Fire, Snakes and Freud ~ The Psychology of Feminine Power in Haggard’s She 1]

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Fire, Snakes and Freud ~ The Psychology of Feminine Power in Haggard’s She
1] Haggard (Introduction, 17): The only clear notion that I had in my head was that of an immortal woman inspired by an immortal love. All the rest shaped itself around this figure. And it came—it came faster than my poor aching hand could set it down.
2] E.M. Forster: She “drained the whole reservoir of the public’s secret desires” (Tom Pocock. Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993. 245).
3] Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar: The very topography as well as the motion and direction of Haggard’s quest-plots helped Freud conceptualize the psychic geography that was to be so crucial to his theory of layered personality. (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Vol. 2 Sex-changes. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1989. 43).

4] Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. & trs. James Strachey, vol. XVII (London: Hogarth, 1953), pp. 219-252.

When we proceed to review the things, persons, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in a particularly forcible and definite form… Jentsch has taken as a very good instance ‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate’…Jentsch writes: ‘In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton,… Many people experience the feeling [of the uncanny] in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts.... The imaginative writer has this license among many others, that he can select his world of representation so that it either coincides with the realities we are familiar with or departs from them… The situation is altered as soon as the writer pretends to move in the world of common reality. In this case he accepts as well all the conditions operating to produce uncanny feelings in real life; and everything that would have an uncanny effect in reality has it in his story. But in this case he can even increase his effect and multiply it far beyond what could happen in reality, by bringing about events which never or very rarely happen in fact. In doing this he is in a sense betraying us to the superstitiousness which we have ostensibly surmounted; he deceives us by promising to give us the sober truth, and then after all overstepping it.

5] Haggard and the uncanny:

(48) And what was the quest of which he spoke? The circumstances were uncanny, so much so that, though I am by no means nervous, or apt to be alarmed at anything that may seem to cross the bounds of the natural

(90) Next I glanced at the men who were bearing me. They were of a magnificent build, few of them being under six feet in height, and yellowish in colour. Generally their appearance had a good deal in common with that of the East African Somali, only their hair was not frizzed up, but hung in thick black locks upon their shoulders. Their features were aquiline, and in many cases exceedingly handsome, the teeth being especially regular and beautiful. But notwithstanding their beauty, it struck me that, on the whole, I had never seen a more evil-looking set of faces. There was an aspect of cold and sullen cruelty stamped upon them that revolted me, and which in some cases was almost uncanny in its intensity.

(103) Leo, who was growing really attached to this remarkable young person [Ustane] was in a great state of alarm and distress, and I, to be perfectly candid, was in a condition not far removed from superstitious fear. The whole scene was an uncanny one.

(143) Anyhow, I [Holly] felt more frightened than ever at this ghost-like apparition, and my hair began to rise upon my head as the feeling crept over me that I was in the presence of something that was not canny.

6] Freud: Interpretation of Dreams, Chapter 6The Dream-Work; G. Absurd Dreams—Intellectual Performances in Dreams

The elder Brucke must have set me some task or other; strangely enough, it relates to the preparation of the lower part of my own body, the pelvis and legs, which I see before me as though in the dissecting-room, but without feeling the absence of part of my body, and without a trace of horror. Louise N is standing beside me, and helps me in the work. The pelvis is eviscerated; now the upper, now the lower aspect is visible, and the two aspects are commingled. … Then I was once more in possession of my legs, and I made a journey through the city, but I took a cab (as I was tired). To my astonishment, the cab drove into the front door of a house, which opened and allowed it to pass into a corridor, which was broken off at the end, and eventually led on into the open. Finally I wandered through changing landscapes, with an Alpine guide, who carried my things. He carried me for some distance, out of consideration for my tired legs. The ground was swampy; we went along the edge; people were sitting on the ground, like Red Indians or gypsies; among them a girl. Until then I had made my way along on the slippery ground, in constant astonishment that I was so well able to do so after making the preparation. At last we came to a small wooden house with an open window at one end. Here the guide set me down, and laid two planks, which stood in readiness, on the window-sill so as to bridge the chasm which had to be crossed from the window. Now I grew really alarmed about my legs. Instead of the expected crossing, I saw two grown-up men lying upon wooden benches which were fixed on the walls of the hut, and something like two sleeping children next to them; as though not the planks but the children were intended to make the crossing possible. I awoke with terrified thoughts.

