Too soon to tell if it will be any good. Ben Kingsley can chew up some scenery, though.
To be the body of the state
An image of a “virtual autopsy” of Tutankhamun has been released in order to promote a new BBC documentary. It’s breathtaking.
Here is the image of the man – so barely a man – as the king that he truly was. How do I say “that he truly was”? Is that not cruel, dismissive, ableist? We could never say of an ordinary disabled person, or indeed of any person, that she “was” her body. But a pharaoh’s body was the body of the state. He was a god; his flesh was supposed to be of gold, his hair of lapis lazuli. At his jubilee festivals, the king ran ritual laps around a track to mark the boundaries of his kingdom. He was the Mighty Bull, the Horus and the resurrected Osiris.
And there he was, little Tutankhamun, the son of a brother and sister, the last male left in the path of his father’s wake of destruction. The sickness and suffering at the heart of the kingdom must have struck everyone that looked on him – except, perhaps, for his half-sister-wife. Ankhesenamun’s virtual autopsy will probably never exist in this detail, but if it did, it would no doubt look much like this one with a wig on top.
What it was to be Tutankhamun is inextricable from what it is to see, to inhabit, this body.
The Amarna Period: The Last Heiress by Stephanie Liaci (2011)
Another idea that people share about the Amarna Period is a great sympathy for Ankhesenamun, the girl-queen. She does not get quite the popular press of her husband Tutankhamun, on account of lacking his golden tomb, but the vague outline of a tragic figure is clear to whoever reads a little of her history. Married to her father, made to bear him a little girl that died, then married to her half-brother and robbed of him a few years later, without any living children to protect her position. In the past few years, DNA testing has established that we have (probably) found the mummy of Ankhesenamun. The mummy’s head has gone missing since its initial discovery. Liaci’s novel of Ankhesenamun explores an intriguing suggestion – what if her head went missing so easily because it had been severed?
Although Liaci’s novel uses the first-person-view-of-royalty device, which I’ve mentioned I don’t care for, I was nevertheless drawn in and kept to the end. Unlike other authors I’ve read so far in this little project, Liaci actually addresses the chronic disorders and ill health of Tutankhamun, and to a certain extent, of Ankhesenamun. She depicts Tutankhamun as constantly struggling to be a mighty warrior, pushing his body to its limits and hiding his disabilities. He is also fascinated with the military, which is highly plausible and poignant. Would World War I have happened if Kaiser Wilhelm had not suffered from a mangled arm all his life?
She also ignores Tutankhamun’s health and youth where it is convenient, in order to transform the relationship between Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun into a conventional romance. A wounded, fiery heroine and a gentle, patient, mature lover – hardly likely in such a strange, sad situation. Ankhesenamun was three years older than her husband. They married at about nine and twelve. Although they no doubt had a bond between them, this is a little young for the story of sweeping-off of feet that Liaci tells. In this book, the couple consistently interacts as if they were in their mid-twenties, not their tweens.
There is some high-octane villainy near the end, melodramatically done but historically plausible. I appreciate Liaci’s clever use of the historical context of Ankhesenamun’s desperate plea for a Hittite husband. All in all, I would definitely read another Egyptian novel by Liaci. I hope to see more recent Amarna novels that use the DNA and forensic information to tell this bizarre story.
The Amarna Period: The Twelfth Transforming by Pauline Gedge (1984)
Here is the thing about not allowing your children to read grown-up books: it is not possible for you, also, to possess these books. If your child is a reader, then there is no shelf high enough and no place secret enough for them. I know, because I climbed up there. I was a lazy child and often overweight, but I climbed bookshelves like a monkey for my parents’ Stephen King* and Anne Rice** novels and – once I was done with my own age-appropriate books about Egypt – for Pauline Gedge’s The Twelfth Transforming.
I was ten when I first read it. For years, I reread it over and over, until the thing fell apart. Since it was out of print by then and I did not feel a need for another copy, I had not reread it in years, until now. As such, rereading it has told me more about the contrast between reading at ten and reading in one’s mid-thirties than about the historiography of historical fiction.
