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Sin, Sexism, and Gothic Wanderers: Haggard and Lang’s The World’s Desire

The World’s Desire (1890) is one of the most interesting, strange, possibly sexist, and only partially satisfying novels I have ever read. This collaboration between H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang deserves to be far better known simply because it is a collaboration between two of the great Victorian writers of adventure novels, or male romance, but more so, because of its fascinating Gothic wanderer figures—Odysseus, Helen, and Meriamun.

The 1890 first edition of The World’s Desire

The World’s Desire will not appeal to all readers—it’s definitely a novel written for men rather than women, but it is also a book deserving of attention. Written as a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, literary critics have praised Lang for his ability to recreate Homer’s style and diction. That said, I feel the hand of Haggard more firmly in it. The novel is in his style and tone largely and reads like a strange sort of dream that reminds me especially of one of my favorite of his works, The Ghost Kings, as well as the Conan stories of Robert Howard. The atmosphere is very Gothic, and the theme is Gothic, without the typical Gothic trappings of castles. The supernatural is prevalent throughout the novel, though more in the form of Greek goddesses and biblical plagues than typical ghosts.

The story begins with Odysseus returning home from a second voyage he made after his initial return to Ithaca at the end of The Odyssey. He reaches Ithaca only to find that plague has killed everyone there, including his wife. He goes to the temple of Aphrodite to pray and ask for direction and she tells him he has always followed Athena, not her, but now it is time for him to follow her and truly have a great love. He is to seek Helen of Troy, to learn what became of her, and with her he shall know true passion. Unsure how to find her, Odysseus prepares for the search by putting on the armor of Paris that he received as a gift from Menelaus. Then the island is invaded by slavers who kidnap him. They take him to Egypt, where he manages to escape from them by slaughtering them.

Once in Egypt, Odysseus (who throughout most of the novel is referred to as “the Wanderer”) hears stories of terrible plagues that are happening. (These are the Biblical plagues of Exodus.) He is told that some blame the plagues on the Apiru (Hebrews) who wish to be set free from being Pharaoh’s slaves, but others blame the goddess Hathor or the one who poses as her. The most beautiful woman in the world is living in Hathor’s temple, claiming to be her, and some believe the true goddess is punishing Egypt in anger over the impostor.

Eventually, Odysseus makes his way to the Pharaoh’s presence. All this while he wears Paris’ armor and does not give his true name to anyone. Pharaoh is married to his half-sister, Meriamun. She only agreed to marry him in exchange for equal power with him. She is also a sorceress, and she comes to recognize Odysseus’ true identity and love him. Odysseus, however, is not interested in Meriamun and instead believes Hathor may be Helen, so he goes to the temple to see her, even though he is warned that all the men who have dared look upon her have died, struck down by some ghostly spirits that guard her. Of course, Odysseus survives. Helen is surprised to see him, fearing he is Paris’ ghost at first. Once he reveals his true identity to her, they swear their love for each other.

However, Meriamun is furious. She hates Helen for being the only woman in the world more beautiful than her, and now, she hates her for having Odysseus’ love. Through sorcery, she makes a Faustian pact with the Snake, also known as Sin (the biblical Garden of Eden snake clearly); she must always carry him about her like a girdle, and in exchange, she is able to change her image to be that of Helen. Of course, she seduces Odysseus, and while they sleep, the Snake curls itself about them.

When Odysseus learns he has been tricked, he is devastated, and it doesn’t help that Meriamun accuses him of raping her and has him throne in prison. Her goal now is to kill both Odysseus and Helen. Meanwhile, Pharaoh has been off pursuing the Apiru at the Red Sea and has lost his army. He returns and has a terrible dream (created by Meriamun’s sorcery) that convinces him, since his army is gone, he must send Odysseus to fight his other enemies coming from over the sea to attack Egypt, so off Odysseus goes to serve Pharaoh. Aphrodite tells Odysseus the only way he can be purged of his sin from being with Meriamun is to do so.

