Friday 31 May 2013

Magical Classics: SHE, by H Rider Haggard

 Katherine Roberts on the eternal fascination of She

I first read this book when I was about 10 or 11, after discovering it on my mum’s secret bookshelf. I’d outgrown pony stories and wanted something a bit more exciting. I was halfway through the story by the time Mum found out I had the book, by which time she was too late to stop me from reading the rest… I was too wrapped up in the fascinating tale of “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and had fallen in love with H Rider Haggard’s rather-too-old-for-me but still heart-throbbingly handsome hero Leo, believed by She to be the reincarnation of her long dead ancient Egyptian lover.

“It’s a bit of a horror story,” warned my mum. “But a good adventure, I suppose.”

I’d already worked that out for myself! The golden Leo and his Uncle Holly, accompanied by their faithful manservant Job, had already left boring old England for Africa, where they had been shipwrecked, shot big game (the story was first published in 1887, when these things were less politically incorrect), been kidnapped by the People Who Place Pots on the Heads of Strangers, and taken to the lost land of Kôr, where they meet the enigmatically veiled Queen Ayesha, known to the local tribes only as “She Who Must Be Obeyed”. Along the way, our hero Leo nearly drowns, is rescued from the jaws of a giant crocodile, gets eaten alive by mosquitoes, is wounded in a fight, and gains a tribal wife called Ustane… and that’s only a quarter of the way through the story!

The early chapters back in England promised even greater magic, according to a script translated from a shard of an ancient Greek vase:
“Then She did take us, and lead us by terrible ways, by means of dark magic, to where a great pit is, and showed to us the rolling Pillar of Life that dies not… and there did She stand in the flames and come forth unharmed, and yet more beautiful.”
And also it seems, immortal, although her attempt to persuade her beloved Kallikrates to join her in the fire fails, since he is in love with another woman. So Ayesha kills him in a fit of passion, after which she is doomed to live alone for two thousand years until she finds his reincarnation in the flesh… none other than our young hero, Leo!

How could I not read on?

Ayesha keeps herself veiled because she fears the effect her beauty might have on the mortal men she rules. She unveils only in private, when she curses the mortal woman who doomed her to two thousand years of loneliness:
Curse her, daughter of the Nile, because of her beauty…
Curse her, because her magic has prevailed against mine…
Curse her, because she held my beloved from me…”
This turns her into a proper storybook villainess, which she soon demonstrates by sentencing the People Who Place Pots on the Heads of Strangers to death for attempting to cook and eat Leo and his friends, instead of bringing them safely to her as she ordered. She also punishes Ustane when the girl tries to nurse Leo after he falls sick, at first merely scaring the girl by turning her hair white, but eventually seeing her as a dangerous rival for his love. Poor Ustane cannot fight Ayesha’s magic and is eventually killed by her in fit of temper. (I cried at that part, and kept expecting Ustane to come back to life at some point, but of course this is an adult story so she didn’t – though I later wrote my own happy ending, where Ustane gets to crawl into the Pillars of Life and comes back to fall into Leo’s arms!)

Freed from Ustane’s love, Leo is at the mercy of Ayesha, until the final test when she asks him to step into the fire and join her in immortality. Leo hesitates, and so Ayesha (thinking to reassure him the flames will not harm him) steps into the fire for the second time… with horrific results.

The spectacle of the fabulously beautiful queen turning into an ancient crone in the space of a few heartbeats must be the “horror” my mum referred to – as a girl, I shuddered a bit, but did not really have much sympathy for the cruel Ayesha, who had killed the innocent Ustane. Now I can see more clearly the tragedy of the ancient queen’s long, loveless life, and her desire to hold on to her power to the bitter end.

As they journey to the secret cavern that contains the Pillars of Life, she explains her plan to accompany Holly and Leo back to England and rule there, brushing aside their objections that England already has a Queen and its own laws that do not include placing pots on the heads of strangers and eating them:
The Law! Canst thou not understand, O Holly, that I am above the law? Does the wind bend to the mountain, or the mountain to the wind?”
But like many powerful rulers, she takes this a step too far and compares herself to the goddess of Kor, called Truth:
There is no man born of woman who may draw my veil and live… By Death only can thy veil be drawn, O Truth!”