What makes Gedge’s book remarkable at the outset, to a typical reader, is the immediate and casual acceptance of incest. Pharaonic incest was practiced in order to protect the purity of Egyptian royal blood, which was regarded as literally divine. It is not clear to us whether incestuous marriages were meant to strengthen a pharaoh’s claim to the throne, or to keep royal blood (and royal claimants) out of lesser families by making sure that the sisters and daughters of a pharaoh were not free to marry and have children with anyone else. In any case, the first few pages of Gedge’s novel make it clear that this is a narrative where all members of the family are sexual rivals. It is startling and repulsive.
That is, it is now. When I was ten, I accepted the incest in this book without question. This had nothing to do with the thankfully decent world that I lived in as a fifth-grader. I never even contemplated it as such. Egypt was simply the past. The world of the book was what it was, and I had no place to question it, nor any need to.
Could I let myself be such a reader now? Today, I have a hard time reading most anything without the internal critic asking: what are we being told to accept here? Is it accurate? Is it probable? Is it pushing an agenda against some gender or race or creed? Am I, in short, being taken for a fool by some rat-bastard typist who has issues with his/her ex?
No, I can no longer do without that voice. I can never be such a carefree reader, so full of wonder, as I was when I was ten. On the other hand, I also thought that John Maddox Roberts was a good fantasy author back then; so in all such losses there is some gain.
Gedge’s novel is as rich as a rum cake. She specializes in producing a decadent, highly scented picture of the royal and noble houses of Egypt, a place you could imagine losing hours in languid drunkenness, as her characters often do. The story is one of royal intrigue and dissipation, of naivete and madness, not of ideas or of love. Egypt itself is depicted as a mass of cowlike laborers, either working or suffering, invisible to the main characters of the story.
When I was a girl, I was immediately interested in Queen Tiye, the viewpoint character, and sorrowful for her sorrows, simply because she was the queen. Now, on rereading, all I see is a woman who loved only power, who failed to be a mother to her children and was surprised and angry when they grew up to be either spoiled past bearing, or insane, or both. Did Gedge herself see that? It is hard to say.
The whole novel, as evocative and carefully written as it is, makes one feel slightly sick. Someone who read this novel without any prior interest in ancient Egypt would no doubt consider the whole wretched thing well lost to the Persians.
* Which I read right away. I did not have to wait for Tim Curry for IT to give me sleepless nights.
** Which were boring and annoying and I could not see the point. In fact I have yet to see it.
The Amarna Period: La reine soleil (2007)
Here’s something I can’t review, because I can’t get ahold of it in English. But isn’t it beautiful?
The use of electric blue eyes against dark red skin immediately reminded me of the hero of my favorite cartoon as a child, Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea. That was also a French cartoon (Les mondes engloutis) with a great deal of eclectic history, including obvious influence from Amarna-period Egyptian design. I was desperately obsessed with it as a girl, and although it wasn’t of course nearly as good as I remembered, it was certainly good enough to have an impact on another generation of animators. The Youtube comments are full of vicious arguments about whether the blue eyes are evidence of whitewashing by the animators. For now, I will try to believe the animators were thinking of Spartakus.
Although the plot of this one is supposed to be based on a Christian Jacq novel, I have a hard time imagining how faithful it could be. The one Jacq novel that I have tried was dense and chewy, hardly a thing of animated splendor, but I haven’t been able to read La reine soleil in English. The few reviews I find in English suggest it’s more effervescent.
This movie features Ankhesenamun (called Akhesa) as an off-brand Disney princess of the Spunky variety. Tutankhamun is the foil/love interest. There’s magic and moonlight chases and it all looks like good fun. It would not be good fun in the least if a swaybacked young Tutankhamun was hobbling around on a walking stick, as we know he did, instead of climbing into hollow statues and running across rooftops and similar. I’m also interested to see how exactly the movie handles a romance between half-siblings, which the two of them most likely were – but my guess is, it doesn’t.
In any case, it looks lovely, and I would probably even sit through it in French (which I do not speak) if I could get a legal copy. That’s what I did when I bought a bunch of DVDs of Les mondes engloutis. I told you – obsessed.
The Amarna Period: The Maya Papyrus by Richard Coady
The Maya Papyrus by Richard Coady is an ebook available for only $3.20 at present. I decided to buy it before I finished the sample. At one point in this book, I was paging through my Kindle with one hand while stirring pasta sauce for dinner with the other. That, my friends, is engaging fiction.