Meriamun now poisons Pharaoh and places the blames for his death on Hathor, who is still blamed even though the plagues have ended with the Apiru’s departure because so many men have died from looking at her. Meriamun gets the Egyptian women to attack the temple where Helen lives but Helen escapes.

H. Rider Haggard is today best known for King Solomon’s Mines, but his bestselling novel She introduced a powerful Gothic supernatural woman that would fascinate readers for centuries. Meriamun of The World’s Desire is very much written in her shadow.

Odysseus is now fighting the men from over the sea, including “Wolf, the Son of Signy, Son of the were-wolf” who is a “wanderer from an evil race that of old had smitten his [Odysseus’s] ships and devoured his men.” He is a giant man so one assumes he might be kin to the Cyclops. But Odysseus manages to kill him. Helen now arrives at the battle to come to Odysseus’ aid, but it is too late. Telegonus, the son of Circe and Odysseus, thinking Odysseus is Paris, shoots him with an arrow that kills him. Odysseus does not die, however, before revealing his identity to his son. Telegonus says he has been seeking his father all this time but now he has slain him. Odysseus dies on Helen’s breast with the promise that they have been together in past lives and will be together in future ones. They will meet again and then “our sin be purged and peace be won, and the veil be drawn from the face of Truth.”

Meriamun is present at the funeral when Odysseus is burnt on a pyre. In her agony over Odysseus’ death, she tears from her the snake she must wear as a girdle according to her Faustian pact. She casts it into the fire, but the priest Rei (the narrator of the book) tells her that because of her vow, she must go where the snake goes. She is then drawn to the fire and casts herself onto Odysseus’s body. The snake then wraps itself around both of them and laughs. (The reader is left with the impression that Sin rather than Love has conquered.)

The novel ends with Helen wandering into the night and into the desert, and we are told she will wander until the Wanderer comes again.

A strange novel. Critics have suggested that Odysseus is an imperial Gothic hero, one not a part of empire but one who fights for empire. Clearly, he is supposed to be the hero of the novel and the one the male reader is to admire, but this reader personally thinks all the characters are rather flat and not fully fleshed out. It is a romance and not a realistic novel, of course, but only Meriamun feels like a fully developed character. Many critics have discussed the sexism of the novel. Critics claim Lang and Haggard did not like women, did not like having a female queen, and were seeking to create lands where men could have control again. Meriamun is a version of Eve with her Snake who brings about destruction, but what a wonderful villainess she is. The depictions of her making her pact with the Snake are fabulous. I’ll just quote the scene when she first awakes the Snake before he tells her his terms:

For awhile she gazed upon it, shuddering, as one in doubt.

“Minded I am to let thee sleep, thou Horror,” she murmured. “Twice have I looked on thee, and I would look no more. Nay, I will dare it, thou gift of the old wisdom, thou frozen fire, thou sleeping Sin, thou living Death of the ancient city, for thou alone hast wisdom.” Thereon she unclasped the bosom of her robe and laid the gleaming toy, that seemed a snake of stone, upon her ivory breast, though she trembled at its icy touch, for it was more cold than death. With both her hands she clasped a pillar of the chamber, and so stood, and she was shaken with throes like the pangs of childbirth. Thus she endured awhile till that which was a-cold grew warm, watching its brightness that shone through her silken dress as the flame of a lamp shines through an alabaster vase. So she stood for an hour, then swiftly put off all her robes and ornaments of gold, and loosing the dark masses of her hair let it fall round her like a veil. Now she bent her head down to her breast, and breathed on that which lay upon her breast, for the Ancient Evil can live only in the breath of human kind. Thrice she breathed upon it, thrice she whispered, “Awake! Awake! Awake!”

And the first time that she breathed the Thing stirred and sparkled. The second time that she breathed it undid its shining folds and reared its head to hers. The third time that she breathed it slid from her bosom to the floor, then coiled itself about her feet and slowly grew as grows the magician’s magic tree.

