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Literature / She

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She is an adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard, first published in serial form in 1886.

Cambridge don Horace Holly and his handsome ward Leo Vincey are guided by a Vincey heirloom to a lost African kingdom ruled by the immortal queen Ayesha, whose subjects call her "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed". Ayesha believes Vincey to be the reincarnation of a man she loved and lost centuries ago, and becomes vengeful when he becomes romantically attached to a local girl, Ustane.

She was Haggard's second big success after King Solomon's Mines, and was followed by a sequel and two prequels, one the story of Ayesha's early life and the other an Inevitable Crossover in which the protagonist of King Solomon's Mines visits the hidden valley. It has been filmed multiple times, including a 1935 movie starring Helen Gahagan as Ayesha, a a 1965 Hammer Film Productions movie starring Ursula Andress as Ayesha, Peter Cushing as Holly, and Christopher Lee as Billali (one of the tribesmen who worship She); and a 1984 movie starring Sandahl Bergman. The 1965 movie also spawned a sequel in 1968, The Vengeance of She, though it bears little in common with the novel's sequel.

She provides examples of:

  • Advanced Ancient Acropolis: Ayesha's quarters are located within the catacombs of Kôr, a sophisticated ancient civilization that had already been abandoned when she found it two thousand years ago, and had existed for at least four thousand years before that.
  • Ambiguously Brown: The Amahagger people, over whom Ayesha rules as queen, are described in terms that don't quite match any of the ethnicities of sub-Saharan Africa:
    Holly: They were of a magnificent build, few of them being under six feet in height, and yellowish in colour. Generally their appearance had a good deal in common with that of the East African Somali, only their hair was not frizzed up, but hung in thick black locks upon their shoulders. Their features were aquiline, and in many cases exceedingly handsome, the teeth being especially regular and beautiful.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: Due to Year X being involved, the extent of our knowledge is that the story is set during the 1800s.
  • Being Evil Sucks: Especially when it means spending two thousand years living in a cave and queening it over cannibals while you wait for your true love to reincarnate.
  • Black Dude Dies First: The party investigating the story left behind by Leo's father consists of Leo, Holly, Holly's white Oxford servant Job, and their African servant Mahomed. Guess which one is killed in the fight with the cannibals?
  • Brainless Beauty: Leo is gorgeous and can hold his own in a fight, but he's no genius. Even Haggard, acting as Horace Holly's "literary agent," wonders if Ayesha wouldn't have been happier with Holly, who is closer to her intellectual equal.
  • Charm Person: Ayesha can make anyone (or at least, any man) love her, whether he wants to or not.
  • Chick Magnet: Leo is so damn handsome that "every young woman who came across him... would insist on falling in love with him." After they get to Africa, the women of the Amahagger tribe are similarly drawn to him.
    Holly: On the whole, he behaved fairly well.
  • Clarke's Third Law: She seems to have magical powers, but she explains that it's just science and technology that the rest of the world doesn't understand.
  • Complete Immortality: Holly speculates that She must be invulnerable as well as ageless to have survived over two millennia and She later confirms this.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The Amahagger tribe murder trespassers by shoving red-hot clay pots over their heads.
  • Darkest Africa: The location of Kôr and the setting of the main plot.
  • Death by Childbirth: Leo's mother.
  • Devolution Device: The climax of the book has She take another bath in the life-giving flame, which takes away her youth. Her dying form is described as being like a monkey. Darwin's theories had only recently entered the public consciousness when the book was written and the whole story is about the fear of "devolving" since people were scared that it might work backwards at the time.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The book is framed as a manuscript given to H. Rider Haggard by Horace Holly, the narrator.
  • Evil Is Not Well-Lit: She lives in catacombs lit by oil lamps.
  • Exact Words: The tribesmen who tried to kill Mahomed defend themselves from She's wrath, saying that her orders were not to harm the white travelers. But since they immediately turned on the other three anyway, it doesn't work.
  • The Faceless: She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed usually appears draped from head to foot in gauzy, mummy-like wrappings because, according to her, her beauty drives men mad.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Holly's reaction when Ayesha unveils herself and he gazes on her face.
    Holly: ...this beauty, with all its loveliness and purity, was evil....
  • Flowery Elizabethan English: When the protagonists first meet the followers of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, they speak a language described as "some dialect into which Arabic entered very largely." The English translation of this dialect is rendered in an Elizabethan style, e.g. "art thou awake, stranger?"
  • Genius Bruiser: Horace Holly is a Cambridge don who can also crushes two cannibals to death in his arms.
  • God Guise: Ayesha. When Holly first hears of an immortal woman ruling the tribes, he imagines she fakes it by replacing herself every few decades with a daughter.
  • Godiva Hair: Ayesha's hair is long enough and thick enough to cover everything. When it comes time to walk into the fire of immortality, She strips out of her robe, fastens a belt around her hair and wears it like a dress.