Anyone who has been duly impressed by the extensive nature of dream-condensation will readily image what a number of pages the exhaustive analysis of this dream would fill. Fortunately for the context, I shall make this dream only the one example of astonishment in dreams, which makes its appearance in the parenthetical remark, ‘strangely enough’. Let us consider the occasion of the dream. It is a visit of this lady, Louise N., who helps me with my work in the dream. She says: ‘Lend me something to read.’ I offer her She, by Rider Haggard. ‘A strange book, but full of hidden meaning,’ I try to explain; ‘the eternal feminine, the immortality of our emotions’

…[T]he further trains of thought, proceeding from my conversation with Louise N., go too deep to become conscious; they are side-tracked by way of the material which has been incidentally awakened in me by the mention of Rider Haggard’s She. The comment ‘strangely enough’ applies to this book, and to another by the same author, The Heart of the World’ and numerous elements of the dream are taken from these two fantastic romances. The swampy ground over which the dreamer is carried, the chasm which has to be crossed by means of planks, come from She; the Red Indians, the girl, and the wooden house, from The Heart of the World. In both novels a woman is the leader, and both treat of perilous wandering; She has to do with an adventurous journey to an undiscovered country, a place almost untrodden by the foot of man. According to a note which I find in my record of the dream, the fatigue in my legs was a real sensation from those days. Probably a weary mood corresponded with this fatigue, and the doubting question: ‘How much farther will my legs carry me?’ In She the end of the adventure is that the heroine meets her death in the mysterious central fire, instead of winning immortality for herself and for others. Some related anxiety has mistakably arisen in the dream-thoughts.

Unfortunately, as we shall learn, the dream is able to change into its opposite only the idea accompanying an affect, but not always the affect itself. Hence, I awake with ‘thoughts of terror’, even after the idea that perhaps my children will achieve what has been denied to their father has forced its way to representation: a fresh allusion to the strange romance in which the identity of a character is preserved through a series of generations covering two thousand years.
7] Haggard, Chapter 13, “Ayesha Unveils” (153-54)

She lifted her white and rounded arms—never had I seen such arms before—and slowly, very slowly, withdrew some fastening beneath her hair. Then all of a sudden the long, corpse-like wrappings fell from her to the ground, and my eyes travelled up her form, now only robed in a garb of clinging white that did but serve to show its perfect and imperial shape, instinct with a life that was more than life, and with a certain serpent-like grace that was more than human. On her little feet were sandals, fastened with studs of gold. Then came ankles more perfect than ever sculptor dreamed of. About the waist her white kirtle was fastened by a double-headed snake of solid gold, above which her gracious form swelled up in lines as pure as they were lovely, till the kirtle ended on the snowy argent of her breast, whereon her arms were folded. I gazed above them at her face, and—I do not exaggerate—shrank back blinded and amazed. I have heard of the beauty of celestial beings, now I saw it; only this beauty, with all its awful loveliness and purity, was evil—at least, at the time, it struck me as evil. How am I to describe it? I cannot—simply I cannot! The man does not live whose pen could convey a sense of what I saw. I might talk of the great changing eyes of deepest, softest black, of the tinted face, of the broad and noble brow, on which the hair grew low, and delicate, straight features. But, beautiful, surpassingly beautiful as they all were, her loveliness did not lie in them. It lay rather, if it can be said to have had any fixed abiding place, in a visible majesty, in an imperial grace, in a godlike stamp of softened power, which shone upon that radiant countenance like a living halo. Never before had I guessed what beauty made sublime could be—and yet, the sublimity was a dark one—the glory was not all of heaven—though none the less was it glorious. Though the face before me was that of a young woman of certainly not more than thirty years, in perfect health, and the first flush of ripened beauty, yet it had stamped upon it a look of unutterable experience, and of deep acquaintance with grief and passion. Not even the lovely smile that crept about the dimples of her mouth could hide this shadow of sin and sorrow…