Greater it grew and greater yet, and as it grew it shone like a torch in a tomb, and wound itself about the body of Meriamun, wrapping her in its fiery folds till it reached her middle. Then it reared its head on high, and from its eyes there flowed a light like the light of a flame, and lo! its face was the face of a fair woman—it was the face of Meriamun!

Now face looked on face, and eyes glared into eyes. Still as a white statue of the Gods stood Meriamun the Queen, and all about her form and in and out of her dark hair twined the flaming snake.

At length the Evil spoke—spoke with a human voice, with the voice of Meriamun, but in the dead speech of a dead people:

“Tell me my name,” it said.

“Sin is thy name,” answered Meriamun the Queen.

“Tell me whence I come,” it said again.

“From the evil that is in me,” answered Meriamun.

“Tell me whither I go.”

“Where I go there thou goest, for I have warmed thee in my breast and thou art twined about my heart.”

Then the Snake lifted up its human head and laughed horribly.

Today Andrew Lang is best known for writing the fairy books, each named for a different color, but he was also fascinated with curses, as is clear in The World’s Desire and his writing another novel, The Mark of Cain.

“Well art thou instructed,” it said. “So I love thee as thou lovest me,” and it bent itself and kissed her on the lips. “I am that Ancient Evil, that Life which endures out of the first death; I am that Death which abides in the living life. I am that which brought on thee the woe that is in division from the Heart’s Desire, and the name thereof is Hell. From Life to Life thou hast found me at thy hand, now in this shape, now in that. I taught thee the magic which thou knowest; I showed thee how to win the Throne! Now, what wilt thou of me, Meriamun, my Mother, my Sister, and my Child? From Life to Life I have been with thee: ever thou mightest have put me from thee, ever thou fliest to the wisdom which I have, and ever from thee I draw my strength, for though without me thou mightest live, without thee I must die. Say now, what is it?—tell me, and I will name my price. No more will I ask than must be, for—ah!—I am glad to wake and live again; glad to grip thy soul within these shining folds, to be fair with thy beauty!—to be foul with thy sin!” “Lay thy lips against my ear and thine ear against my lips,” said Meriamun the Queen, “and I will say what it is that I will of thee, thou Ancient Evil.” So the human-headed Evil laid its ear against the lips of Meriamun, and Meriamun laid her lips against its ear, and they whispered each to each. There in the darkness they whispered, while the witch-light glittered down the grey snake’s shining folds, beamed in its eyes, and shone through the Queen’s dark hair and on her snowy breast.

At length the tale was told, and the Snake lifted its woman’s head high in the air and again it laughed.

No doubt, a female villain in a male-written novel may well be sexist. That said, it is Meriamun who is remembered when the novel is closed. I am left not caring if Odysseus or Helen ever unite in a future life. I care only to see if Meriamun will return and continue her reign of sin. Some critics have argued that Meriamun is an embodiment of the New Woman that the authors are reacting against, and yet it is clear that they are most fascinated by her. Many a Gothic novel has been read as subversive to female gender roles, offering alternatives and pushing against accepted social boundaries while in the end having a conservative ending. However, here we have a subversive female villain who ultimately gets the upper hand by winning over, through fascination, the authors who seek to condemn her. Meriamun has managed to step outside the book and work her witchcraft on her creators and their readers. That in the end, she feels, if not guilt, despair over Odysseus’ death transforms her from a mere villain to a female Gothic wanderer—and she is one of the most memorable.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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The Mummy: Tom Cruise as Gothic Wanderer (Again)

Yes, Tom Cruise is officially a double Gothic Wanderer. His first Gothic Wanderer role was as Prince Lestat in Interview with a Vampire (1994). Now he comes back as a cursed soul, but more of that in a minute. First, he has quite an adventure on the way to becoming a cursed soul, and The Mummy depicts that journey.

The Mummy is the first of the new Dark Universe films, a reboot of Universal’s classic monster films.