  • Gold Digger: Poor ugly Holly once had a girlfriend, but when an inheritance he was anticipating didn't come through, she dumped him.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Leo and Holly go to Africa to answer the charge of Leo's ancestress, ordering someone from the family line to kill She and avenge Kallikrates. Leo does kill her (indirectly), though at that point it's the last thing he wants to do.
  • Greedy Jew: Holly gives She a little update of the last two thousand years or so of Western civilization, which includes an unpleasant passage blaming Jews for killing Jesus. She then describes Jews as "greedy of gain" and "greedy of aught that brought them wealth and power", which is pretty much the pot calling the kettle names.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Holly is envious of any attention Ayesha gives Leo, since he loves her himself.
  • Grievous Harm with a Body: After Leo kills one of the cannibals his party is brawling with, he picks the cannibal's body up and chucks it at the other cannibals.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Horace Holly is this, after being rejected by women for most of his life and having his heart broken once (see Gold Digger above).
    Holly: I, a fellow of my college, noted for what most of my acquaintances are pleased to call my misogyny...
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: Oh poor She! Payback truly bites.
  • Hypnotize the Captive: Ayesha's unworldly beauty has this effect on Leo (and Holly, but Leo is the one she cares about.)
    Holly: I saw him struggle... but her eyes drew him more strongly than iron bonds, and the magic of her beauty and concentrated will and passion entered into him and overpowered him....
  • Identical Grandson: Leo Vincey bears a striking physical resemblance to the man he's supposed to be the reincarnation of.
  • If I Can't Have You…: How Kallikrates died 2000 years ago. Ayesha killed him after he rejected her.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Some of the Amahagger tribe try to kill Mahomed, Leo and Holly's African servant, with the strong implication that they would have eaten him afterward.
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin:
    • Leo's father passes his son and the family revenge quest onto Holly when he knows he's about to die.
    • Holly passes his manuscript to Haggard before he and Leo embark on an expedition to Asia from which they are not certain of returning.
  • Immortality Inducer: A mountain cave in Darkest Africa hides the fire of Life. Step into the fire and not only do you become perpetually immortal, but even the imperfections and frailties of your human body are erased; this is how Ayesha became supernaturally charismatic and the World's Most Beautiful Woman. Step into it a second time and you will die, ageing rapidly in a matter of seconds and collapsing into a pile of dust. Hence, the fire is a place you go to once, but never again. Apparently, Life does not appreciate greedy people.
  • Impossible Hourglass Figure: Holly does not go into detail about how busty She is, though it is safe to assume that 'most gracious form' is Victorian-speak for 'stacked'. But She does demonstrate to Holly that he can encircle her waist with his hands.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Leo's father is in the end stages of tuberculosis when he gets Holly to promise to be Leo's guardian. Symptoms include persistent coughing fits, one of which results in Blood from the Mouth. He commits suicide the same night, but no one looks too deeply into things since he was already visibly on his way to the grave.
  • I Owe You My Life: Billali's attitude to Holly after he saves him from drowning.
  • Locked into Strangeness:
    • Ayesha strikes Ustane, leaving a white mark in her hair that looks like three fingers. (No one gets a chance to see if it would eventually have grown out).
    • The shock of seeing She age 2000 years in a minute or two causes Leo's hair to instantly go white, though there are hints that it will eventually regain its color.
  • Long-Lived: She is explicitly not immortal, just enjoying vastly prolonged youth, health, and beauty.
  • Lost World: The kingdom ruled by She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Haggard was one of the trope makers.
  • Love Is a Drug: A non-musical example of this trope. Holly says that he and Leo "were like confirmed opium-eaters" after falling under the spell of Ayesha's beauty.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Ayesha's long wait for her beloved's reincarnation has completely eroded her morals.
  • Love Redeems: In their last scene together Ayesha says that her love for Leo will lead her on the path to goodness, and She seems to mean it.
  • Magic Mirror: She has a basin of water that when you look in it, can show you anything in the past or present, but not the future.
  • Make an Example of Them: Billali explains that the tribe routinely kills some of the old women every few decades, to keep the matrilinial system from getting to the women's heads and making them "unbearable".
  • Maternal Death? Blame the Child!: Why five-year-old Leo's father had nothing to do with him. In his final letter he apologizes to his now grown son for that, and assures him that had he, the father, lived he would have gotten over it.
  • Meaningful Name: All over the place. (Holly asked Haggard to disguise their true identities when he published the manuscript, so this is justified.)
    • Ayesha = Arabic for life.
    • Leo = lion. He's described as golden and beautiful, like Apollo. Leo's last name, Vincey, is a corruption of the Latin for "avenger".
    • Holly = low but tough scrub tree. He's nicknamed "Baboon" by Billali.
    • Job = long-suffering everyman.
    • Kallikrates combines the Greek words for "beautiful" and "strong".
  • Mercy Kill: Holly shoots Mahomed as the Amahagger are about to force his head into a red-hot iron pot. He was aiming for the woman holding him, but it is treated as a merciful act that spared Mahomed a truly horrible death.