The truth in Ayesha’s case is a harsh one, as her words turn out to be prophetic. So the villainess expires in her own fire, and the hero survives to fight another day. And, like all the best horror stories, with her last breath Ayesha promises to come again, leaving the way open for the sequels “The Return of She” and “She and Allan”.

SHE, besides being a bit of a horror story and a good adventure, is packed full of deeper meanings that can be found in all the best fantasy. Aged 11, many of them passed over my head – I particularly remember skipping some of the early chapters, when the men are discussing the origins of the clues that send them on their quest, impatient to get on with the adventure! But I’m pretty sure they lodged somewhere in my subconscious, to emerge many years later in my own stories in the form of quests for immortality, such as Alexander the Great’s journey to the edge of the known world in search of the water of life to save his horse, and Rhianna’s quest to bring her father King Arthur back from the dead with the legendary Grail of Stars. Maybe proving that the most powerful themes live on in fantasy fiction for all ages, which makes our genre a lot more adult than many non-fantasy readers believe it to be.

Many thanks to Katherine Langrish for inspiring me to revisit this great story! If you haven’t read any of H Rider Haggard’s work yet, then it’s well worth seeking out SHE as a starting point. And if you’re already a fan, the H Rider Haggard omnibus edition containing all of his 60 novels and short stories is now available as an ebook… one of the first downloads on my Kindle!

Katherine Roberts gained a first class degree in mathematics from Bath University, and went on to work as a mathematician, computer programmer, racehorse groom and farm labourer - before her first novel, ‘Song Quest’, won the Branford Boase Award in 1999.  Since then, she has written many works of fantasy and historical fantasy for young readers.  'Grail of Stars', the fourth book of The Pendragon Legacy, a series about Rhianna Pendragon, King Arthur's daughter, will be published by Templar, October 2013. Find out more at Katherine's website, , visit her blog
or follow her on Twitter: @AuthorKatherine

Picture credits: All artwork by Michael Embden, from the 1981 edition of “She” published by Dragon’s Dream.  Michael Embden's website is

Friday 24 May 2013

Magical Classics: 'The Nightingale and the Rose' by Oscar Wilde

Mary Hoffman writes about a poignant tale of love and sacrifice...


My copy of The Works of Oscar Wilde (Collins 1948, 1960 edition) has my name and “Newnham” written on the flyleaf so I must have had it at university. But we never studied Wilde on my Eng. Lit. course and I know I fell in love with him while still at school so I think I think I had it then and must have put my stamp on it when I left home.

It would have been typical of me to pack my Oscar Wilde when heading off for the adventure of university because it had by then become a bit of a comfort blanket, the one book I would have saved in a fire. The plays, including Salome, for which Aubrey Beardsley did those splendid illustrations, The Picture of Dorian Grey, the fabulous Portrait of Mr W. H. and above all the Fairy Tales, were my absolute ideal of what writing should be.

Everyone knows The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant, many have heard of The Canterville Ghost and Lord Savile’s Crime but I have never seen anything written about The Nightingale and the Rose.

It’s a short story – no more than four and a half pages in my Complete Works – and takes the form of a parable:

A Student is madly in love with the daughter of a professor, who has agreed to dance with him at the Prince’s Ball if he brings her a red rose. But all the roses in the Student’s garden are white or yellow; the only red rose is frostbitten and will bear no flowers that summer.. The Nightingale overhears the Student’s plaint.

“Here at last is a true lover,” said the Nightingale. “Night after night have I sung of him, though I knew him not: night after night have I told his story to the stars and now I see him. His hair is dark as the hyacinth-blossom, and his lips are as red as the rose of his desire; but passion has made his face like pale ivory, and sorrow has set her seal upon his brow.”

The bird decides to help him and, after seeking easier ways, chooses the bitter path of sacrifice.  The red rose tree tells her that she must construct a blossom out of her music by moonlight, through singing with her breast against a thorn. The thorn will pierce her heart and her life’s blood flow into the rose-tree and produce one perfect flower.

“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” cried the Nightingale, “and Life is very dear to all .....Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”

The Student can’t understand the Nightingale’s passionate song in which she tells him he will have his rose; he makes notes on her music – “ she is like most artists; she is all style without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others.”