The Mummy is the first film in the new Universal Studios remake of its 1930s monster franchise, which it will call the Dark Universe. (Dracula Untold was supposed to be the first film in the Dark Universe series, but apparently, it has now been dropped and won’t tie into the other films planned. A real shame because I thought it was probably the best Gothic film in years as I previously blogged about.) In any case, I am delighted that we will have a new series of Monster films, and despite some of the negative reviews, this film is not just a rehash of old Mummy films but is unusually fresh and does far more with the Mummy theme than any of its predecessors while retaining the themes of undying love, forbidden knowledge, and immortality that have been part of the mummy legacy since the first mummy film of 1932.

The general public’s interest in mummies began because of the early explorations by archeologists in Egypt in the late 1800s, resulting in early mummy novels such as Jane Webb’s The Mummy!, or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) and Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903) and eventually movies like The Mummy (1932). Therefore, it is surprising that the film is not set back in the early twentieth century like the recent films starring Brendan Fraser.

Instead, (spoiler alert from here on) we have a prologue set during the Crusades showing that English knights captured a large ruby from ancient Egypt and brought it back to England where they buried it in one of the knights’ tombs. This ruby was part of a dagger that the ancient Egyptian Princess Ahmanet used to try to kill her lover so the God Set could enter him and take on human form. When the knight’s tomb is discovered in modern-day London during a Crossrail construction, we are given a flashback scene to how it got there. Princess Ahmanet was denied the chance to succeed her father, the pharaoh, when his second wife gave birth to a son. Wanting the throne for herself, Ahmanet sold her soul to the Egyptian god Set, who gave her a special dagger to transfer his spirit into a human body. After murdering her family, Ahmanet tried to sacrifice her lover so Set could enter his corpse, but her father’s priests slew him before the ritual could be completed. They then mummified Ahmanet, sentencing her to be buried alive for eternity inside a sarcophagus surrounded by mercury so she could never escape. (I need not tell any Gothic Wanderer lover here that selling your soul is a very Faustian act and common in Gothic Wanderer novels. It also, in Ahmanet’s case, seems to have made her immortal, and immortality is a major Gothic Wanderer theme as well.)

Back in modern times, soldier-of-fortune Nick Morton and his partner Chris Vail accidentally discover the tomb of Ahmanet in Iraq. Jenny Halsey, an archaeologist who had a one-night stand with Nick, arrives to investigate the tomb and comes to realize it’s actually a prison. They raise up Ahmanet’s sarcophagus from where it is enchained in the pool of mercury, and then it is placed on a plane to be brought to England, along with Nick, Chris, and Jenny.

During the flight, Chris, who was bit by a spider in the tomb, becomes possessed by Ahmanet’s power. He tries to open the sarcophagus to free Ahmanet, and when the soldiers try to stop them, he starts stabbing people until Nick shoots and kills him. After that, he will start to haunt Nick. But not before a magnificent plane crash scene occurs—it is really the best plane crash scene I’ve ever seen. Jenny escapes with a parachute, but Nick goes down with the plane. He ends up waking in a body bag but doesn’t have a scratch on him. Why? Because Ahmanet is already possessing him—she has decided he will be the man whose corpse will one day allow the God Set to live in human form.

Meanwhile, Ahmanet’s sarcophagus has fallen out of the plane as it crashed. She escapes from it and starts feeding on people to bring life back into her body. She also finds the blade of the Dagger of Set, absent its jewel, in an ancient church where the Crusaders hid it. While Nick and Jenny are out looking for the sarcophagus, Jenny reveals to Nick that he must be connected to Ahmanet somehow, which turns out to be true when she starts to pursue them, but at the last minute, soldiers appear and subdue her.

The soldiers turn out to be followers of Dr. Henry Jekyll (of Jekyll and Hyde fame). He tells Nick that he and Jenny are part of Prodigium, a secret society that tries to stop supernatural threats. Dr. Jekyll, however, has his own ideas for how to stop evil—he wants to let Ahmanet complete her ritual so Nick will die and be possessed by Set; then Jekyll can destroy both Set and Ahmanet and stop their evil. Of course, Nick doesn’t like the idea of dying, but before he can stop Jekyll, who turns into Mr. Hyde briefly and must be subdued, Ahmanet escapes and begins to wreak havoc on London.

