A Review: 1921’s The Sheik by E.M. Hull

October 12, 2007

A Contribution To The Edgar Rice Burroughs

Library Project.

A Review

The Sheik

by

E.M. Hull

by R.E. Prindle

The Novel

     The Sheik by E.M. Hull is found in ERB’s library.  The novel published at the beginning of 1921 was a runaway bestseller going through thirty-0ne printings by October.  My copy is of the thirty-first printing.  How many more it may have gone through I am not aware.

     The book was quickly made into the movie of the same name starring Rudolph Valentino and released on November 20th of the same year.  Thus the impact would have been redoubled on ERB reading the book and seeing the movie.

Having troubles in his relations with Emma, he was somewhat bedeviled by what she wanted as Freud was by what women wanted.  The Sheik presented one woman’s solution to the problem of what women want. The Englishwoman E.M. Hull examined the problem in some detail.  Her solution would find expression in ERB’s Tarzan And The Ant Men of 1923 in the story of the Alalus women.

2.

     While Mrs. Hull’s novel is invariably reviewed as a soft core porn novel it is actually quite a serious attempt to explore what women want.  Not a potboiler, the story is well thought out and carefully constructed.

     The story falls into the category of the desert nomad thriller.

     The scene is somewhere between Biskra and Oran in Algeria.  Biskra is the southernmost point on the railroad from the coast to the Sahara in the East of Algeria.  It is an oasis area and was a winter resort for Europeans.  This area was also the scene of Robert Hitchen’s The Garden Of Allah and the Sahara scenes from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Return Of Tarzan.

The Author

     As with Hitchens’ the desert serves as a symbol for self-realization and redemption.  The story was written as the career of the rebel Abd El Krim was reaching its apex in the Rif.  Krim’s story was terrifically romantic for women of the era.  I had a high school history teacher in the fifties who was still capable of gushing about Krim thinking him the most manly and desirable of men.

     As with Hitchens the story revolves around a man and a woman.  The woman an Englishwoman and the man a Krim like sheik of the desert.

3.

     The woman is appropriately named Diana.  Diana was the virgin huntress of Greek mythology who spurned all relations with men thus putting her in enmity with Aphrodite.  She is somehow related to the Lady Of The Lake of ancient Lacedaemon which name means Lady Of The Lake and in a line of progression to the Northern European archetype of the second half of the Piscean Age.  This is a rather strange female archetype to represent the Northern European psyche.  She is a cold unloving symbol that may have something to do with the European character.

     Whether Mrs. Hull knew these things or not she represents them perfectly in her story.  This is quite extraordinary.

     Thus her Diana was raised by her brother as a boy.  She is represented throughout the story as an ambiguous girl-boy, nearly a hermaphrodite.  She is herself a skilled huntress who has no use for men.  As the story opens she has yet to be kissed.  Mrs. Hull skillfully represents the respect that Northern European men have for their women which in itself may be conditioned by the Diana image.  They are easily put off.  When one man asks Diana for a kiss he accepts his rejection with equanimity asking only if they can at least be pals.

     The Sheik as the wild man of the desert knowing no law but his will offers quite a contrast.  By the time of Mrs. Hull’s novel ERB had already explored the same literary territory in the Return Of Tarzan and The Lad And The Lion as well as The Cave Girl.  I would hesitate to say Mrs. Hull had read Burroughs but the Sheik is portrayed as a Tarzan like superman in a decidedly pulp manner.

     The Sheik does not observe any civilized niceties.  At one point Mrs. Hull refers to his civilization being less than skin deep.  As the Sheik, Ahmed, says, if he wants something he takes it.  Having seen Diana in the marketplace of Biskra he sets out to kidnap and rape her.  There are no other words for it and Mrs. Hull does not mince them.

     His plan worked out so that he buys off Diana’s desert guide to deliver her to him on the first night out of Biskra.  Prior to that he surreptitiously serenaded her on the night before even entering her room in the dark while she is there to replace the bullets in her pistol with blanks to prevent her from shooting him in the desert which she did attempt to do.

