The Sherd of Amenartas Review of H. Rider Haggard’s She: A History of Adventure (1887)
The Sherd of Amenartas
Review of H. Rider Haggard’s
She: A History of Adventure (1887)
Published in 1887, after being serialised in The Graphic, She: A History of Adventure stands at the beginning of modern fantasy literature. This was the decade in which the expansion of historic time required by Darwin and the geologists was established in the public mind. The space had opened for thoughts of civilisations before our own, and even before the previously unknown or dimly-known civilisations now being revealed by the archaeologists. I will not say that She was the first book to fill this space. But it was the most notably triumphant. It is a classic that has never gone out of print. It is said to have sold almost a hundred million copies, and has been translated into dozens of languages. Its influence remains pervasive within the various genres and sub-genres to which it gave birth.
In writing this review, I am not seeking to produce an academic analysis, or to look at Rider Haggard’s other fiction. My intention is to give a personal response to the work from someone who is himself a professional writer, and who has always been in some degree under its influence. For those lucky enough not yet to have read it, I will begin with a brief description of the story.
After the pretence of an Editor’s Introduction to an original memoir, the plot moves swiftly. It begins one night in the 1860s, when Ludwig Horace Holly is preparing for his fellowship examination at Cambridge. He is interrupted by his only friend in the college, an older man called Vincey. Though carrying an iron box, he assures Holly he is dying and asks a favour.
He explains that he is from a family able to trace its decent to a Hellenistic Greek called Kallikrates and Amenartas, an Egyptian princess. He says that all necessary evidence is in the iron box. The favour he wants is that Holly will take care of his son Leo, who is now five, and that they will together open the box when the boy is twenty five. In return, Vincey will leave him all his money. Holly thinks his friend is mad, but agrees.
The following morning, Vincey is found dead. A while later, a solicitor’s letter arrives with the details of what has been agreed, and Holly becomes ward and teacher to Leo Vincey.
Twenty years later, Leo has grown into a young man of astonishing beauty. It is time to open the box. This contains a large potsherd inscribed in Greek. It tells the story of how Kallikrates, having broken his vows as a priest of Isis, flees Egypt with Amenartas, his lover. They sail south from the Red Sea, eventually putting in at a river mouth somewhere on the coast of East Africa. After much wandering, they come to a hollow mountain overspread by the ruins of an ancient city. This is ruled by a white queen of great magical power. The queen falls in love with Kallikrates, and takes him and Amenartas deep into the endless caves and rock tombs beneath the city. There she shows him a roaring pillar of fire, and promises him eternal life if he will only kill Amenartas and enter the fire. Kallikrates refuses, and is killed by the queen in an attack of jealousy. Religious scruples prevent her from killing Amenartas, who manages to escape. Heavily pregnant, Amenartas makes her way to Athens. At last, dying, she writes her account of the voyage for her son Tisisthenes, instructing him or his posterity to seek out the white queen and take revenge for the death of Kallikrates.
The potsherd is accompanied by other writings in Greek and Latin and English, proving its unbroken descent through the family. Leo decides at once he will go in search of the hollow mountain. Holly tries to persuade him out of the idea. He believes nothing of the wonderful story, and says Amenartas was mad. He adds that, after so many thousands of years, there can be nothing left to find. But Leo is inflexible. He says he will go alone if necessary. So Holly gives in. Together, they set out for East Africa.
Their ship is wrecked in a storm, and they are washed up on a desolate shore, still unexplored and unmapped. Behind them is the sea, before them a river passing through an apparently endless expanse of jungle swamp. But the river mouth bears a strong resemblance to the place described by Amenartas.
There is more.
“This place has been a wharf,” said Leo, dogmatically.
“Nonsense,” I answered. “Who would be stupid enough to build a wharf in the middle of these dreadful marshes in a country inhabited by savages – that is, if it is inhabited at all?”
Leo insists on his point.
“Is not that stonework? If not, it is very like it.”
“Nonsense,” I said again, but we clambered down to the spot, and got between the upturned roots and the bank.
“Well?” he said.
But I did not answer this time. I only whistled. For there, laid bare by the removal of the earth, was an undoubted facing of solid stone laid in large blocks and bound together with brown cement, so hard that I could make no impression on it with the file in my shooting-knife. Nor was this all; seeing something projecting through the soil at the bottom of the bared patch of walling, I removed the loose earth with my hands, and revealed a huge stone ring, a foot or more in diameter, and about three inches thick. This fairly staggered me. [Chapter 5]
From here, the narrative moves even faster. We go upriver. We arrive at the ruined city. We meet the terrible and ageless She-who-must-be-obeyed. We go with her into the caves of Kör. We stand at the climax to end all climaxes beside the Pillar of Life….
