“You are a whale at parables and allegories and one thing reflecting another,”
wrote Rudyard Kipling in a letter to Rider Haggard, and there appear to be various hints and verbal signposts scattered over the landscape of She .
For instance, the Amahagger, the tribe ruled by She, bear a name that not only encapsulates hag but also conflates the Latin root for love with the name of Abraham’s banished wilderness-dwelling concubine, Hagar, and thus brings to mind a story of two women competing for one man.
The ancient city of Kôr is named perhaps for core , cognate with the French coeur , but suggesting also corps , for body, and thus corpse , for dead body; for She is in part a Nightmare Life-in-Death. Her horrid end is reminiscent of Darwinian evolution played backward—woman into monkey—but also of vampires after the stake-into-the-heart manoeuvre. (Bram Stoker’s Dracula appeared after She , but Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla pre-dates it, as does many another vampire story.)
These associations and more point toward some central significance that Haggard himself could never fully explicate, though he chalked up a sequel and a couple of prequels trying.
“She, ” he said, was “some gigantic allegory of which I could not catch the meaning.”
Haggard claimed to have written She “at white heat,” in six weeks—“It came,” he said, “faster than my poor aching hand could set it down,” which would suggest hypnotic trance or possession. In the heyday of Freudian and Jungian analysis, She was much explored and admired, by Freudians for its womb-and-phallus images, by Jungians for its anima figures and thresholds.
Northrop Frye, proponent of the theory of archetypes in literature, says this of She in his 1975 book, The Secular Scripture : A Study of the Structure of Romance :
In the theme of the apparently dead and buried heroine who comes to life again, one of the themes of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline , we seem to be getting a more undisplaced glimpse of the earth-mother at the bottom of the world. In later romance there is another glimpse of such a figure in Rider Haggard’s She , a beautiful and sinister female ruler, buried in the depths of a dark continent, who is much involved with archetypes of death and rebirth.… Embalmed mummies suggest Egypt, which is preeminently the land of death and burial, and, largely because of its biblical role, of descent to a lower world.
Publication was tremendous. Everyone read it, especially men; a whole generation was influenced by it, and the generation after that. A dozen or so films have been based on it, and a huge amount of the pulp-magazine fiction churned out in the teens, twenties, and thirties of the twentieth century bears its impress.
Every time a young but possibly old and/or dead woman turns up, especially if she’s ruling a lost tribe in a wilderness and is a hypnotic seductress, you’re looking at a descendant of She. Literary writers, too, felt Her foot on their necks. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness owes a lot to Her, as Gilbert and Gubar have indicated. James Hilton’s Shangri-La, with its ancient, beautiful, and eventually crumbling heroine, is an obvious relative. C. S. Lewis felt Her power, fond as he was of creating sweet-talking, good-looking evil queens; and in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings , She splits into two: Galadriel, powerful but good, who’s got exactly the same water-mirror as the one possessed by She; and a very ancient cave-dwelling man-devouring spider-creature named, tellingly, Shelob. Would it be out of the question to connect the destructive Female Will, so feared by D. H. Lawrence and others, with the malign aspect of She?
For Ayesha is a supremely transgressive female who challenges male power; though Her shoe size is tiny and Her fingernails are pink, She’s a rebel at heart. If only She hadn’t been hobbled by love, She would have used her formidable energies to overthrow the established civilized order.
By the time we find John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey referring to his dumpy, kitchen-cleanser-conscious wife as “she who must be obeyed,” the once-potent figure has been secularized and demythologized, and has dwindled into the combination of joke and rag doll that it may have been in its origins. Nevertheless, we must not forget one of Ayesha’s pre-eminent powers—the ability to reincarnate herself.
Like the vampire dust at the end of Christopher Lee movies, blowing away only to reassemble itself at the outset of the next film, She could come back. And back. And back. No doubt this is because She is in some ways a permanent feature of the human imagination. She’s one of the giants of the nursery, a threatening but compelling figure, bigger and better than life. Also worse, of course. And therein lies her attraction.
Where did it all come from?
In particular, where did the figure of She come from—old-young, powerful-powerless, beautiful-hideous, dweller among tombs, obsessed with an undying love, deeply in touch with the forces of Nature and thus of Life and Death?
Haggard and his siblings were said to have been terrorized by an ugly rag doll that lived in a dark cupboard and was named “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” but there is more to it than that. She was published in 1887, and thus came at the height of the fashion for sinister but seductive women.
Excerpts from Margaret Atwood – In other worlds