Drawn by some magnetic force which I could not resist, I let my eyes rest upon her shining orbs, and felt a current pass from them to me that bewildered and half-blinded me.

She laughed—ah, how musically! and nodded her little head at me with an air of sublimated coquetry that would have done credit to a Venus Victrix.

…Suddenly she paused, and through my fingers I saw an awful change come over her countenance. Her great eyes suddenly fixed themselves into an expression in which horror seemed to struggle with some tremendous hope arising through the depths of her dark soul. The lovely face grew rigid, and the gracious willowy form seemed to erect itself.

“Man,” she half whispered, half hissed, throwing back her head like a snake about to strike—”Man, whence hadst thou that scarab on thy hand? Speak, or by the Spirit of Life I will blast thee where thou standest!” and she took one light step towards me, and from her eyes there shone such an awful light—to me it seemed almost like a flame--that I fell, then and there, on the ground before her, babbling confusedly in my terror.

8] Haggard, Chapter 13, “A Soul in Hell” (160)

It was She herself!

She was clothed, as I had seen her when she unveiled, in the kirtle of clinging white, cut low upon her bosom, and bound in at the waist with the barbaric double-headed snake, and, as before, her rippling black hair fell in heavy masses down her back. But her face was what caught my eye, and held me as in a vice, not this time by the force of its beauty, but by the power of fascinated terror. The beauty was still there, indeed, but the agony, the blind passion, and the awful vindictiveness displayed upon those quivering features, and in the tortured look of the upturned eyes, were such as surpass my powers of description.

For a moment she stood still, her hands raised high above her head, and as she did so the white robe slipped from her down to her golden girdle, baring the blinding loveliness of her form. She stood there, her fingers clenched, and the awful look of malevolence gathered and deepened on her face.


9] Haggard, Chapter 15, “Ayesha Gives her Judgement” (170)

“My Holly,” she [Ayesha] said… “My Holly, it cannot be. Were I to show mercy to those wolves, your lives would not be safe among this people for a day. Thou knowest them not. They are tigers to lap blood, and even now they hunger for your lives. How thinkest thou that I rule this people? I have but a regiment of guards to do my bidding, therefore it is not by force. It is by terror. My empire is of the imagination. Once in a generation mayhap I do as I have done but now, and slay a score by torture. Believe not that I would be cruel, or take vengeance on anything so low.

10] Haggard, Chapter 17, “The Balance Turns” (180-82)

“Nay,” she said, “enter with me, oh Holly, for of a truth thy conversation pleaseth me….

And without more ado she stood up and shook the white wrappings from her, and came forth shining and splendid like some glittering snake when she has cast her slough; ay, and fixed her wonderful eyes upon me—more deadly than any Basilisk’s—and pierced me through and through with their beauty, and sent her light laugh ringing through the air like chimes of silver bells.

A new mood was on her, and the very colour of her mind seemed to change beneath it. It was no longer torture-torn and hateful, as I had seen it when she was cursing her dead rival by the leaping flames, no longer icily terrible as in the judgment-hall, no longer rich, and sombre, and splendid… Life—radiant, ecstatic, wonderful—seemed to flow from her and around her. Softly she laughed and sighed, and swift her glances flew. She shook her heavy tresses, and their perfume filled the place; she struck her little sandalled foot upon the floor, and hummed a snatch of some old Greek epithalamium. All the majesty was gone, or did but lurk and faintly flicker through her laughing eyes, like lightning seen through sunlight. She had cast off the terror of the leaping flame, the cold power of judgment that was even now being done, and the wise sadness of the tombs—cast them off and put them behind her, like the white shroud she wore, and now stood out the incarnation of lovely tempting womanhood, made more perfect—and in a way more spiritual—than ever woman was before.