  • Mighty Whitey: She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, immortal ruler of a primitive African tribe, is white (despite being an Arab), and the book implies that white people made up the oldest civilizations (a then-current theory). Ayesha has nothing but contempt for her subjects.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Poor Ustane.
  • National Geographic Nudity: The women of the Amahagger tribe.
    "These women were... exceedingly good-looking... very few of them wore a yellowish linen garment... their appearance was not quite so terrifying as that of the men."
  • No Immortal Inertia: Ayesha dies at the end, and shrivels as all her centuries catch up with her.
  • Now You Tell Me: The Amahagger are initially described as putting pots over trespassers' heads. That doesn't particularly trouble the main characters until they find out that those pots are heated red hot to give intruders a horrible death.
  • One-Hit Polykill: When Holly shoots the woman holding Mahomed during the attack, his heavy bullet goes right though her and hits Mahomed. She dies instantly and he a few moments after.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Meta-version. The book is ostensibly Holly's manuscript with the details changed by Haggard to avoid giving them away. But it's hard to imagine that anyone who had ever met Holly and Leo would fail to recognize them by description alone.
  • Parental Substitute: Holly is surprised when Leo is foisted upon him, but he grows to love the boy.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Holly successfully argues for the life of Ustane when she refuses to leave Leo, causing Ayesha to commute her sentence to banishment instead. Alas, poor Ustane comes back for Leo, sealing her fate.
  • The Power of Love: Love makes people do things they wouldn't do, or things outside their own best interest, repeatedly, and this is not always a good thing.
  • Rapid Aging: The ultimate fate of She. Although she promises Leo she will come back. She does, in Ayesha.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Holly can't say enough about She's white complexion and masses of black hair falling to the ground.
  • Reincarnation: Leo Vincey is apparently the reincarnation of Kallikrates, a man Ayesha loved and lost centuries ago.
  • Reincarnation Romance: The original novel is ambiguous about whether there's really one going on between Leo and Ayesha, or if it's just Ayesha's delusion after spending two thousand years hanging out with the corpse of Kallikrates, but the sequels and prequels embrace the idea.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: She moves with a grace that Holly repeatedly describes as serpentine. The dual notes of "beautiful" and "lethal" are fully intended.
  • Revenge: Leo's family is directly descended from the nameless queen who lost Kallikrates when Ayesha murdered him. The queen left a standing order for someone in the family line to track down She, kill her, and avenge him.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Two thousand years of ruling as an absolute monarch has led She to reject all moral codes and the notion of right and wrong.
  • Sequel Hook: The book ends with Holly anticipating that the queen for whom Kallikrates forsook Ayesha 2,000 years ago will play some part in the story.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Subverted. Ayesha claims that her unveiled beauty would break a man's mind, but She doesn't care what effect she has on men (except Kallikrates — and Leo by extension).
  • Sole Survivor: Ayesha reveals to Holly a stone carving from the last survivor of Kor, which reveals how a great plague wiped out their civilization.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: Holly is a fellow of _____ College, Cambridge.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Holly wonders to himself what it must have been like when She and her romantic rival had to work together to drag Kallikrates' body out of the caves.
  • Threesome Subtext: Discussed but defied in Holly's inner monologue, who knows his love for She is hopeless because two men can't love one woman and be happy (and anyway, She doesn't love him).
  • Together in Death: In the catacombs of Kor Holly finds the preserved bodies of a pair of young lovers, each with a stab wound through the heart, under the inscription "Wedded in Death". He then has a vision of the young man interrupting a forced wedding and getting stabbed to death by the guards, and the woman killing herself after.
  • Tragic Keepsake:
    • Kallikrates' body may have been this to Ayesha, since she keeps it embalmed and even sleeps on the floor of its tomb until she meets Leo. (Then she destroys it).
    • Both Leo and Holly take a lock from Ayesha's hair before they leave.
  • We Are as Mayflies: Or everybody else is as mayflies, according to She, who is pretty enthusiastic about living forever.
  • What Does She See in Him?: She, who values her high intelligence as much as her beauty, loves Leo, who is handsome but not very bright. Remarked on in the foreword by Haggard, who offers the speculation that perhaps Leo had hidden depths which She could perceive and intended to help him develop.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Holly, reflecting on the legends that She is immortal, thinks that he has had enough "worries and disappointments" in his life that he wouldn't want to live forever, even though his life "has been, comparatively speaking, a happy one." Later, he rejects immortality when She explicitly offers it to him, but he admits it's because he would spend eternity in unrequited love for her. When the chance presents itself he eagerly accepts, but by this time he has been bewitched by Ayesha's beauty.
  • Year X: In the foreword, Haggard reproduces the cover letter Holly sent him with the manuscript, which is dated "May 1, 18—".

