Friday, 23 December 2016

Recently Read: Ramses

As an archaeologist with a foot in the anthropology and history camps, historicals have an inescapable appeal for me. Since the early months of 2016 I have been pursuing the best-selling (eleven million copies) five-volume Ramses series by Christian Jacq, fist published in the original French between 1995 and 1997, with English translations about two years later. As the author noted in his foreword, it was quite an experience to travel, as a writer, in the company of such a monolithic figure in history, and to attempt to do justice to his stature both as man and as legend. For me, as a reader versed in ancient history, as well as a writer, the experience was fascinating.

The writer’s “take” is certainly a romantic one, and Ancient Egypt has been sanitised to a very comfortable degree, creating an immediately acceptable and understandable world in which Egypt is the crucible of all that is best and which strives to be the shining light of human civilisation. Perhaps Jacq’s efforts to make the world of the second millennium BC familiar and comfortable go too far, there are moments when Ancient Egypt feels like the modern world in kilts, minus technology; there again, human nature being what it is (certainly borne out by the writings of ordinary folk which have come down to us in the archaeological record from Dehr el Medina above the Valley of the Kings) maybe life then was not so different from life today, and some may feel this is an acceptable way to depict it.

Certainly Jacq knows his Egyptology (as well he should, holding a doctorate in the field from the Sorbonne), from his descriptions of material culture to his citation of songs and prayers, as they were written. His geography is excellent and his knowledge of the technology, language and diet of the times forms a textural backdrop to the events. The events themselves are the conventional dramatic sweep, encompassing the spiteful plotting of frustrated siblings, vengeful emissaries of deposed figures of the past, the tensions between the Egyptian and Hittite domains, black magic and fury, the clash of civilisation and barbarism, lust, passion and romance – the full palate of the human experience. The high points of the life of Ramses are all covered, the building of his great works, the battle at Kadesh in Syria, the peace treaty with the Hittites and his marriage, late in the piece, to a Hittite princess; politically, the wavering of the border states between the empires, the revolt of the Libyan tribes, the consolidation of Nubia and Kush as provinces of the empire, are all solidly featured.

However, artistic license is certainly used with a bold brushstroke, to say the least. Homer lived in the 8th century BC, not the 13th, and wrote retrospectively of the Trojan War – he did not accompany Menelaus and Helen to Asia Minor, nor adopt Egypt as his home after the former popped in for a while to plot and scheme! That said, this Homer is a confidante of the king to the end of his life, and provides many philosophic interludes. Ramses is thought to have had a vast number of offspring, over 100 I believe, and Jacq’s assertion that all but three (names known from ancient sources) were state adoption, a kind of royal talent pool from which the succession could be assured, while an interesting idea, may come under the heading of sanitisation to make the king more sympathetic to modern sensibilities. Similarly, Jacq’s assertion that slavery was outlawed in New Kingdom Egypt runs contrary to accepted historical evidence. It is true that Egypt was touchy about it and defined it rather differently – had terms of indentured labour, and other forms of forced labour which differ from our conception of slavery as it was practiced elsewhere – but to assert that the institution did not exist in Egypt is a comfortable sanitisation which makes Egypt the glossier and more admirable to the modern reader. For a discussion of slavery in the region and period, here is an interesting read: Certainly, the great coffee-table volume Egypt, World of the Pharaohs does not contain so much as an index listing for the term slavery, so something is afoot.

The five volumes, The Son of the Light, The Temple of a Million Years, the Battle of Kadesh, The Lady of Abu Simbel and Under the Western Acacia, form a narrative of the life of the Pharaoh Ramses II, from age 14 or so to the end of his days, constituting a large part of the 13th century BC. The narrative expands through the eyes of five friends, boys together in the Memphis academy – Ramses, Moses, Ahsha, Ahmeni and Setau. Each is destined for greatness, though in very different ways, and the course of their lives is charted as they circle, vortex-like, around the institution of the Pharaoh. I can appreciate what a daunting task it must have been to plan such a foray, and to have known from the beginning that it required a grand treatment. In the Pocketbooks paperback edition, the series has a collective length of 1802 pages – but the simple truth is it could actually have been twice as long if properly developed. The books have a similar length range – 344 to 374 pages, as if written to a specification, and these days publishers seem to ask for sheer bulk to engender respect in the casual buyer.

