Haggard's She: Burke's Sublime in a Popular Romance

By Nelson, Dale J. | Mythlore, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Haggard's She: Burke's Sublime in a Popular Romance


Nelson, Dale J., Mythlore


"Enchantment is just what this writer exercised; he fixed pictures in our minds that thirty years have been unable to wear away," Graham Greene confessed in "Rider Haggard's Secret" (Greene 209). J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis also affirmed the spell cast by She--Tolkien in Henry Resnick's 1966 interview ("I suppose as a boy She interested me as much as anything" [Resnick 40]), and Lewis in a review of a Haggard biography: "His openings--what story in the world opens better than She?--are full of alluring promise, and his catastrophes triumphantly keep it" (Lewis 97). Lewis perceived a problem for criticism as being posed by Haggard, in that the man's style is often bad and his would-be profundities embarrassing, and yet something fascinates readers, namely, Lewis said, "the myth." Lewis believed that the mythopoeic quality can transcend the defects of an author's words, so that a reader is moved, even so.

In his remarks in "The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard," Lewis hastens to discuss the archetypal figure of Ayesha, She herself, the immortal queen. Ayesha appears, however, only in the twelfth chapter of a book of twenty-eight chapters, and thereafter is not always on stage. Readers are likely to be caught up in the book long before this great femme fatale takes the stage. But Haggard has surrounded her with plentiful images and events that have intrinsic power. They partake of the quality, productive of imaginative fascination, a "delightful horror" (Burke 73), which Edmund Burke (1729-1797) called the Sublime in a treatise published in 1756. So abundant are these images and events that one could fancy that Haggard wrote his romance as a deliberate attempt to include as many of them as feasible; however, so far as I know, Haggard had never heard of the book, which Jacques Barzun said marked "the new cultural direction from Neoclassicism to Romanticism" (356); Haggard's tale must surely be one of the greatest artifacts of popular Romanticism ever written.

This article will offer representative images and events in She that could serve as textbook examples relating to Burke's Sublime. The italicized items that follow are taken from the list of things conducing to the sense of the Sublime, which appears on pages 58-87 of the Boulton edition of Burke's treatise. The page references are to Karlin's edition of She.

Most of the things listed by Burke are visual, but some are aural or tactile. The cries of animals arouse tension in the English explorers who witness a battle between a crocodile and a roaring lion (Haggard 68). The idea of extreme pain appears in this relatively early scene, as the agonized lion, struggling convulsively, is gripped in the reptile's jaws (69). Also, Ayesha rules the dangerous Amahaggers in large part by fear, admitting that occasionally she condemns offenders to torture. The romance's narrator, Horace Holly, inspects sculptures in the "cave of torture" but refuses to "harrow the reader" by describing them (175). And the Amahaggers have a cruel method of execution of their own, namely placing over the victim's head a white-hot earthenware pot (99-100).

The cries of animals are one aural source of the sublime; indeed, any sound of an excessive loudness may be productive of the sublime. Haggard describes a "frightful roar of wind" and a "shriek of terror from the awakening crew" when a storm at sea arises (51), and, a few chapters later, a crowd of disappointed cannibals that "thundered" in pursuit of the Englishmen who prevented their hot-potting a victim (101); but more awe-inspiring is the "grinding and crashing noise" produced by the preternatural, moving "pillar of fire" in the cave, the "womb of the Earth," where the secret of Ayesha's immortality is hidden (286-87). The opposite of loudness, silence, may also conduce to the sublime; the Englishmen behold an archaic mausoleum where "the most intense silence reigned" (173), and the explorers "did not dare to speak" in the precincts of an ancient temple where, over all, hovered "the dead silence of the dead" (263). …

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