In having the imposing figure of Ayesha, She-who-must-beobeyed, become a wizened monkey-like figure, Haggard’s hearkening back to the character of Gagool is unmistakable. Though a savage priestess for the Kukuana people, Gagool shares many characteristics with the terrifying and preternaturally beautiful queen of the Amahagger people. Not only do their physical descriptors become similar upon Ayesha’s death scene, but the two women exist outside the bounds of temporal limits, having access to a secret knowledge and power that places them in a highly privileged, and feared, position within their respective societies.
Such an emphasis is placed upon their position of possessing strange power that it is evident Haggard is wrestling with the issue of Victorian women’s changing gender roles in conjunction with power and autonomy in his own society via these two characters who are placed firmly in the realm of the fin de siecle romance novel. A cursory examination of these two women provides an understanding of the attributes that bind these two characters together as multi-faced representations of women in powerful positions.
Upon first seeing Gagool in the novel King Solomon’s Mines, Quatermain is horrified by her visage, with her “whole countenance” that could have been taken “for a sun-dried corpse had it not been for a pair of large black eyes” (93). Tellingly, Quatermain in the passage only ever refers to Gagool as an “it,” making her seem more worthy of the title creature than human being. Conversely, Holly has an exceedingly different reaction to viewing Ayesha unveiled for the first time. He states, “I gazed above them, at her face—and I do not exaggerate-shrank back blinded and amazed” (143).
Her beauty so astounds Holly that he falls in love with her immediately, a feat no other woman has ever performed before in his life due to this fear and overwhelming misogyny toward women. However, Ayesha’s beauty is shallow, as Holly notes, for her countenance, regardless of its “loveliness and purity, was evil” (143). Regardless of the difference in their initial appearances, both women are continually compared to snakes, either due to their garments or their actual movement.
Quatermain notes that Gagool’s bald and yellowed head is reminiscent of the hood of a cobra, whereas Ayesha literally wears a golden snake about her waist as a girdle (King Solomon’s Mines 93; citation). Whether or not one regards the snake as being a phallic symbol, the symbolism of the snake rests in the locus of the women possessing a threatening, preternatural power. Indeed, Holly states that as she unveils Ayesha moves with “a serpent-like grace that was more than human” (143).
The parallel is then drawn through the rest of the novel that Ayesha embodies these snake-like characteristics due to her transgressing the boundaries of nature, an example that also applies to the character of Gagool. With their secret esoteric knowledge, Ayesha and Gagool rule their particular societies using tactics of fear, such that each woman wields her influence on the society through spectacle. Ayesha has fashioned for herself a ruling identity, the masked figure of She-who-must-be-obeyed, in order to wield her power of the superstitious tribe of the Amahagger people.
Haggard makes a distinct difference between the ruling entity, She, and that of Ayesha herself both through a literal physical change from one role to the other as well as a shift in personality that the reader witnesses from Ayesha as ruler to Ayesha as an individual in her discussions with Holly. The spectacle that Ayesha creates in order to propagate her campaign of fear amongst the Amahagger people involves judging the men and women who attempted to kill Holly, Leo, and Job when they interrupted the hot-potting of Muhammed.
Holly states of the display, “the entire crowd of spectators instantly precipitated itself upon the ground, and lay stricken as though it were individually and collectively stricken dead” (She 157). In this moment, Holly describes her as “the veiled white woman, whose loveliness and awesome power seemed to visibly shine about her like a halo… Never have I seen her veiled shape look more terrible” (159). This is in contrast to the report of Ayesha that Holly gives, stating she has changed from “icily terrible” to the embodiment of life itself, “Life-radiant, ecstatic, wonderfulseemed to flow from and around her” (172).
Ayesha is a moody, ever-shifting figure, and as a woman cannot be forced to embody one single archetype; she slips easily between roles, as Holly notes, changing from terrible, vengeful queen to radiant, lovely maiden in the span of a day. Due to this, Ayesha is presented as a more complex character compared to that of Gagool whose attributes all aim toward the focus that she is the witch who has placed the evil king, Twala upon the throne for her own twisted ambitions.
Though Ayesha is portrayed as a multi-faceted character, existing in a liminal space in nature as woman and more than woman, Gagool represents the archetype of the savage, native witch, and she appears so otherworldly that, at times, referring to her as a woman seems ill-fitting. Gagool too rules using tactics of terror, fashioning the witch hunts as a means of consolidating her power by slaying Twala’s enemies, and in doing so, disseminating parts of her secret knowledge to female pupils who act as her “witch doctors” to sniff out supposedly evil doers.