I first encountered She when I was ten and I found a copy at a jumble sale. I was put off by the small font and by the slabs of Greek and Latin in chapter three. But the line drawings looked interesting, so I handed over 6d and took it home. I read it about a week later. I started in the late afternoon, but read it in one sitting. It blew my mind. As soon as I had finished it, I read it again. I read it again and again, until the book fell apart. I spoke of nothing else for weeks. Night after night, I would wake from dreams of those horrifying vistas of space and time and the mournful grandeur of the ruined city. Nothing else I hunted out by Rider Haggard was in the same league.
Later, I read Lovecraft. He was poor stuff by comparison. Colin Wilson had his moments, but was nothing overall. Cities of the Red Night came close to recapturing the spirit. But William S. Burroughs had artistic theories that spoiled his narrative. The closest I know to the spirit of She is the Hammer film version of Quatermass and the Pit. I date my political outlook from the week after my thirteenth birthday, when I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I date my awakening to the power of great fiction from that first and feverish reading of She.
I am no longer ten. Does the book still work for me? I read and much enjoyed Enid Blyton when I was a boy. She does little for me now. It’s the same with The Wind in the Willows and the collected mass of The Pan Horror Stories. On the other hand, much else that I read still does work. I have just finished another reading of She. It is decidedly in the class of things that still work.
What I most see nowadays is the book’s organic narrative. If I was only ten at the time, everything on first reading came as a surprise, and even as a shock. Reading it again now, I can see that the end is inevitable from the beginning. There are persistent echoes of Greek tragedy, in which the characters believe they are choosing, but are in fact working to a scheme laid down a very long time before. I try for the same effect in my own fiction. The critics say I achieve it, and I am glad. But I achieve it only by rewriting as the plot emerges. Rider Haggard worked without a word processor, and wrote in the first instance for serial publication.
Beyond this, part of the book’s genius lies in its careful juxtapositions. We begin with the England of railway timetables and sensible clothes. When Holly is disturbed by his late night caller, we might be starting an adventure that takes us through the industrial slums, or a thriller shaped by the terms of a great-uncle’s will. Instead, we have Vincey and the wild story of his ancestry. But we can put this aside. Holly does. And why not? Vincey is plainly of unsound mind. We return to the staid routines of Cambridge.
Then we have the reading of the Sherd of Amenartas. This forces us to accept that something very queer is going on. But there is reassurance in the pedantry of giving us the original in unspaced uncial Greek, and its transcription into the modern script, and its translation into Latin. From here, we pass into the world of Treasure Island and The Coral Island, and feel the conventions forming about us of Victorian adventure fiction. All this time, though, we feel the magnetic pull of the story told on the Sherd of Amenartas. One after the other, every sceptical doubt is set aside, till we share Holly’s realisation that something vast and inexplicable has been lurking outside the orbit of our civilisation – something that could, if released, turn England and all the world upside down. The gradual pulling aside of the curtain that separates our everyday matter of fact from the true reality is masterful. That alone raises it to greatness.
Another part of the book’s genius is its verisimilitude. This may seem odd praise for a work of outright fantasy. But fantasy often works best when given a background and attendant details that can be clearly imagined. Take the English version of the Sherd of Amenartas. Rider Haggard probably wrote this first, then translated the Greek from it. But its unusual word order suggests an unrevised translation from Greek. Or take the Latin translation. This contains blunders that I suspect are deliberate – for example, “quam dei fovent demonia attendunt” should be “quam dei fovent et demonia attendunt.”
Or take the difficulty Holly and Leo have to show Ayesha the Houses of Parliament. She has a pool of water on which can be projected images from a person’s mind. But her power is limited only to what is actually in a person’s mind. For the buildings in London she wishes to be shown,
the result was most imperfect; for, of course, though we had a good general idea of their appearance, we were unable to recall the architectural details, and therefore the minutiae necessary to a perfect reflection were wanting. [Chapter 19]
Or take the wearing away of granite steps that only Ayesha has ever used, or the collapsing mound of skulls, or Holly’s despair when he realises that the top of his head is pressed against the bottom of the stony bridge, when his attempt at jumping across its gap falls short. There is touch after touch of realism. At all times, no matter what improbabilities are being described, you feel that you are there.