But of course that’s just what she does, singing all night of love with the thorn against her breast. A pure white rose springs from the frozen tree and the Nightingale sings on in her agony until the thorn pierces her heart and the perfect flower is stained crimson.

At noon (realistic detail) the Student looks out of his window and sees the red rose, thanking his good luck, while the Nightingale’s body lies cold in the long grass, the thorn still in her heart. He plucks the rose, runs to the Professor’s house and proffers it to the beautiful daughter, claiming his dance.

But the girl frowned. “O am afraid it will not go with my dress,” she answered; “and, besides, the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.”

 The Student throws the rejected rose into the street, where it falls into the gutter and it run over by a cartwheel.

“What a silly thing Love is!” is the Student’s conclusion and he resolves to study Philosophy and Metaphysics instead, taking down a dusty book.

Why did this tragic story mean so much to a teenage girl? The unrequited love theme (both Student and Nightingale) was bound to appeal and now that I look back on it, the failure to recognise or appreciate the sacrifice made is the same as in my other favourite Fairy Tale: Hans Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.

The Student is just as unknowing and ungrateful as the Prince. But at least the mermaid gets to live on in the foam of the sea while the small brown bird with the glorious voice rots unseen in the long grass. It broke my heart and it breaks it all over again to read it for this blog post.

Maybe I thought that was what love would be like? That it always involved pain and the willing giving up of the self for the beloved? After all this time, who knows? The writing style is over-flowery in places; Oscar loved his pomegranates and rubies throughout his life. And there is no place here for the dry humour of there being no cucumbers available in the market, “not even for ready money.”

But as a teenager who had already experienced the pangs of many “crushes,” I preferred the sensuous and tragic to the warm and funny.

And now I think it was prophetic, part of Oscar’s own self-destructive streak that brought about his downfall. (He didn’t have to prosecute the Marquess of Queensberry (see below) and his friends begged him not to, knowing the risk of Oscar’s – at that time illegal – homosexual practices being exposed).

Oscar’s years picking hemp in jail were the sacrifice he made for Bosie, who, although he lived with his older lover in France in the latter part of 1897, later repudiated him and married an heiress. Maybe Constance, Oscar’s wife, too would have seen herself in the role of Nightingale with Oscar as Student and Bosie as the Professor’s daughter.

I’m glad to say it wasn’t prophetic of my own later life: no trampled roses there. But it still speaks to me with an incredible poignancy and I wouldn’t swap it for any more robust story with a happy ending.

Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1856. His father was a surgeon and his mother, “Speranza,” a hostess both Society and Political. After studying at Trinity College, Dublin, Oscar won a scholarship to Magdalen, Oxford, where he took Firsts in Mods and Humanities and won the Newdigate Prize for his poem, Ravenna.

Although an avowed Aesthete at Oxford, he was of powerful build with hands like hams. So when some Hearties decided to dunk him in the Cherwell as a punishment for effeminacy, they came off rather worse. In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, who bore him two sons. In 1888, he published The Happy Prince and Other Tales. The last decade of the 19th century was enormously productive for him: his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890); Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892); An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

1895 also saw his imprisonment with hard labour for two years for the crime of gross indecency, resulting from his unwise decision to prosecute the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, the Marquess being the father of Oscar’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”). In prison Oscar wrote the Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) and De Profundis, published posthumously. Oscar Wilde died, a broken man, in 1900.

Mary Hoffman is the author of numerous books including the best-selling picturebook Amazing Grace (1991) , and the well known ‘Stravaganza’ series for young adults, beginning with ‘City of Masks’, Bloomsbury 2002, which are set partly in our modern world and partly in an alternate universe’s 16th century Italy.  She has also written YA historical fiction like the highly acclaimed ‘Troubadour’.  Her website is, her personal blog is The Book Maven and she is the founder of the collective blog The History Girls

Picture credits:
'The Nightingale and the Rose', copyright PJ Lynch, is shown here by kind permission of the artist. More of his lovely work can be seen at
'Single red rose' by Kate Greenaway, at Wikimedia Commons

Friday 17 May 2013

Magical Classics: ‘The Crock of Gold’ by James Stephens

This enchanting and also completely lunatic book is by the poet James Stephens, a friend of Yeats and James Joyce - the latter asked for his collaboration in finishing 'Finnegan's Wake', though it never actually happened. 'The Crock of Gold' was published in 1912 and a later edition was  to have been illustrated by Arthur Rackham, but sadly Rackham died before it could come to pass.

