Whether you see this week’s setting as Eden, El Dorado, the Temple of Doom, or Mysterious Kôr, it’s hard to deny the links to H. Rider Haggard’s 1886-87 novel She. Mostly that’s because She, about a British academic/explorer who discovers a “lost city” ruled by a powerful 2000-year-old woman, is one of the foundational books in several genres, with the most important for our purposes being “Adventure Romance,” AKA the Indiana Jones genre. (Romance, it should be remembered, originally meant something closer to how we use “fantasy” today.) Haggard himself said that he wrote the book on the theme of “an immortal woman inspired by an immortal love,” and that’s something that last week’s episode made abundantly clear was at play in Abel’s obsession with Helena, whom he conflates with her daughter Fena, and who also has a link to Jeanne d’Arc, making her something of an immortal. Meanwhile, Yukimaru is the love Fena has chosen for herself, more or less, setting up a conflict between the interpretations of who she really is, something Fena herself hasn’t quite figured out.
One thing she seems to be is trained from infancy to open the gates to Eden, which at this point is also looking an awful lot like Atlantis or maybe Lyonesse, the drowned city of British mythology. From the song her father sang her to the dance she was clearly taught, everything about Fena’s pre-brothel childhood was clearly prepping her for this landing on the island risen from the sea. That should probably make all of us very suspicious, if only because no one involved seems to be at all cautious about the whole thing. I’m not saying that Shitan is about to get his face melted off by the treasures he’s just found (one of which looks like it could be an ark), but there’s definitely something off about the entire place. Even if we can explain things like “autumnal trees with all their leaves after being submerged” away with “magic,” there’s a very odd disconnect about what everyone sees once they’ve gotten through the ruined city. How do Kaede and Enju see enough gold to swim in when Karin and Makaba see only enough to barely cover the ground? How did Makaba find a golden dish while Karin sees mostly coins from different times and places? And how did Shitan manage to find precisely what he was hoping to when Fena and Yukimaru just passed it by? Is it possible that the island only shows people what they want to see or that only Fena – and Yukimaru by extension since he’s so focused on her – can see what’s really there?
We probably won’t get an answer to that until we get some insight into what Abel sees, because if that’s true, he’s going to be following Helena’s specter. Given that She deals with themes of imperialism as well as female power, it’s very fitting that the British have landed on the island on Fena’s heels, because they’re still very much in their imperialist phase in the 18th century. (Here’s hoping they didn’t bring a flag!) But it also brings us to another work that references Haggard’s novel, Elizabeth Bowen’s short story Mysterious Kôr from her 1945 collection The Demon Lover and Other Stories – in this piece, she likens bombed-out London to a lost city while exploring themes of the traditional woman versus the modern woman. The story takes place on a full moon night while WWII is still raging, so there’s a very real danger that the Germans will take advantage of the moon to bomb the city again. With Abel and his men bearing down on the unsuspecting crew of the Bonito, the beauty and the mystery of the island are distracting them from the danger, while Fena herself stands in contrast to Abel’s memories of Helena – the real woman versus the male ideal of one, 18th-century style. It’s a more earthy danger than in Haggard’s novel, and it positions the show as part of a larger body of works that plays on the themes and genres Haggard pioneered.
That means that I have to give this show credit for never leaving me without past works to draw from or things to discuss. Yes, we’re treading on increasingly bizarre and goofy territory as the plot goes on, and yes, I can’t stop making Indiana Jones jokes in my head, but there’s something enjoyable about how Fena: Pirate Princess just takes its inspirations and runs. I don’t see it becoming a great show, or even a less problematic one, in its final few episodes. But as Andrew Lang’s poem inspired by Haggard’s novel (which, I should note, has never gone out of print) says, “in whatever spot,/In town or field, or by the insatiate sea,/Men brood on buried loves, and unforgot,/Or break themselves on some divine decree,/Or would o’erleap the limits of their lot,/There, in the tombs and deathless, dwelleth She!”
I daresay at least one Dr. Jones would agree.
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