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Thursday, February 7, 2008


I'm currently re-reading the 1885 Rider Haggard classic SHE, which will forevermore be known as the book that jumpstarted the literary idea of a mysterious white queen lording it over a tribe of black Africans.

To be sure, though I'm only on chapter 20 now, so far the titular queen *doesn't* rule any black Africans, since she and her people dwell in an isolated area where her tribe kills all strangers (except the English explorers who are the heroes of the book). Haggard describes the lost people of Kor, the Amahagger, as having more white than "Negroid" features, though the Amahagger also have varying shades of skin color and have therefore probably interbred at some past time with natives of Africa.

I'm reading the annotated Indiana University edition, which features an excellent introductory analysis by Norman Etherington, who also authored a 1984 book on Haggard and his work. In making some of my own notations on SHE, I'll attempt to distinguish those of my observations that build on Etherington's analysis and those original to me. My notes pretty much presume a familiarity with the story, hence the spoiler alert.

NOTE 1: The first page introduces the book's main two heroes, handsome Leo Vincey and simian-looking Horace Holly, and Haggard makes much of the contrast between the one's good looks and the other's apish appearance. However, though one might expect them to be instantly paired as "Beauty and the Beast," the first use of this phrase is in flashback, when a woman pursued by Holly rejects him, styling herself "Beauty" and then letting poor Holly figure out where he stands in the equation. Holly later becomes an adoptive father to Leo, which causes him to become take another form of Beauty (albeit male beauty) into his household, establishing with Beauty a rapprochement that resembles the psychological notion of "interjection." But introjection's usual partner "projection" is here as well, as psychologically Leo is an idealized self through which Holly can experience love with a beautiful woman, i.e, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.

It's also interesting that the two are opposites intellectually, with Holly an esteemed Classics professor and Leo a merely adequate student who often seems a trifle thick. As intellect doesn't play a role in the well-known tale of "Beauty and the Beast," one may find interesting a stronger parallel with an archaic tale of the Welsh goddess Cerridwen, who, having birthed a gorgeous daughter and an ugly son, tries to compensate for the son's fate by giving him mystical knowledge. (FTR, it doesn't work out any better for the ugly son than it does for Holly.) In more recent years this archetypal contrast was used for the purpose of low (but very funny) comedy in the dyad of Kelly and Bud in Fox's MARRIED WITH CHILDREN.

NOTE 2: Etherington comments on the recapitulation of *She* as the beauteous mother Leo never knows, since he never sees her after her death in childbirth. However, the sole female whom we see caring Leo is an unnamed elderly woman, who weeps bitterly at being forced to leave baby Leo in Holly's care. Arguably both the mother Leo never sees and the mother-substitute who (perhaps) rears him are recapitulated in *She*, the beautiful queen fated to age to death at the novel's conclusion.

NOTE 3: On page 63, Ustane, an Amahagger tribeswoman who becomes the rival of *She* for Leo, tells Leo and Holly that, though the Amahagger's queen is reputed to be immortal, Ustane has a theory: that *She* is really a succession of queens who have ruled throughout the ages, each taking a mate in secret until bearing a female child, who then assumes the role of *She.* This is of course not the truth in the story, though it may be based on stories about archaic rules of legend. But one wonders if the book SHE might have been read by Lee Falk prior to his use of a similar theme for the PHANTOM comic strip.

NOTE 4: The chapter "The Feast-- and After!" has one of Haggard's most brutal scenes, in which some cannibalistic Amahagger try to "hot-pot" Holly and Leo's Muslim servant: that is, kill him by fitting a white-hot pot over his head. At least, in the finished book, all they do is try; in the original MS, the poor Muslim guy does get offed in this grisly manner. Interestingly, the gory scene is re-inserted in the 1935 adaptation produced by Merian C. ("King Kong") Cooper.

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