Book Review: She

SheThumbby Brad Nelson   12/23/13
According to Wiki, She (free download) is one of the best-selling books of all time: 83 million copies sold in 44 different languages. Not bad for a book I had never heard of.

I first stumbled onto this title while going through H. Rider Haggard’s “Allan Quatermain” series of books. Later, due to Mr. Kung’s endorsement of the book, I read it. Quatermain is not in this one, but it follows the general style of Haggard’s African adventures with Allan Quatermain.

I’ll tell you less about the plot and more what I think about who this book would be fore. This isn’t high literature, per se, but Haggard is capable of making some keen observations. In fact, the first half of this book, although interesting, is somewhat forgettable. Men set off in search of a treasure (of sorts) in an unexplored and mysterious part of Africa. They face hardships along the way. The find some cool stuff. Been there, done that.

Up until the midway point of this book, the description of these enterprising explorers is surely gripping enough. But it is little more than dime store pulp fiction up to this point. The real literary skills of Haggard begin to kick in at the halfway point, at the point in the story in which our intrepid group of four finally meet “She.” It is then that there is deep philosophy on display about man’s suffering place in the universe — including his needful and unsteady relationship with the fairer sex.

This next bit is right after Holly (the narrator of the story) becomes hopelessly smitten by “She.” All it took for him was but a look:

Curses on the fatal curiosity that is ever prompting man to draw the veil from woman, and curses on the natural impulse that begets it! It is the cause of half—ay, and more than half—of our misfortunes. Why cannot man be content to live alone and be happy, and let the women live alone and be happy too? But perhaps they would not be happy, and I am not sure that we should ether. Here is a nice state of affairs. I, at my age, to fall a victim to this modern Circe! But then she was not modern, at least she said not. She was almost as ancient as the original Circe.

This novel even delves into a wonderful sort of misogyny in the character of Holly who is ugly and eventually retires to a confirmed bachelorhood, having tired of the bitter realities of his ugliness in regards to ever gaining the fairer sex. But he’s purely philosophical about it, not actively hating anyone in particular. And this is why I tend to read these old books. They deal in old themes and do so honestly and with great wit.

Cultural Marxism (the bane of our time) has wrung all of the fun out of the arts. One must therefore, for now, reach back and find literature untainted by over-sensitive scolds and nitwits.

So, the first half of the book is a fine Johnny Quest-like adventure, although in adult form. And it breezes by and is interesting. But the second half takes “She” to another level. Staggered throughout this perilous and dangerous adventure, Haggard deals with major human themes; one is that love is the only thing worth living for. And he has some grand thoughts regarding God, the nature of truth, and man’s humble place in the universe:

Soon I gave up thinking about it, for the mind wearies easily when it strives to grapple with the Infinite, and to trace the footsteps of the Almighty as he strides from sphere to sphere, or deduce His purpose from His works. Such things are not for us to know. Knowledge is to the strong, and we are weak. Too much wisdom would perchance blind our imperfect sight, and too much strength would make us drunk, and over-weight our feeble reason till it fell and we were drowned in the depths of our own vanity. For what is the first result of man’s increased knowledge interpreted from Nature’s book by the persistent effort of his purblind observation? It is not but often to make him question the existence of his Maker, or indeed of any intelligent purpose beyond his own? The truth is veiled, because we could no more look upon her glory than we can upon the sun. It would destroy us. Full knowledge is not for man as man is here, for his capacities, which he is apt to think so great, are indeed but small. The vessel is soon filled, and, were one-thousandth part of the unutterable and silent wisdom that directs the rolling of those shining spheres, and the Force which makes them roll, pressed into it, it would be shattered into fragments. Perhaps in some other place and time it may be otherwise, who can tell? Here the lot of man born of the flesh is but to endure midst toil and tribulation, to catch at the bubbles blown by Fate, which he calls pleasure, thankful if before they burst they rest a moment in his hand, and when the tragedy is played out, and his hour comes to perish, to pass humbly whither he knows not.

