Entry updated 9 October 2020. Tagged: Character, Theme.
The charismatic, goddess-like female ruler – usually referred to as "She" or "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed" – in the Ayesha sequence by H Rider Haggard, opening with She: A History of Adventure (October 1886-January 1887 The Graphic; cut 1886; full text 1887). Ayesha clearly combines aspects of Aphrodite and Isis, being imperious, ravishing and potentially Immortal; but vulgarized echoes can also be detected of the primal Greek goddess Kore, the Eleusinian Demeter/Persephone dyad whose seasonal renewals distantly shape the She figure's frequent rebirths. Her sexual allure, which Haggard renders with a lack of horror unusual in a nineteenth-century writer of popular fiction, is central, and governs the plots of the Ayesha books. Obvious echoes of the She character appear in Harry Collingwood's Through Veld and Forest: An African Story (dated 1914 but 1913) and Pierre Benoit's L'Atlantide (1919; trans as The Queen of Atlantis 1920).
She/Ayesha is the Underlier (see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy) figure for a number of similarly imperious and alluring women in sf. Examples include good Lethonee and evil Sorainya, rival queens from mutually exclusive timelines in Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time (May-July 1938 Astounding; cut 1961), who eventually fuse into a single glamorous persona; several female rulers in the works of A E van Vogt, notably in the Weapon Shops diptych and The Book of Ptath (October 1943 Unknown; 1947; vt Two Hundred Million A.D. 1964; vt Ptath 1976); the Empress of the Twenty Universes in Robert A Heinlein's Glory Road (1963); and the woman who has taken on the role of the Hindu death-goddess Kali in Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967).
The figure of She also fuses – at times perhaps inadvertently – with that of the lamia, the Belle Dame Sans Merci whose central role is to lead men to death through dreams, normally unachievable, of Sex. The worldly complexity of the lamia in Tim Powers's The Stress of Her Regard (1989) brings her close to She herself. Versions of the She figure are common in twentieth-century Cinema, beginning with She (1916) directed by William G B Barker and Nellie E Lucoque. [DRL/JC]
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