Business aside, I was struck from the beginning that Jacq seems to underplay much of his material. He excels at characters, drawing them, setting them in conflict or in harmony, and his dialogue is at times magnificent, as are his descriptive powers – but not always. Sometimes his expression is flat, brusque – one is tempted to blame it on some loss of nuance in translation, but this may be an injustice. Often he skips over events I would have taken to be important, magnificent moments worthy of full development, yet they are treated in an almost off-hand manner, dusted off in a short paragraph of peremptory description. In the first novel, when Seti orders his son to drive the royal chariot to the river docks, and to accompany the Pharaoh on an expedition into the south, the grandeur of the moment struck me with its cinematic scale, but Jacq did not treat it that way. Much later, when discussing the fortress of Buhen, seat of the Viceroy of Nubia, his descriptions make it seem rather ordinary, whereas to (any other) archaeologist it is one of the stand-out structures of ancient times, of vast size, and pre-guessing the castles of the Middle Ages in its curtain walls, towers, moat and drawbridge – none of which were mentioned. Battles are half-described, over too quickly, and lack any sense of simpatico with the realities of combat. Where are the sweat and blood, the straining effort, the red haze of madness, the screaming and roar of a multitude, the awful tide of human carnage that was war in antiquity? Virtually absent. Characters are introduced with nigh word-for-word repeated paragraphs of description throughout, almost cookie-cutter writing, as if Jacq was tired of his subject and racing to finish. Pacing is another area where his style may rankle some, as time flows by at a variety of rates – leave two lines and four years have gone by. Jacq seemed to run afoul of his own chronology toward the end, as the last novel compresses some 35 years into one thread, and his references to dates, ages and relative years going by frequently do not tally.

The first four novels follow the king from a 14-year old prince who has rarely ever met his father, Seti I, to a seasoned monarch of 42, both victorious and grieved. The four novels form an interlinked story of intrigue, the linchpin of which is the scheming of Ramses’ older brother Shaanar, passed over by their father for the indolent and corruptible bureaucrat he is, not fit to stand in his brother’s shadow. Their sister, Dolora, is a weak personality easily swayed and is a close element of the plotting, which expands to include ministers and officers, and wholeheartedly embraces a Hittite spy ring under the control of a black magician from Libya hell-bent on reasserting the royal line of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton.

To this add a swathe of colourful figures – Seremanna, the gigantic Sardinian pirate who became head of Ramses closest bodyguard, Iset the Fair, first lover of the king, Nefertari, the incomparable Queen, old Nebu, High Priest of Karnak, the royal family of the Hittites, Ramses’ lion Invincible, saved as a cub in Nubia and his inseparable companion in life and battle – and the making of a long and complex narrative is complete. The passage of time is not always comfortable or smooth, however, and one feels at times more should or could have been made of some elements before the relentless passage of the years consigned them to the past. The narrative structure tends to feel as if months are elapsing, when decades are going by. That said, the personalities become companions, and when they depart, the reader feels it keenly.

In a way, the main storyline is finished after four books, but Ramses is barely middle aged, and the fifth book feels like an uncomfortable graft. It would have been tempting to let the series go at four, but that would have meant closing in tragedy, the passing of Queen Nefertari on the very day she saw the temple complex of Abu Simbel, built for her by Ramses. Even so, the writer is obliged to leap ahead in time, twelve years have gone by before the next volume opens, and there were surely other stories worth telling in that period. The last volume has a certain sadness about it – the reader knows it can only end one way, and as the book progresses one character after another succumbs to old age, battle, suicide or murder, and final forays into intrigue and action have the feeling of merely delaying the inevitable.