In this novel, Akhenaten is shown as a madman, at first a pitiful, acromegalic child and then a cruel, bitter man, reliant upon secret police and a culture of fear. Coady has a gift for depicting the inner lives of men torn by duty, and doubting the heavens. In Yuya, particularly, he creates an affecting portrait of a man worn down by the demands of his position. Coady also excels at action scenes, and at the everyday shoves, barks and bites of daily life in ancient Egypt, the bitter and the sweet. The brief but affecting time spent with Hittite royalty, including the ill-fated Prince Zannanzash, was also excellent. Coady’s depiction of Tutankhamun as a complex character, not a naif, is also not something I have generally seen in fiction of this time.
The framing device is an old friend, the confessional false document (by which I do mean a plot device, and not a fake ID). Personally, I am very fond of false documents, and write them all the time for my own fiction, but they slip easily into anachronism, especially so for ancient times. We lack documentary evidence for a first-person narrative of candor and descriptive ability until much, much later, which is why that whole bicameral mind business got any traction. Still, as I say, I enjoy false documents more than otherwise, and expect them to have some flaws.
Where The Maya Papyrus falls down is in the plotting. At nearly every turn in The Maya Papyrus, the Most Villainous Thing is done by the Most Villainous Character. Eventually, you think, the Most Villainous Character can’t possibly get away with the Most Villainous Thing again, can he? And he does! More brazenly than he did the time before!
Half of the characters don’t have much agency to begin with, because they’re women – a very strange notion to have about the Amarna Period, or about ancient Egyptian women in general. Every single woman in this book is either passive or insufferable. Only one woman in Coady’s book seems to have any driving ambition of her own, and that is Thuya, the mother of Tiye and Ay. She is depicted as a domineering nag whose only concern is for the propagation and power of her family. To be fair, that is probably an accurate assessment of her, and of most highly-placed women at any given royal court.
But why is Thuya the only woman in this book who decides to want anything? None of the royal women in this story – not the prominent Tiye, not the smiting Nefertiti, not Ankhesenamun who plotted to place a Hittite prince on the throne beside her* – has a single idea about governance or religion on her own. All of them, according to Coady, originally came from one or another of the men beside her. To imagine that this happened in the Amarna Period, out of all eras of Egyptian history, is to cut yourself badly on Occam’s Razor.
Nonetheless, I recommend this book, and I dare say I’ll go with Coady’s next as well, which is to be set in ancient Greece. If you need to read an absorbing, intrigue-packed book about ancient Egypt, and you need to get it right now on your iPhone, this one is here for you.
* Unless she didn’t do that, but in that case, either Nefertiti or her daughter Meritaten probably did it.
The Amarna Period: an ongoing fictional historiography
Like most anyone who asked themselves why King Tut was only ever a boy-king, I have had a fascination with the Amarna Period of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty since small times. I’ve decided to seek out novels, films, or other literature dealing with the crisis of the Amarna Period – that is, the late reign of Pharaoh Amunhotep III, his son Akhenaten the religious reformer, and his succession – and review them.
There are a great deal of books, many of them bad, some of them merely outdated, and I dare say I will never get tired of them. Personally, I think there should be more films. Why don’t we see nearly as many screen depictions of the Amarna Period as we do, say, the Tudors? I should think it offers as much, if not a great deal more, to appeal. Instead of poorly-bathed white people in badly heated castles, all backstabbing each other for the attentions of fat, rotten old Harry, you can have bright sun and golden palaces and characters in various states of bejeweled shirtlessness. You can even examine the same disputes over the power of Church in State. Is Akhenaten a mystic visionary or a tyrant, a Mad King Ludwig or a Kim Il-sung? Is Nefertiti a politician or an opportunist – an Evita or an Imelda? Is Ankhesenamun a pawn, a traitor, or in control of her own destiny?
All these things, we are in no position to know, and barring further discoveries, we never will. That is why they will be endlessly examined in fiction, and why I will endlessly read about them. What draws me to read and to write historical fiction is that, where we do not faithfully tell the stories of the past, we are telling instead stories about ourselves; and those, though inadvertent, are no less of interest to me.