4.

     Now, Mrs. Hull is presenting an allegory so the novel is filled with symbols.  The key symbol is the horse.  The horse is, of course, a symbol of the female associated with the Greek god Poseidon.  In ancient times the symbol of the bull was associated with the missing y chromosome of the female being replaced in Patriarchal times with the horse.  Thus the Patriarchal goddess Athene is sometimes represented as horse headed.

     When the guide brings Diana a horse to ride it is a magnificent creature much better than she might have expected from a commercial enterprise.  The horse has actually been provided by Ahmed the Sheik so as Diana leaves Biskra she is already mounted on the Sheik’s horse- a powerful sexual symbol.  The horse is trained to respond to signals from The Sheik.

     The story is filled with horses and horse races between she and the Sheik.  In one race the Sheik gives her a minute to stop or he will shoot her horse dead which he does.  He then places Diana in front of him on his horse (these horses are all magnificent and beyond magnificent) at which point she realizes that she is not only in love with the Sheik but has been for some time.

     Previous to this time she had noted in the camp

     …but it was the horses that struck Diana principally.  They were everywhere, some tethered, some wandering loose, some excercising in the hands of grooms.

     So everywhere is the symbol of the female.  At this stage Diana has been sexually subordinated to the Sheik but she is intellectually resisting.  The Sheik puts on a demonstration of how useless her resistance is as he fully intends to break her.

     A man eater is brought out who has killed a man earlier that morning.  The horse obviously represents Diana.  Some two or three men attempt to break the horse but they all fail.  Then the Sheik mounts.  The result is a thoroughly exhausted and beaten horse.  She stops fighting with her legs splayed while the Sheik jumps off.  Then the horse rolls over left with no will of its own.

     This is exactly Diana’s situation.  Earlier she had boasted to her brother:  I will do what I choose, and I will never obey any will but my own.

     That is now proven an empty boast as the Diana riding in front of the Sheik chooses to obey the Sheik’s will.

     Perhaps Mrs. Hull has prophesied the submission of England’s will of today to the desert Sheiks.  As of now the Moslems have all but assumed religious control of England.  Thus England as Diana has submitted its sexuality to the sons of the Sheiks.

     However Diana’s Sheik still has to prove himself as the dominant male of his society to retain her allegiance.  One hesitates to say that she perversely tests him nevertheless having been cautioned to take care on her desert rides she insists on going too far afield.  Naturally she and her seven man escort are ambushed by the fat swarthy greasy rival sheik’s men.  Six of the seven escorts die joyously defending their sheik’s property.  The seventh, the sheik’s European manservant gets the classic bullet crease alongside the head.  Diana disappears into the fat greasy sheik’s tent.  This guy is everything an Arab sheik should have been in contemporary European eyes.  Fat, greasy, swarthy, unbelievably smelly, uncouth to the nth degree.  There’s no doubt there’s the fate worse than death for the boyish, sylphlike, slender, lithe Diana.  Yes, it seems pretty certain, unless…

     Here comes the Sheik with a small but loyal and dedicated band of followers eager to die for their leader.  Just as the greasy, swarthy sheik  has got it out and ready in crashes Ahmed  in the nick of time.  Rather than shooting the bastard and getting it over with he wants to dispatch El Greaso by hand.  As we all know strangling a a struggling strong man takes a little time.  Enough time for El Greaso’s vile Ebon followers to burst into the tent.  Right behind them come Ahmed’s men.  Shades of Tarzan!  Ahmed takes a severe blow to the head and a couple long blades in the back.

     Will he live?  After muttering a couple pages similar to the last words of Dutch Schultz the matter is in the hands of Allah and the European surgeon.  As much as I like having god on my side, in certain situations a good surgeon is even better.

