Book Review: “She” by H. Rider Haggard (1887)

“Better is an hour with love than a century of loneliness.” (153)

Sometimes I wish my kids could grow up in the world of my grandparents or great-grandparents, where books were the natural go-to escape for a young mind, not the brainless movies, cartoons, and video games out there today. Since neither of my children are yet old enough to read, I still have a mind to limit their media intake in order to encourage them towards better reading practices. That is a father’s responsibility after all, to guide children toward what is good and wholesome. This responsibility is certainly not the default inclination of most fathers today, however, so I do see the need to purposely set such a goal for myself, and perhaps you might as well.

I say this as introduction to H. Rider Haggard’s book She because this is an epic adventure novel that, at least in parts, rivals the thriller movies of today. And while She is filled with some gruesome image, murders, cannibalism, and romance, it seems that Haggard’s mid-nineteenth century “nitch” was that of adventure-novels for young boys (though the various dust covers for She might suggest otherwise!), and he uses this nitch well to not only fill his readers’ heads with heroism and adventure, but also to challenge their thinking with discussions of philosophy, religion, and morality in the face of barbarism.

She is the dictated story of a man named Holly whose adopted son Leo has been given the secrets to his ancient ancestry as well as the challenge to find and kill the immortal lover of his multi-great grandfather who was murdered in Egypt long before the birth of Christ. With all expenses paid, they see no reason not to take this obviously fanciful challenge, and their adventure eventually takes them deep into the heart of Africa to a cannibalistic community who live in caves and are subject to the mysterious “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”

To avoid all spoilers, I will leave the summary at that. Haggard’s book, while definitely filled with its fair share of page-turning excitement, also contains a great deal of philosophical dialogue in old English that would be a great bore if it were not so interesting. Beyond the redundancies etched into such conversation, the topics discussed between this college professor and this seemingly 2000-year-old woman are fascinating, and Haggard proves to have quite the vivid imagination. I would not doubt if Haggard believed much of what he wrote fictionally, for he writes each scene with such conviction that the reader might think he is holding a travelogue instead of a novel. The impossibility of the ageless Beauty in She certainly detracts from that feeling at times, but it is there nonetheless.

I would recommend She to those potentially fed up with modern fiction. It seems to me a healthy blast from the past which will give one a better perspective on the older generations, those generations who, we might think, must have been bored to death without televisions and comic books.

I close this review with a collection of quotes from She, something I normally do not do. I found that Haggard has a way of philosophizing midst adventure, whether from the perspective of his hero or that of She herself. Books that challenge a young boy’s thinking while entertaining him throughout are hard to come by these days, so here is yet another reason why I enjoyed She so much. Enjoy the quotes.

“People are apt to petrify, even at a University, if they follow the same paths too persistently.” (59)

“In this country, the women do what they please. We worship them and give them their way, because without them the world could not go on; they are the source of life…We worship them up to a point, til at last they grow unbearable, which happens about every second generation.” (87) [From the Amighars]

“Thinking can only serve to measure out the helplessness of thought.” (90)

“There is no such thing as Death, although there be a thing called Change.” (113) [A philosophy of She Who Must Be Obeyed.]

“What is imagination? Perhaps it is a shadow of the intangible truth, perhaps it is the soul’s thought!” (141)

“Men are faithful for so long only as temptations pass them by. If the temptation be but strong enough, then the man will yield, for every man, like every rope, hath his breaking strain, and passion is to men what gold and power are to women–the weight upon their weaknesses…The world is a great mart, my Holly, where all things are for sale to him who bids the highest in the currency of our desires.” (153) [Contrast this philosophy of She Who Must Be Obeyed to that of God in 1 Corinthians 10:13]

“Surely you don’t think that you are going to die because you dreamed you saw your old father; if one dies because one dreams of one’s father, what happens to a man who dreams of his mother-in-law?” (186) [I like that this quote comes from the long-time bachelor, Holly, lovingly known as “Baboon” for his grotesque and unlovable features.]

“Is not ambition but an endless ladder by which no height is ever climbed till the last unreachable rung is mounted? For height leads on to height, and there is no resting place upon them, and rung doth grow upon rung, and there is no limit to the number.” (189)

©2012 E.T.

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3 Responses to Book Review: “She” by H. Rider Haggard (1887)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Before Adam” by Jack London (1906) | Elliot's Blog

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “The Rose of Tibet” by Lionel Davidson (1962) | Elliot's Blog

  3. Pingback: Book Review: “Journey to the Center of the Earth” by Jules Verne (1864) | Elliot's Blog

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