Ayesha, the Return of She by H. Rider Haggard
H. Rider Haggard returns to his story of star-crossed lovers Ayesha and Leo Vincey in Ayesha, the Return of She. The sequel was published in 1905, nearly twenty years after the publication of She. The world has changed, and Haggard’s storytelling has changed to match.
Haggard remains best known for King Solomon’s Mines, and She is the book of most interest to literary scholars. Ayesha, the Return of She is a decent sequel that does very little to open a window on the thoughts, values and fears of the late Victorian/early Edwardian era. Ayesha has more adventure and action, but characterization is diluted, especially that of Ayesha herself.
When this adventure begins, H. Horace Holly and his adopted son Leo Vincey are back in England. Leo is pining for his lost love Ayesha, who transformed or vanished deep in the mountains of Kor in Africa. Leo is so despondent he considers suicide:
Does a man stretched in some torture-den commit a crime if he snatches a knife and kills himself, Horace? Perhaps; but surely that sin should find forgiveness — if torn flesh and quivering nerves may plead for mercy. I am such a man, and I will use that knife and take my chance. She is dead, in death at least I shall be nearer her.
A vivid dream of Ayesha restores Leo’s hope. He tells Holly he intends to go to Central Asia to search for an image of the Egyptian ankh or crux ansata that appeared in the dream. Holly, originally skeptical, soon receives a sign of the crux ansata himself and agrees to go along.
Twelve years pass as Holly and Leo search for the landmarks of Leo’s dream. By now Leo is in his early forties and Holly his sixties, but these tough men go for days without food, hike through hip-high snow, and climb mountains. They find a Buddhist monastery that appeared in Leo’s dream, and the monks take them in for the winter. The monks tell them about a volcano and a strange sect ruled by a priestess in a secret valley over the mountains. As soon as the weather changes, Leo and Horace set out. Soon they see the blazing shape of the looped cross, many miles away, on top of a mountain. Hiking down toward the floor of the valley, they are caught in an avalanche and plunged into the rushing torrent of a frigid river. A beautiful and regal-looking woman and her shaman uncle rescue them.
The woman is named Atene and she is the Khania or co-ruler of this secret kingdom settled by a lost regiment of Alexander the Great. The valley lies in the shadow of the great volcano where for centuries a sect has worshipped a “spirit of nature.” While Holly and Leo recuperate from their near-drowning, Atene becomes infatuated by Leo. Atene takes credit for rescuing them, but Holly, that consummate eavesdropper, overhears a conversation where Atene and her Uncle Simbri discuss the summons “from the mountain” to wait by the river that morning. Soon it emerges that Atene is married to Khan Rassan, a dangerous, jealous madman. She wed him only to end a civil war and unite her people, she says. Rassan’s pastimes include hunting people down from horseback with his pack of slavering Death Hounds, and drinking. Leo thinks this proud and beautiful woman might be Ayesha. Holly is dubious, and he, of course is, right. She is not Ayesha but the reincarnation of Amenartas, the woman who first loved the Priest of Isis named Kalikrates, who has reincarnated as Leo.
Holly and Leo gather enough information about the mountain temple to decide that Ayesha may be hiding there. They plan to sneak away, and surprisingly, Rassan agrees to help them. His help proves treacherous, as Holly realizes when, on a rest stop, he notices something odd about their horses’ hooves.
I thought awhile, then a terrible idea struck me. ‘I don’t want to frighten you,’ I said, ‘but I think that we had better saddle up and get on.’
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Because I believe that villain of a Khan has doctored our horses.’
‘What for? To make them go lame?’
‘No, Leo, to make them leave a strong scent upon dry ground.’
He turned pale. ‘You mean — those hounds?’
I nodded. Then wasting no more time in words, we saddled up in frantic haste. Just as I fastened the last strap on my saddle I thought that a faint sound reached my ear. ‘Listen,’ I said, and now there was no doubt about it. It was the sound of baying dogs.
Leo, who was passive throughout She, becomes an action hero in this book. He fights Rassan, and later, as they are being guided up the mountain, rescues a village woman who has been slated for burning as a witch by the village’s corrupt shaman. The real story here, again, though, is about the two women who fight over Leo.
Avalanches and fight scenes aside, the problem with this book is simple. To be blunt, Leo as a character is not man enough to live up to the love of Ayesha, an immortal spirit, or even Atene. In Ayesha, the Return of She, Haggard tries to deal with this by changing Ayesha. In She, she was a godlike being with no human frailties or human moralities, beautiful and terrifying. In Ayesha, she has become more traditionally “feminine” (although markedly more ethereal). She scolds, manipulates, weeps when she can’t get her way, and worst of all, taunts her rival Atene in a very human, “mean girl” manner. Where did Ayesha, who was sequestered in the caves of Kor for two thousand years, and then trapped in another body for twelve more in this volcanic mountain temple, learn these nasty drawing-room behaviors?
Although pleased to be reunited with Leo, Ayesha is still working on her hobby of ruling the world. This time, she plans to do it with gold, because Ayesha can manufacture it. Yes, she can transmute iron into gold. This is a delightful and intriguing subplot that does add to the suspense, until it is completely forsaken once Atene commits an act of war against Ayehsa, and Leo is in jeopardy again.
Atene is powerfully characterized as a driven woman, whose dislike of her husband and men generally has allowed her to make a virtue of her emotional repression, until her passions are ignited by Leo. Rassan, the murderous madman, is someone I actually felt sorry for. Ayesha, even though she hints at being something darker and more compelling, is diminished to the point of being just the prettiest girl at the party, until the end of the book when she suddenly unleashes her power.
The last chapters of the book, with Ayesha calling down the elements; wind, lightning and rain, are dramatic, exciting and wild. The climax is poignant, if not too surprising. As an adventure story — a Romance — this book is probably better constructed than She, but it does not hold my interest as well. Throughout the book it is the side-stories and hints that have held interest — the transmutation magic, Ayesha’s constant, careful hints about her real nature, even the genesis of Atene’s kingdom. At the end, Haggard never manages to convince me that this love, sprung out of jealousy and murder, is an eternal, soul-mate connection. The book has humor and some fine action sequences taken by themselves, but as a whole, it is far slighter than the first.
Ayesha (She) — (1886.-1923) Publisher: Drawing on his knowledge of Africa and of ancient legends, adventure writer H. Rider Haggard weaves this disturbing tale of Ayesha, the mysterious and immortal white queen of a Central African tribe. She, or “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” is the embodiment of the mythological female figure who is both monstrous and desirable, and deadlier than the male. She is a pioneering work in the “Lost World” genre.
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