Of the witch hunt, Quatermain contends the Spanish bullfights and the gladiatorial games of Rome “were either of them half as horrible as this Kukuana witch hunt” (King Solomon’s Mines 104). Thus, Gagool wields her secret knowledge to terrify the Kukuana people into submission, and so they as a society do not have a choice in the matter of who is their king. It is Twala who rests on the throne of the Kukuana, but it is Gagool who has placed him there, and it is by her power alone that he has remained upon the throne.
Thus, Twala acts as a puppet-king for Gagool, a distinction that presents Gagool as possessing such power that she can overcome the natural order of succession in the line of Kukuana kings. This is similar to how Ayesha rules using grand spectacles that represent her powers in order to terrify the Amahagger people into submission. However, in spite of this connection between the two characters’ manner of ruling, Gagool is never presented as having a sweet or alluring demeanor.
It can be argued this is because she is a savage, and so cannot be seen as a desirable figure like Ayesha who, in spite of ruling over the Amahagger people, is described as a white woman. Instead, Gagool is created to fit the character of the savage witch, juxtaposed against the good Englishmen who come in and have to save the Kukuana peole from her terrifying reign propagated by Twala. Since Haggard spends such care crafting the ruling patterns of these two women and how that has affected the respective societies in which they live, he is presenting various examples of women in spaces of holding power.
Ayesha’s source of power is two-fold, not only does she rule through terror from her power, but she is able to control Holly and Leo using her supernatural beauty, such that they are unable to resist her whenever she is unveiled. Gagool’s authority also stems from her powers, but, due to her status as being part of the native race and her age, she does not possess the secondary power of beauty that Ayesha does. However, all the women in the work of King Solomon’s Mines and She are killed off whenever their authority and autonomy interrupts the bond between the male characters.
As such, the novels present women in spaces of power within society as being threatening, not only are Gagool and Ayesha terrorizing their respective societies, but they are overturning the natural order of the patriarchal lineage by grasping spaces of authority that are antithetical to Haggard’s traditional notion of society in which the men held positions of authority and women were expected to remain in the domestic realm.
The origin of Gagool’s powers are unknown, but she is connected with a mysterious, ancient past due to her advanced ge and the continual references she provides to having seen events that had centuries previously. Gagool states, “when the country was young I was here, when the country grows old. shall still be here. I cannot die unless I be killed by chance, for none dare slay me” (King Solomon’s Mines 157). Thus, the root of her power appears to extend back to the dawn of time when it might have been gifted to her, and so her power appears to be immutable.
On the other hand, Ayesha sought out the philosopher Noot from whom she divined the knowledge of the pillar of fire that gives life. She affirms, “I did beguile him with my beauty and my wit, and flatter him with my tongue,” thus showing Ayesha used her femininity as a weapon in order to garner knowledge (She 247). Never once does Ayesha or Gagool question whether they should have this power, and it is their unwavering belief in the power of their might that leads to their downfall. Thus, each woman is killed by her own hubris ending with a fate that is ignoble and proves the limits of their powers.
In particular, Ayesha’s death strips her of dignity, and eliminates the aspects of her appearance for which she was notably beautiful. Her streaming locks of hair fall to the ground, and she ages thousands of years into a “hideous little monkey frame” (She 258). Stripped of her powers and life, Ayesha becomes nothing more than a “dreadful relic” that rests next to the pillar of fire that is the origin of her powers (259). Gagool’s fate is no less demeaning, as she is squashed beneath the stone door, the irony of which is she is the only one with the knowledge on how to work the door.
Haggard has these powerful women punished for transgressing the boundaries of nature, as they seek to go beyond the confines of the gender roles of women as nurturers and mothers remaining in the domestic space of the home. In this way, Haggard presents his notion of women maintaining authority, having autonomy, and wielding power in the public space of society. Ayesha and Gagool are women whose powers come from the natural world or an otherworldly source, but in the end, they are undone by the hubris engendered by obtaining such power.
They can be seen as being punished for transgressing the boundaries of Victorian gender roles in much the same way the New Woman was pushing back against restrictive social roles. Even more so than being transgressive, these two women disrupt the bonds of men in the novel. Ultimately, they are killed for carving out their own space of temporal power and are presented as cruel, violent leaders who maintain their authority using tyrannical power and chilling spectacles of punishment.