She is an amazing piece of adventure literature with a dark side to it. The darkness comes not from the mysterious land through which the adventurers travel, nor from the calamity of natural disaster and disease that runs throughout the story. The darkness comes from a deep place within the story’s metaphors, from the author himself one might say.
H. Rider Haggard was on of the preeminent adventure novelists of the Victorian Age. He paved the way for other writers such as Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. Haggard gave us one of the first and most long lasting adventure heroes, Allan Quartermain, a character that was recently resurrected as a character in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. An entire genre sprouted from Quartermain, that of the Lost World fables. But even in this much loved character’s debut, King Solomon’s Mines, a good deal of that darkness is present.
That darkness comes from the almost industrial system of imperialism which England had created and perpetuated for several decades, but was soon being a global mission in the days of Queen Victoria. The British were sending their missions far and abroad to all corners of the Earth, and everywhere they found lacking, they provided their imperialism, from much of which the world is still reeling today.
She does not have a vast invasion force, but there is no need for one. What She does have is a hero that knows just what to do in most situations, keeps a level head, but plows through existence and over people quite a lot. It’s hard to not read so much imperialist dogma into She at times. In the first encounter with the Amahaggar tribe the reader is introduced to the first non-civilized
While the imperialist hero, Horace Holly, does good things, he isn’t often regarded in the most flattering manner. He is often described as ugly, and even admits himself to being rather uncomely and somewhat of an ape. His nickname from the tribal elder, Billali, is Baboon in reference to his ungainly stature more than anything. His attitudes to people other than himself and his adopted son Leo are less than palatable on occasion. While he does seem to have no real problem with the Arab member of their crew who survived the ship crashing along with them, he does end up inadvertently killing the man while trying to save him from being a victim of the savage cannibalistic nature of the tribes people they first encounter. When he finally encounters Ayesha, or She-who-must-be-obeyed, he is escorted deep into her cave home, following the chief elder as the old man keeps himself prostrate the entire length approaching the mysterious queen. Holly is told by the elder to kowtow in a similar fashion, but his British pride disallows that option and he holds himself above the man, thinking he would be worse off to show such fealty immediately before even getting to know this enigmatic overlord. He meets her as an equal, which is important from a character stand point, but certainly paints a color of disdain over the extremely reverential native beside him.
There is a lot of inherent racism in Lost World stories mostly stemming from the uncultured, often animalistic tribes people that are constant elements within the genre. And was this really an active purpose the author set out to achieve, or was the tonality of these elements more a product of the ignorance of the period? Probably a little from both columns. It’s hard to separate culture from personal intent often. Is it not the job of the artist to reflect the times in which they live? Much like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’s reception, the racism isn’t a product of the book but rather the imperialist culture that book examines.