The book begins with the tale of two Philosophers who are ‘wiser than anything in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall’.  These Philosophers live in the depths of a pine wood and are uncomfortably married to The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath (both women of the Sidhe), by whom they have two children: one boy, Seumas, and one girl, Brigid.  The Philosophers answer all the questions of anyone who passes by, until one day, one of them decides to die - on the grounds that he now knows everything and ‘it is all bosh’.

So saying, the Philosopher arose and removed all the furniture to the sides of the room so that there was a clear space left in the centre. He then took off his boots and his coat, and standing on his toes he commenced to gyrate with extraordinary rapidity. In a few moments his movement became steady and swift, and a sound came from him like the humming of a swift saw; this sound grew deeper and deeper, and at last continuous, so that the room was filled with a thrilling noise. In a quarter of an hour the movement began to noticeably slacken. In another three minutes he was quite slow. In two more minutes he grew visible as a body, and then he wobbled to and fro, and at last dropped in a heap on the floor. He was quite dead, and on his face was an expression of serene beatitude.

This should give you an idea of the sort of book it is.  The Grey Woman laments her husband: 'Who will gather pine cones now when the fire is going down, or call my name in the empty house, or be angry when the kettle is not boiling?'

Which also gives an idea of the sort of book it is… The Grey Woman follows her husband’s example and spins herself to death, after which the Thin Woman ‘smacked the children and put them to bed, next she buried the two bodies under the hearthstone, and then, with some trouble, detached her husband from his meditations.’

Next day, a neighbour, Meehawl MacMurrachu, comes to ask the remaining Philosopher about the whereabouts of a missing washboard, and – after a surreal conversation on the subject of washing in general (‘Cats are a philosophic and thoughtful race, but they do not admit the efficacy of water or soap… There are exceptions to every rule, and I once knew a cat who lusted after water and bathed daily; he was an unnatural brute and died ultimately of the head staggers’) – is advised to look for it in the hole belonging to the Leprechauns of Gort na Cloca Mora.  Meehawn does so, and finds not a washboard, but a crock of gold.  “‘There’s a power of washboards in that,’ said he.” And he takes it.

Which deeply annoys the Leprechauns, who therefore steal away the children. (‘A community of Leprechauns without a crock of gold is a blighted and merriless community.’) And in the meantime, Meehawl’s beautiful daughter Caitlin runs away with the god Pan…and the Philosopher sets out on a journey to find the god Angus Mac an Óg who may be able to persuade her home – and the Leprechauns lay ‘an anonymous information at the nearest Police Station showing that two dead bodies would be found under the hearthstone in the hut of Coille Doraca, and the inference to be drawn… was that these bodies had been murdered by the Philosopher for reasons very discreditable to him’ – and the Police therefore set out after him, to the general terror– and it’s all utterly wonderful.

If you can read this book aloud in an Irish accent, do so: if not, at least try to imagine one. It’s a bit like an Irish ‘Wind in the Willows’ for grown-ups – that's if you like ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (as I do) as well as the comic tricks of Toad. There’s wisdom and laughter and pathos and joy, and Stephens doesn’t at all mind going over the top, and all in all you won’t find any other book quite like it. One last quote: a man who’s been sacked and lost everything, describes himself watching a young couple out in the rain:

There was a big puddle of water close to the kerb, and the girl, stepping daintily, went round this, but the young man stood for a moment beyond it. He raised both arms, clenched his fists, swung them, and jumped over the puddle.  Then he and the girl stood looking at the water, apparently measuring the jump.  They were bidding each other goodbye.  The girl put her hand to his neck and settled the collar of his coat, and while her hand rested on him the young man suddenly and violently flung his arms around her and hugged her; then they kissed and moved apart. The man walked to the rain puddle and stood there with his face turned back laughing at her, and then he jumped straight into the middle of the puddle and began to dance up and down in it, the muddy water splashing over his knees.  She ran over to him crying, “Stop, silly!” 

When she came into the house, I bolted my door and I gave no answer to her knock.

Picture credits: James Mackenzie, from the 1928 Macmillan edition, which can be viewed and read online here: