SHE (H. Rider Haggard)

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Two Victorian gentleman, Horace Holly and his ward Leo Vincey are drawn to undertake a perilous journey into the interior of Africa after they uncover an ancient story from Leo’s family written on a potshard. On the potshard, there seems to be information about the potential for discovering the secret of eternal life.

The mysterious chest further tells of a rolling Pillar of Fire which confers immortal life to any person who dares to enter it; and of a great white queen who, having braved the flame after murdering her beloved in a fit of jealous rage, now waits, century after weary century for him to be reborn and return to her where she dwells in the mysterious Caves of Kor. Following clues in the ancient account Holly and Leo journey to Africa and find this unearthly being ruling over a tribe of cannibalistic savages. Now the two of them – with the reader – enter an adventure which takes them to a dreaded confrontation with the forces of Time and Fate themselves.

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The story of “She” is one of the first in the “Lost World” genre, written back in the 1880s. Yet it is still readable and enjoyable today as it is a book that works on many levels. There is the adventure story – set at a time when much of the world was still unexplored and before aeroplanes made it possible to glimpse into the uncharted territory. There are the philosophical musings of Holly and She herself on life, death, love, civilisation and religion. There are the fantastic and macabre elements which make the book quite spine-chilling in places. And there is the glimpse into the late-Victorian way of thinking.

Some interesting views from the author’s personal philosophy are peppered throughout the novel: ” Love and passion are considered as curses. Man is a victim of the eternal female” “In uniting himself to this dread woman, he would place his life under the influence of a mysterious creature of evil tendencies, but then that would be likely enough to happen to him in any ordinary marriage.” “.. This is really the sum of her evil doings.” “Passion is to man, what gold and power are to women – a weight upon their weakness.” And, “Curses on the fatal curiosity that is ever prompting man to draw the veil from woman. It is the cause of more than half of our misfortunes.”

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Written at the height of the British Empire, when Rudyard Kipling was just coming into his own, “She” is Rider Haggard’s masterpiece. In it he established a grand style of light colonial fantasy, suggestive of sex and replete with violence, that maintained Victorian standards while titillating the reader. Haggard’s “She” is the best representative of the style, better known from Edgar Rice Burrough’s inferior ‘Tarzan’ series. The style lives on in silly films and television series about lost treasures and kingdoms. The story was often copied, but never bettered – even by Haggard himself. I highly recommend this book to all those looking for an easy read, and who wish to plunge themselves into their great grandparents’ world of fantasy.

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