      Nevertheless if Ahmed lives he has proven himself to be the right man for Diana.  Interestingly the virgin huntress has submitted to the law of Aphrodite.  The European archetype has accepted the dominance of the Moslem Arab.

     Well, almost.  In the first place the tribe of Ahmed is very interesting according to his French friend who arrived in time for the big battle.  It seems that Ahmed’s tribe is different from the rest of the desert greasers.  It is inferred that his tribe is one of the legendary White tribes supposed to be living in the Sahara.  Undoubtedly a surviving remnant of Atlantis that moved South when the Mediterranean flooded.

Why, in addition, it turns out that Ahmed isn’t even an Arab.  It seems that he’s actually English.  Well, an English Spanish blend.  His English father when in his cups did some unspeakable thing to Ahmed’s mother when she was pregnant with him and she was found by Ahmed Sr. Ahmed Jr.’s adopted father wandering dazed and confused beneath the broiling desert sun.

     Taken in she dropped Ahmed Jr. and died.  The baby was raised as the successor to Ahmed Sr.  But he developed an uncontrollable hatred for England, its people and all things English.  That’s why he captured and raped Diana over and over.  But it’s OK, they both realize they love each other now.

     The lesson seems to be that that’s what woman wants:  a man who can earn her repect by dominating and controlling her while at the same time being the dominant male in his society, being able to provide all her wants and desires while being able to defend her from the El Greasos of the world.  So all the necessary elements come together here and we have a marriage if not made in heaven perfect for terrestrial travails.

     If nothing else ERB learned where he had failed Emma in the beginning but who now wondered in his own role of sheik where the rewards from Emma were.

     I’m going to speculate that ERB read the story in 1921.  He might have enjoyed Valentino in the movie but I think it improbable that the silent film came near capturing the nuances of the novel.  I’m sure the signficance of Diana as female European archetype didn’t come through on celluloid.

     Was it even in Mrs. Hull’s mind one may perhaps ask.  Is it possible I’m projecting my beliefs on Mrs. Hull’s story?  It is possible but consider this passage in The Sheik:

     He was so young, so strong, so made to live.  He had so much to live for.  He was essential to his people.  They needed him.  If she could only die for him.  In the days when the world was young the gods were kind, they listened to the prayers of hapless lovers and accepted the life they were offered in the place of the beloved whose life was claimed.  If God would but listen to her now.

     So we know that Mrs. Hull was read in Greek mythology.  It would seem inevitable that she was familiar with the stories of King Arthur to some degree.  Certainly she knew the story of Merlin and Vivian.  She was a writer.  Knowing little about Mrs. Hull it is impossible for me to know for certain exactly what she read or understood.  And yet, there it is in the pages of her novel if one has eyes to see.  The Sheik is as much a work of mythology as is that of Burroughs’ Tarzan.  It is possible that neither was conscious of what they were saying but the information taken into their minds was transformed subconsciously, at least, into the form in which it issued forth from their pens.  It works that way for writers.  I am often astonished at the subliminal message of what I write.  Did I intend it?  Must have.  There it is.  Still, I do put myself into a mild trance when I’m writing so that I concentrate on words rather than ideas.  So the words are more conscious while the content is more subliminal.  We know ERB wrote from a trancelike state and Mrs. Hull’s story has that quality.  I think we have enough evidence to know that she had read the mythological material so that whether she had consciously formulated her ideas they come out in her writing.  In short, I don’t think I’m projecting much if anything.  Tra la.

     There is no doubt that The Sheik made a big impression on ERB.  The question is how did he understand it.  His first reaction appeared in 1923’s Tarzan And The Ant Men in the weird parody of the Alalus people in which he reverses the male-female roles with the women being stronger and dominant.  As Ahmed figures the women brutally dominate the men.  Using them for sexual pleasure then discarding them.  ERB’s story seems to be tongue in cheek but without a reference point the ridiculous story is hard to follow.  With E.M. Hull’s The Sheik I believe we have the reference point.