Modern critics, particularly American, or those who have exposed themselves to university degree in English, tend to be hostile to She. All they appear able to see is a glorification of Victorian imperialism and manliness. Since I am, to put it mildly, old-fashioned in my own views, I do not find these things offensive. However, something the critics seem to have missed is the often frank sexuality of the book. Leo obviously sleeps with his black lover, Ustane. Ayesha later warns him that they cannot “mate” until he too has stood within the Pillar of Life. She strips naked before Holly to mock him, and again to seduce Leo. There are at least two hints of necrophilia.
Nor do the critics appear to have seen the book’s moral relativism. Holly writes as a more or less traditional Christian. In his memoir, he condemns the dreadful things that Ayesha does, and her cynical justifications. But his condemnations are undercut by editorial notes that lay stress on her age and unusual powers, and suggest that the normal rules do not apply to her. She is no longer fully human, and she is beyond good and evil. She does what she does, and she has her reasons. The Victorians are often accused of sentimental moralising and of sexual repression. Looking only at what they put into the hands of their children, I am not so sure of this.
When I was a boy, I wanted to write another She. I scribbled for weeks in an exercise book until it was filled up with random fragments of a narrative. I no longer have this, and am probably glad that I shall never have to cringe over it. The teenage fiction I have not destroyed is bad enough. But I did eventually pay full homage to Rider Haggard, though it was by accident.
I am normally a chaotic writer of fiction. I start a book with no idea of its plot. This is something that emerges as I write. I used to feel slightly ashamed of what I saw as a lack of mental discipline that I have never allowed in my non-fiction. And so, for the third of my Byzantine novels, Blood of Alexandria, I began with a five page synopsis. My hero, Aelric of England, would turn up in Alexandria in 612AD, to carry through a scheme of land reform that would reconcile Egypt to rule from Constantinople at a time of great external danger. The plot would be driven by resistance to this plan by the usual vested interests and by a native insurgency. There would be a sub-plot of shady financial deals.
I began well enough. Then, after a few chapters, I found myself deviating from the synopsis. I introduced a sinister native called Macarius, and had him sending telepathic messages. On a whim, I brought back one of the villains from my previous Terror of Constantinople. I made him much more effective, and put him in search of a holy relic of great enough power to turn the balance in the Empire’s war with Persia. The incident in the native district was supposed to provide an alibi for the main suspect in a murder. It became a supernatural encounter. The murdered man was supposed to be a go-between for two branches of the resistance to land reform. He was that. Without at first realising, I also made him a dabbler in forces beyond his full comprehension.
I made formal surrender to my unconscious about a third into the novel. I had dumped my hero and his secretary in the middle of the vast desert that stretches beyond the strip of Egypt that is watered by the Nile. I had no idea how to get them out. I began a chapter in what I thought the sure and certain knowledge that I was about to crash into a wall. From one sentence to the next, I walked straight through it. Without at first understanding what I had done, I introduced the great She-who-must-be-obeyed, on a journey from the Caves of Kör to do some shopping in Alexandria. From here, every apparently unconnected plot line in the novel becomes a single thread. It moves seamlessly to its climax in the fathomless caverns beneath the ruins of Soteropolis.
What I still find odd is that I needed to make almost no changes to what I had already written. It was if I had known all along where things were going. Almost as odd, though I did not reread She while using it in Blood of Alexandria, I now see that I echo it all over the place. It is as if I had a copy open before me. Since then, I have given up on synopses and all the other advice given in the novel-writing guides. Instead, I begin each chapter of what I am writing without knowledge of what will happen, but in reasonable confidence that it will happen.
But my method of doing so is less important than the fact of paying homage. In any moderately successful life, middle age is a time for ticking off items on a list written in childhood. When I was ten She hit me with overpowering force. I wanted to write a sequel. I wanted to write a sequel better than the three that Rider Haggard wrote. Well, I did write a kind of sequel. And, if I would never match myself against the original, and if the first sequel, Ayesha: The Return of She, has moments of great power, I have probably outclassed She and Allan and Wisdom's Daughter.
In closing, I will only add that if you have a ten year-old child, of reasonable intelligence and imagination, here is an obvious birthday or Christmas present. At the least, you will be giving hours of first rate diversion. At best, you will be creating a debt that can never be paid off.
Richard Blake is the author of eleven historical novels. His post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, The Break, comes out on the 28th April 2016