The sequels and prequels provide examples of:

  • Ambition Is Evil: Ayesha has always wanted it all, beauty, power and transcendent knowledge, as she makes clear in Wisdom's Daughter.
  • Decadent Court: The royal court of Kaloon. The king is a psychopath and the queen is a sociopath and their counselors and associates are about what you'd expect.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: There have been maybe three or four people in her extremely long life that Ayesha has genuinely cared about. And there's Leo Vincey.
  • Inevitable Crossover: She and Allan.
  • Kiss of Death: Immortals and mortals cannot get it on.
  • Morality Pet: Leo becomes this for Ayesha. He can't control her of course but he can keep the body-count down.
  • Pride: Ayesha is practically the poster child for this particular mortal sin.
  • Reincarnation: Although Ayesha dies, she's reincarnated in time for the sequel.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Leo refuses to give up his religious convictions. He's willing to tolerate Ayesha's mysticism and personality cult but refuses to take part in it himself. "I don't understand your religion, but I understand my own. I will not take part in what I believe to be idolatry."
  • Reincarnation Romance: The original novel is ambiguous about whether there's really one going on between Leo and Ayesha, but the sequels and prequels embrace the idea.
  • Start of Darkness: Wisdom's Daughter: The Life and Love Story of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed details the origins of Ayesha.
  • Stop Worshipping Me: Leo again. He flatly refuses to accept the veneration of She's worshippers as her consort.
  • Take a Level in Badass: Still Leo. He goes from She's helpless boy toy to a man capable of reducing Ayesha to typical woman's tricks like tears to get her own way.
  • Together in Death: Leo and Ayesha, and in due course Holly joins them after leaving a record of their adventures. It's probably the happiest ending they could have.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Both Leo and Holly have their doubts about immortality, but if that's the price of staying with She they'll accept it — reluctantly.