     It seems clear that Mrs. Hull was influenced by Robert Hitchens’ The Garden Of Allah.  What is not clear is whether she was influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs and if so by what novels.  The Sheik follows a pulp format.  So, if Mrs. Hull read the pulps on a regular basis there is no reason to believe that she was not familiar with some of his work as Burroughs certainly by 1920 when she probably began the novel was already the premier pulp writer.

     If that was the case it seems likely that she might have read The Return Of Tarzan and The Lad And The Lion, perhaps The Cave Girl.  If she read Lad then she reversed the roles of the chief male and female characters making the Woman English and the man Arab.

     I haven’t read the magazine version of The Lad And The Lion so I am not sure of the specific changes ERB made between the 1913 version and the 1938 rewrite for book publication.  The rewrite shows clear evidence of influence from The Sheik unless of course Mrs. Hull was reflecting the influence of the Lad on herself.  In any event the two books reflect an influence from one to the other.

     So, as with Trader Horn and Burroughs it is possible that Hull was influenced by Burroughs and with both of these authors Burroughs reading of them was reflected in his subsequent writing.

     Our list of reciprocal influences is growing when one adds that of H.G. Wells.  What once seemed simple grows more complex.

Postscript:  I have since learned that Mrs. Hull was a student of mythology.

6 Responses to “A Review: 1921’s The Sheik by E.M. Hull”

  1. A.N. CHAVEZ Says:

    i read the sheik in 1998 i was 15 or 16 i read it in less than 3 days and between classes in high school, i love this book, but not the movie. I must read the book one a year i have it in spanish and in English as well, I really like your review, you make very good points. i have found lots of books with the intation ok coping what E.M. Hull did and they are soo far from her. i hope soon someone could make the movie with good actors, great locations and in french not in english like they do all the good books in hollywood.
    good luck
    A.N. Chavez
    from mexico

  2. reprindle Says:

    Thanks so much AN. I’m amazed at the terrific response I’ve gotten from this review. I had no idea so many people were familiar with the book. I, of course, approached it as some kind of sex manual as that is the way it is most often referred to.

    I was quite surprised to find it a serious examination of the male-female relationship.

    I hope you can find another you like as much. If you haven’t tried Flaming Youth yet, read my review of that, then read the book. Not quite another Sheik but interesting.

  3. Alison Says:

    just came across your review of my great-aunt edith’s “the
    sheik.” let me tell you that she was a cultivated lady who grew up in london wirhA SHIPPING MAGNATE AND AN OPERA SINGER FOR PARENTS. (SORRY I HAVE A BROKEN WRIST) she and her only daighter, cecil winstanley hull (my godmother) travelled extensively in the desert and wrote at least one book on their travels “camping in the sahara.” when we visited her at her derbyshire homein 1944 she still had 3 aged retainers, one of whom doubled as gardener and chauffeur – i remember still being driven into derby in the ancient daimler … no idea where the petrol came from.

    she had a life sized portrait of
    valentino behind a door,and many beautiful camel hair rugs, along with a great many other middle eastern treasures which was too young to appreciate. to a young child she was very austere, definitely of the ‘children should be seen noy’ school of thought. she died intestate not long after the end of world war ii so the government got most of the estate so my godmother lived very frugally after having risrn to the rank of Lt.

    colonel in the British women’s army. she wrote a number of monographs on birds – she never married.

  4. Ellen Says:

    I was wondering if anyone knows anything about Hull’s travels other than what can be found in Camping in the Sahara. I’m very interested to know if there are any other existing documents on this.

  5. reprindle Says:

    Haven’t looked into that angle yet. I will have to check out Camping In The Sahara.


  6. Dear Alison: I’ve read your short reply on this web page regarding your great-aunt, Edith Maude Hull. I’m writing a magazine piece about Mrs. Hull and would greatly appreciate interviewing you. Is this possible? I could see you in person or send you a list of questions.

    In advance, thank you for your consideration.

    Sincerely yours,

    Michele Zackheim

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