From this point, we have a typical action film until we get to the final showdown between Nick and Ahmanet. She explains to Nick that she loves him and wants him to live forever; she tries to stab him but he gets the dagger (with its jewel restored to it now) away from her, then decides he wants to be immortal so he stabs himself. However, he also remembers Jenny telling him there is good inside of him, so once he has immortality, the good in him wins out enough to make him destroy Ahmanet.

All this is lead up to the most interesting point of the film. Nick tells Jenny now he must leave her because he doesn’t know what he is now and he doesn’t want to hurt her. Then he swiftly disappears. In the final scenes, Dr. Jekyll tells Jenny that Nick is now going to spend his life with an internal battle of good and evil within him. He has achieved his redemption as a human by becoming a monster, but sometimes what the world needs is a monster (a line that was also used in Dracula Untold). In the final scene, Nick is with his friend Chris, whom he brought back to life through the powers he gained from Ahmanet. He says they will now have an adventure. Jekyll says Nick will spend his time seeking a cure for what he has become (rather like the Incredible Hulk), but truthfully, Nick doesn’t seem too concerned about it in the end.

That Nick is now cursed and immortal is high Gothic at its best. Unfortunately, it’s also where the film ends, with Nick a true Gothic Wanderer. I was left wanting more.

Yes, the film has gotten mostly negative reviews, but very unjustly in my opinion, and it has done well at the box office overseas if not in the U.S. At Rotten Tomatoes, the general consensus is “Lacking the campy fun of the franchise’s most recent entries and failing to deliver many monster-movie thrills, The Mummy suggests a speedy unraveling for the Dark Universe.” All I have to say to that is that while I liked the earlier Mummy films with Brendan Fraser, thank God that this film didn’t have campy fun. It’s about time we get some more serious horror films. Furthermore, a good horror film isn’t just about scaring the viewer. It’s about creating tormented characters, and this film sets up Cruise’s character to be a wonderfully tormented soul. This is the very essence of the Gothic Wanderer figure—the tormented soul. It is in the tradition of Frankenstein and Dracula and many other characters. Hollywood, please bring us more tormented souls and less chainsaw murderers, shark attacks, and crap films like Sleepy Hollow (1999) that can’t take their subjects seriously. Tormented souls are what life is about—aren’t we all in some way tormented souls and Gothic Wanderers looking for redemption? That Universal understood that when it made Dracula Untold and continues to understand it with The Mummy is why these are relevant films that can resonate with viewers—and also why they are far better than most of the superhero and other horror films being made currently, both of which owe a huge debt to the Gothic.

In addition, I want to say that I know Tom Cruise gets a lot of criticism these days. Frankly, I don’t care about his religion or his personal life. I care about whether he can make a good movie, and as far as I am concerned, he’s just as handsome, cool, and capable of creating a good action film as he was in Top Gun, The Firm, or any of his much earlier films. He’s hot, cocky, charming, talented, and looks incredible for his age. (In fact, in one scene Russell Crowe’s character remarks to Tom Cruise’s character, “You’re a younger man than me.” Actually Cruise was born in 1962 and Crowe in 1964, but Crowe is starting to look old and overweight. (He reminded me of Anthony Hopkins in this film, while Cruise could still pass for a man in his late thirties.) How much their looks are the result of makeup I can’t say. I’ll just say that Tom Cruise still rocks as a Hollywood megastar and anyone who says otherwise must just be jealous. I hope Cruise has plenty more Mummy and other Dark Universe films in his future.

More Dark Universe films are in the works, including films of Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. (See more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Monsters#Dark_Universe).

Universal, bring them on! You can’t make them fast enough for my taste! The Gothic Wanderer lives on—but why am I not surprised?—after all, in most renditions he is immortal.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at http://www.ChildrenofArthur.com and http://www.GothicWanderer.com.

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