So, my Holly, sit there where thou canst see me. It is by thine own wish, remember—again I say, blame me not if thou dost wear away thy little span with such a sick pain at the heart that thou wouldst fain have died before ever thy curious eyes were set upon me. There, sit so, and tell me, for in truth I am inclined for praises—tell me, am I not beautiful? Nay, speak not so hastily; consider well the point; take me feature by feature, forgetting not my form, and my hands and feet, and my hair, and the whiteness of my skin, and then tell me truly, hast thou ever known a woman who in aught, ay, in one little portion of her beauty, in the curve of an eyelash even, or the modelling of a shell-like ear, is justified to hold a light before my loveliness? Now, my waist! Perchance thou thinkest it too large, but of a truth it is not so; it is this golden snake that is too large, and doth not bind it as it should. It is a wide snake, and knoweth that it is ill to tie in the waist. But see, give me thy hands—so—now press them round me, and there, with but a little force, thy fingers touch, oh Holly.”
11] Haggard, Chapter 20, “Triumph” (210-12)

Ayesha said nothing, she made no sound, she only drew herself up, stretched out her arm, and, her tall veiled frame quivering like an aspen leaf, appeared to look fixedly at her victim. Even as she did so Ustane put her hands to her head, uttered one piercing scream, turned round twice, and then fell backwards with a thud—prone upon the floor. Both Leo and myself rushed to her—she was stone dead—blasted into death by some mysterious electric agency or overwhelming will-force whereof the dread She had command.

For a moment Leo did not quite realise what had happened. But, when he did, his face was awful to see. With a savage oath he rose from beside the corpse, and, turning, literally sprang at Ayesha. But she was watching, and, seeing him come, stretched out her hand again, and he went staggering back towards me, and would have fallen, had I not caught him. Afterwards he told me that he felt as though he had suddenly received a violent blow in the chest, and, what is more, utterly cowed, as if all the manhood had been taken out of him.

Then Ayesha spoke. “Forgive me, my guest,” she said softly, addressing him, “if I have shocked thee with my justice.”

“Forgive thee, thou fiend,” roared poor Leo, wringing his hands in his rage and grief. “Forgive thee, thou murderess! By Heaven, I will kill thee if I can!”

“Nay, nay,” she answered in the same soft voice, “thou dost not understand—the time has come for thee to learn. Thou art my love, my Kallikrates, my Beautiful, my Strong! For two thousand years, Kallikrates, have I waited for thee, and now at length thou hast come back to me….

“It is an accursed lie!” said Leo. “My name is not Kallikrates! I am Leo Vincey; my ancestor was Kallikrates—at least, I believe he was.”…

“I hate thee, murderess, and I have no wish to see thee. What is it to me how fair thou art? I hate thee, I say.”

“Yet within a very little space shalt thou creep to my knee, and swear that thou dost love me,” answered Ayesha, with a sweet, mocking laugh. “Come, there is no time like the present time, here before this dead girl who loved thee, let us put it to the proof.

