Gwendolyn MacEwen’s historical novel King of Egypt, King of Dreams was published in 1971 and as far as I know, it is out of print-except by online order from Insomniac Press. Nonetheless I am fascinated to review it, because it stands as a powerful testimony to the tragedy of those who own a unique, transcendent vision of the universe, when faced by the demands and adversity of a society that has rejected them. This description can be applied to Akhenaton, the pharaoh known as “the Criminal” who forms the center of MacEwen’s novel, and to MacEwen herself.
Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of MacEwen, Shadow Maker, tells about how the poet died of alcohol poisoning in a suspected suicide in 1987. Part of her despair sprung from her depression at the failure of her audience to bring her the success she had hoped for. Although she anticipated that her vast research into ancient Egypt, while on a Canada Council grant in Cairo, would result in a historical novel that would make her financially independent, King of Egypt, King of Dreams was greeted with a poor reception.
Perhaps this was because she had difficulty adopting to the form of the novel. MacEwen was primarily a poet. She could not make the transition from poetry to novel that Michael Ondaatje made with The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter. By the 1980s, the period that Joel Deshaye in The Metaphor of Celebrity calls the “era of celebrity” in Canadian poetry was at a close; the novel was now the dominant form.
MacEwen’s vision of the poet as a magician did not successfully make the transition into the world of the novel. However, King of Egypt, King of Dreams testifies to the uniqueness of her vision. The story of Akhenaton becomes replicated in some ways in MacEwen’s own life–at least, it is tempting to see it that way. As the landscape of genre in Canadian literature did not accommodate her writing, changing times undid the visionary pharaoh Akhenaton.
Akhenaton begins life as the sickly son of the powerful, but aging, Pharaoh–the living god, Amenhotep. Greatly disappointed in his offspring, the god regards his son with anger and bitterness, causing Akhenaton to be terrified of him and develop a stutter. But after his father’s death, a new, golden man arises from the frail body of his former self.
It is not long before Akhenaton shakes up the court with his new religious vision–monotheism. He believes that there is no god but the Aton, who is lord of all that the sun’s disk surrounds. The names of all the other gods, he orders erased from inscriptions. Wherever a god’s name is recorded on the tombs and temples of the land, it is to be destroyed. Those who refuse him or challenge his judgment encounter the uncanny look of his gaze–but do his eyes reveal divinity, or madness?
Although MacEwen seems to treat Akhenaton as an example of the suffering visionary, a position with which she was no doubt in sympathy, his monotheistic religion leads to the collapse of his empire. MacEwen’s poetic career testifies to a belief the harmony found in oppositions, a more pluralist philosophy that is at odds with the Pharaoh’s conception of a single god. One man who is close to the king, and yet is distant enough from him to see how he angers his subjects, is Akhenaton’s servant It Neter Ay, the Father of Horse. From his perspective, we see Pharaoh ignore the rebellion of his empire’s tributary states, name his would-be assassin a high priest, and found the temples that he hopes will serve as testament to the glory of his god.
MacEwen’s writing style is particular and with a texture distinct from contemporary historical novelists. She writes in a poetic style that has a curious combination of mysticism and humour. Justifying her approach, she quotes from Guillaume Ferrero’s Les Lois Psychologiques:
“It is a very common belief that the further man is separated from the present in time, the more he differs from us in his thoughts and feelings; that the psychology of humanity changes from century to century like fashions or literature. […] And indeed, man does not change so quickly; his psychology at bottom remains the same.”
Occasionally the dialogue, thoughts, and actions of Akhenaton, It Neter Ay, and the king’s wife, Nefertiti, might appear peculiarly modern, but MacEwen always roots their characters firmly in the cultural milieu of ancient Egypt. One example of the mundane in the ancient past, is the casual, realist description of Ay slicing a cucumber while he ponders what Akhenaton’s ‘true nature’ is. This attitude of continuity with the past might demonstrate MacEwen’s own self-identification with these historical characters–Nefertiti’s kohl-painted eyelids are not so different from MacEwen’s, who was famous for appearing like an Egyptian at Toronto poetry readings.
Like the historical fantasies of Guy Gavriel Kay, there is but a sprinkling of the fantastic in King of Egypt, King of Dreams–but it is enough that it can be considered a historical fantasy, if Akhenaton’s divinity and the glowing presence of his body is read literally.
Together with her T.E. Lawrence Poems, this novel is also the consummation of MacEwen’s lifelong interest in the Middle East’s history and its mystery. It is also a psychologically and intellectually invested accomplishment, in which she confronts questions about visionary experience that define her career–and its untimely end.