The Veil of Permanence Removed
The veil has often been one of my favorite symbols. In modern times, it’s most often used in traditional wedding ceremonies to symbolize the bride’s virginity, innocence, modesty, and the protection of her groom. In fantasy, it tends to mean something else entirely. When worn, it gives a character an air of mystery and usually bespeaks some kind of secret. Indeed, in H. Rider Haggard’s She, Ayesha is introduced wearing a “veil” of her own in the form of her facial wrappings, but rather than taking one of these more classic interpretations, her “unveiling” came to mean something entirely different in the end.
When she finally makes her long anticipated appearance to Holly, she is wrapped in a thin covering of cloth. As they speak, Hooly pleads with her to remove her wrappings to reveal her face. It is this moment, for me, when the power of She-Who-Must-Be Obeyed begins to wane. Up to this point, Billali and the Amahagger built up Ayesha has been an unseen, mysterious queen to be revered and feared. Even to a skeptic such as Holly, she is at least worth of caution. Here, in this moment, when she reveals herself is when the power she’s been endowed with by this tribe begins to dissipate.
Much in the same way as Shelley viewed Mont Blanc as being beautiful and powerful due to man’s reverence, so too has Ayesha been empowered by the reverence of the Amahagger. The difference, however, that when Ayesha reveals herself to those who give her reverence, she begins to slowly lose that power. Though the initial reveal still showcases Ayesha supernaturally good looks, it is all downhill from there. It is her revelation of her true visage to Holly, and subsequently to the tribe, that kicks off her descent. From here, she reveals her attachment to Leo, she kills Ustane, and then begins the journey that will lead to her own demise.
The detail about this turn of events I enjoyed the most was that the last trait of Ayesha’s which we see wither are the very beauty which she sought to hide in the first place. It was ironic that she was hesitant to show her face because of its overwhelming power. Before she revealed herself to Holly, she confidently recalled the story of “the Actaeon who perished miserably because he looked on too much beauty” (Haggard 158). It was the very beauty and youth she sought to hide which was the last thing to go at the end of her journey. Thus, the covering of her face was not a nod to her innocence or modesty but a symbol of Ayesha’s power and beauty and the impermanence of both.
Haggard, H. Rider . She. London: Penguin Group, 1886, 2001. print.