Ayesha – the Return of She
by Henry Rider Haggard
‘The dogs had seen us now and came on, growling and baying fearfully. With a rush they came, and I am not ashamed to own that I felt terribly afraid. One . . . outstripped the others and, leaping up, sprang straight at my throat.’
There is a chapter in Ayesha entitled ‘The Death Hounds’, and it was while reading it that Noel Coward’s famous song sprang into my mind. Of course, the song has absolutely no connection (as far as I know) with Rider Haggard’s novel. However, it seems to me that, given the way that She ended, Leo Vincey and Horace Holly had to be pretty crazy to endure sixteen years of hardship to find her again.
But such is the power of love!
Ayesha – the Return of She is a great adventure/romance/fantasy in its own right, and every bit as mysterious and gripping as the original novel. [see here] Returning home from Africa, Holly and his adopted son are unable to settle. Both are still in love with Ayesha (or maybe the idea of Ayesha) and, almost immediately, set out on their travels to find her again. Travelling through Asia searching for a geological feature shaped like an ankh, they find themselves at a lamasery in Tibet. They are hospitably entertained for many months there before, driven my mysterious dreams, they set out again through the wilderness.
‘Then I saw everything, and the sight curdled the blood within my veins. Hanging to the rope, four or five feet below the broken point, was Leo, out of reach of it, and out of reach of the cliff.’
After many adventures, they reach Kaloon, a country in the middle of Asia ruled by Khan Rassen and Khania Atene. Atene immediately latches on to Leo, claiming him as a husband, but he, still hoping to find Ayesha again, rejects her. Within sight of the Kaloon capital is a volcano and on its summit the ankh-shaped rock the men have been seeking. Holding court within a college of priests who worship Hes (a variation of Isis) is Ayesha. The question is: is she the same Ayesha as Leo and Holly knew in Africa and, if so, how did she come to be there?
The ‘new’ Ayesha – if I may call her that – is gifted not only with beauty and immortality but with superhuman powers. Goddess-like one moment, she is an all too human woman the next. Her moods alternate between righteous anger and deep sadness. She tests Leo and he, having proved his love, claims her again. However, she will not give in to his desire, saying he must wait until they can return to Africa and until he has bathed in the sacred fire.
Atene declares war and that changes everything, leading to a nail-biting bloodthirsty climax and an unexpected ending.
‘ “Holly, prepare thyself to look into the mouth of hell.” . . . . Ayesha tore off her veil and held it on high, flowing from her like a pennon, and lo! upon her brow blazed that wide and mystic diadem of light which once only I had seen before [and from] the Mountain peak behind us went up sudden sheets of flame.’
As in the earlier novel, Ayesha is full of philosophical discussion about the pros and cons of different religions, and about the meaning of life and death. In these, reincarnation is a dominant theme. Just as belief in ‘the journey’ rules the lives of the Buddhist lamas, so it works its way through the love story of Ayesha and Killikrates (Leo), and of Killikrates and Amenartas (Atene).
Haggard’s beautiful early twentieth century language** is not for everyone. Some readers will be put off by the ‘thees ‘ and ‘thous’ in the dialogue – personally, I rather like that; it adds colour to the narrative. Then there is the political incorrectness of the author’s gender and racial attitudes. But then, Ayesha is a novel of its time, a time before Britain lost its empire and before (appropriate this week) British women gained the vote.
One question constantly on our minds (assuming we have read She) is – will Ayesha end happily, or is it written in the stars that history must repeat itself? Or is this woman, goddess, spirit or whatever actually Destiny itself?
‘ “Nay,” she said. “I ordain that it shall not be, and save One who listeth not, what power reigns in this wide earth that dare defy my will?” ‘
** The novel was published in 1905