that took only six weeks from start to finish. But this is too simple, for Ayesha, the She of the novel, is no hideous & frightening creature; rather, she is a marvel of matchless beauty, a thing of untold powers, immortal, & not to be touched.
One could delve into psychology & come up with an obvious answer. Who is the "she who must be obeyed" in the life of every small child? Why, it is the image of the mother. Is not one's mother always supremely beautiful to the eyes of the babe? And is she surely not always immortal, always present, & is she not also all powerful, the source of witchery, & is she not one that must be obeyed?
Perhaps this is the true source for the tremendous appeal of She-who-must-be-obeyed. It rouses the deepest instincts of every man's lost infancy. It moves one to the quest for the return of that vanished image for as one grows up, does not this image indeed recede, does Mother not assume a more mortal, a more fallible shape, & finally age?
Many have been the books which have presented the vision of this lost glorious immortal queen, books which have followed Haggard's. One thinks of such titles as Pierre Benoit's Atlantida, of Mabel Fuller Blodgett's At the Queen's Mercy, whose African explorers found such a queen, named La, ruling over a tribe of blacks, or of Burroughs' The Return of Tarzan which introduced a similarly named La, High Priestess of the lost city of Opar. Then there was The Crystal Sceptre of Philip Verrill Mighels in 1901, & novels by A. Hyatt Verrill a few score years later with similar maidens. Sax Rohmer with She Who Sleeps & James Hilton with Lost Horizon carry on the She Legend. In A. Merritt's novels we find this also, with his witch-women Yolara, Adana, & Norhala. One could compose a long list of the stories & books which have carried Haggard's theme in a multitude of incarnations.
Henry Rider Haggard was knighted for his work on humanitarian subjects, but he will be remembered for his fiction. He was to write fifty-eight novels up to the time of his death in 1925, but it is for She & for King Solomon's Mines that he will remain among the immortal knights of that infinite realm claimed by Ayesha when she exclaimed, "My empire is of the imagination." Yes, indeed it is, & to travel with its border is to travel among marvels.
"H. Rider Haggard's Empire of the Imagination"
Copyright 1967 by Donald A. Wollheim.
Reprinted by permission of Elizabeth R. Wollheim.
The portraits of the immortal She, in order of appearance above, are details from the 1967 Airmont Publications edition of She<,/I> the 1977 Newcastle edition of She & Allen, a 1980 Corgi edition of She & a 1986 Target edition of Ayesha.
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