From Ayesha to Wonder Woman

A while ago I was thinking about the vast scale of H. Rider Haggard’s influence on fantasy and adventure fiction, and something occurred to me: did Wonder Woman originate as a feminist rewrite of Haggard’s Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed? The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemd – so I decided to write an essay about it, clocking in at 5,400 words. You can read the whole thing by joining the WWAC Patreon; for now, here’s a sample:

Somewhere in a remote corner of the world is a land known to outsiders only in legend. It is a matriarchy, ruled for thousands of years by a queen who has obtained the gift of immortality. The modern West eventually makes contact with this hidden land, leading to a clash of cultures. The matriarchy and its immortal queen have their own attitudes towards the concepts of power and obedience, towards the roles of men and women – attitudes that strike visitors from the outside as strange and different, yet also enticing.

This is the premise behind two influential pieces of fantasy fiction. One is the comic saga of Wonder Woman, which began in 1941; the other is H. Rider Haggard’s novel She: A History of Adventure, originally serialised in the 1880s. Each story was extremely influential, yet the two used their shared premise to opposite ends. Wonder Woman is a superhero who uses her powers to thwart evil forces; in Haggard’s novel, meanwhile, the immortal queen Ayesha is a cold-hearted and brutal despot known to her subjects as “She-who-must-be-obeyed” (an epithet that launched a thousand sitcom jokes). Whereas Ayesha became the template for sundry villainesses, Wonder Woman remains one of the most enduring heroines of the popular imagination – but could the two seeming opposites be connected?

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