Holly is a man of faith, as would suit an English gentleman and scholar. But faced with the sheer monstrosity and barbarity of what they find in Africa, it can make any man think, and question, and reassess. This is an interesting bit of introspection from Holly:

What is the purpose of our feeble crying in the awful silences of space? Can our dim intelligence read the secrets of that star-strewn sky Does any answer come out of it? Never any at all, nothing but echoes and fantastic visions! And yet we believe that there is an answer, and that upon a time a new Dawn will come blushing down the ways of our enduring night. We believe it, for its reflected beauty even now shines up continually in our hearts from beneath the horizon of the grave, and we call it Hope. Without Hope we should suffer moral death, and by the help of Hope we yet may climb to Heaven, or at worst, if she also prove but a kindly mockery given to hold us from despair, be gently lowered into the abysses of eternal sleep.

Suffice it to say, not all four of the explorers who go into and beyond the African swamp come out again. This book is a nice mixture of pure adventure and high philosophy. But never does Haggard’s philosophizing impose itself unduly and slow the book down. It fits well, especially in describing the shocked minds of our fellow travelers as they encounter things beyond the wondrous and the horrible, often in the very same hour.

My only major criticism of the book is that one of the central characters, Leo (the de facto stepson of Holly), is hardly fleshed out at all. Holly carries this story and we see deeply inside his head. But Leo might as well be a cardboard cutout. I’m not sure why Haggard didn’t invest more into his character.

Hopefully Mr. Kung, who read this novel just before I did, will offer a Part II to this review and give his take on it. • (4049 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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12 Responses to Book Review: She

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve never read anything by Haggard, though I’ll say that from a description of it by a friend, I thought Allan Quatermain was in She and its sequel (The Return of She). I did see the 1960s movie (with Ursula Andress as Ayesha) at a FOSFA meeting a few decades ago. In addition, I will note that Mike Resnick has a parody of it in one of his first Lucifer Jones adventures (in a story collection called, appropriately, Adcentures) as well as a reference of sorts to Quaterman in his short parody “Stalking the Unicorn with Gun and Camera”.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “My only major criticism of the book is that one of the central characters, Leo (the de facto stepson of Holly), is hardly fleshed out at all. Holly carries this story and we see deeply inside his head. But Leo might as well be a cardboard cutout. I’m not sure why Haggard didn’t invest more into his character.”

    I think Leo is simply a device to bring She and Holly together. The important character is She, and her interpreter and counter foil is Holly. As a result, Leo’s character development clearly takes a back seat.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Leo was sort of a Mimbo — a male bimbo. Holly was the ugly, but erudite, man. Leo seemed to be somewhat the opposite. He’s not presented as just a good-looking dunce. After all, he could read Arabic. But the relative silence from this character leaves the suggestion that there wasn’t all that much there underneath the supposedly Greek-god-like exterior.

      She, on the other hand, was well versed in philosophy and other disciplines. I suppose that’s what 2000 years of experience can get you. She is interesting because she’s stunningly beautiful, and yet she speaks several languages, including Latin. She was paganistic in outlook, cruel, and a bit evil. But she was not the stereotype Mad Queen that so many lower-grade novels would have depicted. She’s really quite interesting and not at all what I thought she would be. I was expecting one of various stereotypes.

      I’m going to try to watch one of the movies made from the book. But I know they will be deep disappointments. From what I’ve read, they hold only marginally to the plot. And as attractive as Ursula Andress might be, the only she who I think can dare to play She is Hedy Lamarr. If you can name a contemporary actress who measures up, then I’m all ears.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        “the only she who I think can dare to play She is Hedy Lamarr.”

        Good choice. I would also go for Gene Tierney or Catherine Deneuve even though she is a blond. I would jump in the fire with Catherine.

        As for the book, reincarnation plays a large part in She’s beliefs and the book’s overall plot.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    One has to remember that “She” as well as the Quartermain books were written in the 1880’s. Speke and Burton had only completed the search for the source of the Nile in 1860. Stanley had found Livingstone in 1871. So the interior of East Africa was viewed as an exotic place. Little was known about it thus Haggard, who had lived on the east coast of Africa for a time, took advantage of the situation and used his imagination to fill this void with his “fabulist” stories. And instead of the, mostly forgettable, stuff which was turned out at this time, his stories have a staying power which warrants respect.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I grew up on stories of people exploring the Dark Continent. I think we miss something not having a little more mystery in our lives. Or, really, maybe we miss something because our egos are all puffed up and we think we know everything.