“Look now on me, Kallikrates!” and with a sudden motion she shook her gauzy covering from her, and stood forth in her low kirtle and her snaky zone, in her glorious radiant beauty and her imperial grace, rising from her wrappings, as it were, like Venus from the wave, or Galatea from her marble, or a beatified spirit from the tomb. She stood forth, and fixed her deep and glowing eyes upon Leo’s eyes, and I saw his clenched fists unclasp, and his set and quivering features relax beneath her gaze. I saw his wonder and astonishment grow into admiration, and then into fascination, and the more he struggled the more I saw the power of her dread beauty fasten on him and take possession of his senses, drugging them, and drawing the heart out of him. Did I not know the process? Had not I, who was twice his age, gone through it myself? Was I not going through it afresh even then, although her sweet and passionate gaze was not for me? Yes, alas, I was! Alas, that I should have to confess that at that very moment I was rent by mad and furious jealousy. I could have flown at him, shame upon me! The woman had confounded and almost destroyed my moral sense, as she was bound to confound all who looked upon her superhuman loveliness. But—I do not quite know how—I got the better of myself, and once more turned to see the climax of the tragedy.

“Oh, great Heaven!” gasped Leo, “art thou a woman?”

“A woman in truth—in very truth—and thine own spouse, Kallikrates!” she answered, stretching out her rounded ivory arms towards him, and smiling, ah, so sweetly!

12] Haggard, Chapter 24, “Walking the Plank” (245-46)—descending into the womb/Ayesha’s caves:

Before us was an empty space, on the other side of which was something, as yet we could not see what, for here—either owing to the shadow of the opposite cliff, or from some other cause—the gloom was that of night.

“We must wait awhile,” called Ayesha; “soon there will be light.”

At the moment I could not imagine what she meant. How could more light than there was ever come to this dreadful spot? While I was still wondering, suddenly, like a great sword of flame, a beam from the setting sun pierced the Stygian gloom, and smote upon the point of rock whereon we lay, illumining Ayesha’s lovely form with an unearthly splendour. I only wish I could describe the wild and marvellous beauty of that sword of fire, laid across the darkness and rushing mist-wreaths of the gulf. How it got there I do not to this moment know, but I presume that there was some cleft or hole in the opposing cliff, through which it pierced when the setting orb was in a direct line therewith. All I can say is, that the effect was the most wonderful that I ever saw. Right through the heart of the darkness that flaming sword was stabbed, and where it lay there was the most surpassingly vivid light, so vivid that even at a distance we could see the grain of the rock, while, outside of it—yes, within a few inches of its keen edge—was naught but clustering shadows.

13] Haggard, Chapter 26, “What we Saw” (261)

Oh, look!—look!—look!shrieked Job, in a shrill falsetto of terror, his eyes nearly dropping out of his head, and foam upon his lips. “Look!—look!—look! she’s shrivelling up! she’s turning into a monkey!” and down he fell upon the ground, foaming and gnashing in a fit.

True enough--I faint even as I write it in the living presence of that terrible recollection—she was shrivelling up; the golden snake that had encircled her gracious form slipped over her hips and to the ground; smaller and smaller she grew; her skin changed colour, and in place of the perfect whiteness of its lustre it turned dirty brown and yellow, like an piece of withered parchment. She felt at her head: the delicate hand was nothing but a claw now, a human talon like that of a badly-preserved Egyptian mummy, and then she seemed to realise what kind of change was passing over her, and she shrieked--ah, she shrieked!—she rolled upon the floor and shrieked!

Smaller she grew, and smaller yet, till she was no larger than a monkey. Now the skin was puckered into a million wrinkles, and on the shapeless face was the stamp of unutterable age. I never saw anything like it; nobody ever saw anything like the frightful age that was graven on that fearful countenance, no bigger now than that of a two-months’ child, though the skull remained the same size, or nearly so, and let all men pray they never may, if they wish to keep their reason.

Works Cited and Consulted

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works by Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1975.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Vol. 2 Sex-changes. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

McManus, Dr. Barbara (College of New Rochelle). http://www.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/anima.html

Pocock, Tom. Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993.

Punter, David. The Romantic Unconscious: A Study in Narcissism and Patriarchy. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989.


Young, Shannon. “Myths of castration: Freud’s ‘eternal feminine’ and Rider Haggard’s She.” Victorian Newsletter (Fall 2005) 108: 21-31.

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