The series’ sales figures cannot be disputed, Jacq clearly pleased his primary readership, but more recent reviews are harsh and place this series with romantic fiction, not historical. I find it reasonable to expect historical fiction to do the best it can to reflect history as it is known, and Jacq’s choice to perform a Xena-like mash-up of eras and elements comes under the heading of alternate reality. The moment Menelaus, Helen and Homer sailed into Egypt I knew he was going in some direction of his own, and viewed everything thereafter with a different expectation. Some reviewers assert that literally every detail is inaccurate in some way – whether due to sanitisation or the need for the world depicted to be comfortably familiar – and that Jacq’s work is a disservice to the earnest reader, not to be compared with, say, the Egyptian novels of Pauline Gedge.

Certainly Jaqc chose to tell the apocryphal version of the battle of Kadesh, the one in which Amon imbued Ramses with supernatural power, enabling him to battle the enemy alone, the story repeated on monuments throughout Egypt. For a more objective view of the historic battle (which Ramses got away with by the skin of his teeth) see Mark Healy’s 1993 scholarly work Qadesh 1300 BC: Clash of the Warrior Kings (Osprey, Campaign #22). Throughout the series, Jacq’s emphasis is on the tangible verity of Egyptian mysticism, and while it is quite correct that they were a society for whom religion was a living companion every moment, it is somewhat surprising to see a narrative couched in this form – from Kadesh to the end of his days, Ramses’ magic and communion with the gods are described as practical reality. Miracles and revelations, communion with deity and everyday magic such as divination and prophecy occur throughout the text with frank acceptance. This is contrasted with the treatment of Moses and the ten plagues with which Egypt was struck – dismissed easily as natural phenomena (e.g., the Nile turning to blood, a “red tide”) and rather inept hoaxes (e.g., flies, attracted to livestock kept in squalor). The parting of the Red Sea was implicitly apocryphal, and a historically reasonable sequence involving salt marshes and the incoming tide preventing the Egyptian chariots from reaching the Hebrews was substituted – an interesting contrast to the explicitly divine intervention at Kadesh. Jacq seems to be every bit as great an Egyptophile as Rosemary Sutcliff was a Romanophile.

 At the end of the day I can say I was hoping for more – a more serious treatment, a more in-depth exploration of a lost age, focusing on one of the giants of history who has come down to us as a figure of such monolithic scope as to preserve an aura of might evoked even at the whispering of his name. These novels are entertaining, they are touching and engaging, but they are somewhat less than great literature. I do not regret the time I spent reading them, but they are the shadow and shape of what might have been, and perhaps one day another writer will tackle this titanic theme and tell it seriously, honestly and frankly. Jacq’s view is that of the romantic, and while brutal realism may be equally unpalatable for different reasons, there must be a middle ground which respects the facts and can avoid undue bias.

Cheers, Mike Adamson


  1. This review is ... most illuminating. I'd been wondering if I could get into these novels, but I *think* the "fantasy" treatment of history might get under my skin somewhat. I've read three novels set at various times in Egypt: ANCIENT EVENINGS (Norman Mailer), CHILD OF THE MORNING (Pauline Gedge) and CITY OF THE HORIZON (Anton Gill), all of which deliver a fully historical Egypt (in which the gods, and pharaoh's relationship with them, involves no more magic than, say, Fr. Duddleswell's relationship with St. Jude). Hard to put my finger on why I'd be reluctant to get into the Jacq novels other than to say ... well, when I want fantasy, I read fantasy. When I want historical, I read historical. Very occasionally one discovers a mash-up that works well (Ladyhawke ... but I'm scrabbling to remember another, offhand), but it's not something I've read/seen much of -- certainly not enough to say, "I love this genre," and jump into it hungrily. Hmm. Must think more about this, before I pick up the first volume.

  2. That's an understandable reaction -- it's a big commitment to get through all five novels and for me I'd have to say it was the characters that kept me engaged, though the last one was a bit of a slog as they inevitably all died off. There was enough historical detail to make the world come alive but the reader has to remember that it's a version of history, not the real thing. I have a Gedge Egypt novel on my shelves I'll tackle with pleasure, and a number of others. Jacq is perhaps an acquired taste, but I often felt the series would have been much better if all material was properly developed and the historical liberties were straightened out.