      I love the idea of unexplored territories. And I don’t mean Miley Cyrus. I’ve had enough of that, thank you. It’s an interesting idea Haggard had (and a reasonable one) that ancient and great civilizations existed tens of thousands of years ago, their glorious cities having been reduced to dust.

      One of my favorite parts of “She” is when they went exploring that abandoned city. I could have easily spent a couple more chapters there in just spelunking through remains.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Well, in out oen vountry, there’s always Edgar Rice Burroughs, who featured journeys of discovery on Earth, Mars, and Venice — as well as an attack on socialism.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Last night I just finished the seventh in H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain series: The Holy Flower.

    This wasn’t a bad book, although it’s reaching the point of “been there, done that.” Many of the themes, traits, and artifices found in the previous books are all mixed and matched here, but in a different order and the names have all changed.

    But if you like the basic formula, this is certainly a readable story. Once again, Quatermain (who can’t stand going for long periods without risky adventure) goes into the heart of cannibal country in Africa in the employ of some rich dude who is looking for rare orchids. Others (including a man looking for his lost wife whom he believes is the legendary “Holy Flower,” the keeper of a rare orchid amongst a mostly mythical tribe) join in on this perilous adventure.

    Lucky for Quatermain that he can still shoot straight. He’ll need to.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I just finished Haggard’s “The Ivory Child” which was originally published in 1916. There are similarities to his previous book, “The Holy Flower”: Quatermain joins up with an English gentleman (and with Allan’s reliable servant, Hans the Hottentot) to go in search of a missing relative of this gentleman in the darkest regions of the African interior.

    Those similarities aside (for all of Haggard’s “Quatermain” writings are quite similar in various ways), the story was a good one. The book starts out with Quatermain back in England on one of his rare domestic episodes of kicking back as an Englishman in England. He is invited to a shooting party at the estate of a friend of a friend. Lord Ragnall is an amiable host and takes to Quatermain right away.

    Lord Ragnall is soon to be married. While staying overnight at Lord Ragnall’s estate after the shooting party (which was a good tail unto itself), someone tries to kidnap Lord Ragnall’s fiance under mysterious, if not mystical, circumstances. Quatermain interrupts this attempt. And the adventure continues from there.

    Here are some spoilers if you wish to read further. But “spoilers” seem hardly to apply to Haggard’s narrative style. He tends to foreshadow (in very obvious terms) everything major that is going to happen in his stories. In this one, Lord Ragnall’s fiance finally goes missing on a trip down the Nile. Ragnall then employs Quatermain to help find her. They both have a pretty good idea who took her and to where.

    They make their way to Africa, having made a bit of a dubious deal with the very persons who likely kidnapped the fiance: Harût and Marût. They cross an otherwise impassable desert with the help of these two mysterious men to enter the land of the Black Kendah people who have a supposedly evil elephant god known as “Jana.” Harût and Marût are members of the nearby White Kendah people who have a sort of cold war relationship with their hostile neighbors, the Black Kendah.

    Although the White Kendah are vastly outnumbered, the Black Kendah fear the White Kendah gods too much to make anything but minor war on the White Kendah people. The White Kendahs have their powerful “Ivory Child” god and it is Lord Ragnall’s fiance’s bad luck to have been born with a moon-shaped birth mark which marks her as the next “Keeper of the Ivory Child”…basically the conduit to, and mouthpiece of, this White Kendah god.

    Haggard keeps the mumbo-jumbo on a low boil in the background. It’s not necessarily the main part of the story. It’s just a bit of seasoning. The main aspect, as always, is Quatermain and the exiting adventures he experiences, usually with the aid of his little yellow friend, Hans, who is loyal beyond loyal. And so it goes with this one as well.

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