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


  1. I'm loving this series! Thanks to Katherine Roberts for a fascinating post.

    Though my favorite Rider-Haggard, to date, is King Solomon's Mines--cracking good adventure story, that, and creepy as all get-out.

    It's also worth mention that, iirc, She was significantly influential, if not to say inspiration, on Jung for his development of archetypal theory, particularly the Anima.

    Andrew Lang adored the book, as well--helped to edit it throughout its composition.

  2. Ah yes, I am a fan of King Solomon's Mines too!

    Many thanks, Kath, for letting me take part in your magical series.

  3. I adored that book too! I've read it so many times. There was a chapter in the middle called "A Little Foot", about some preserved bodies in a cave - can't remember now what that bit was all about, but it fascinated me. And of course the end of the story is brilliant.

  4. Inexplicably imaginative, exclusively unique, absolutely esoteric and remarkably artistic a novel it is. Be it the elegance of literary language or exotic touch of creativity in the plot, undoubtedly the novel excels in both of them.

  5. This may be old but it is still new. Haggard had me believing his story was true. SHE is a fun character in the journey.