EGYPTIAN PHARAOHS are an anonymous lot. Tutankhamen's modest claim to fame rests not on his accomplishments, but on the richness of his tomb. To non-Egyptologists the other monarchs are without distinction -- a line of royal images 3,000 years long, whose muscular, stalwart bodies might have been cast from a single mold and whose personalities are blurred by the mists of time.
Midway down the line is the sole exception -- a caricature of a king, with sagging belly and plump hips, and a long heavy-jawed face that looks as if its owner suffered from some disfiguring disease. The actions of Akhenaten, the so-called heretic king, were as remarkable as his appearance. Historians of the early 19th century hailed him as "the first monotheist" and "the first individual in history" -- poet, pacifist, inspired religious leader, martyred idealist. Historical revisionism has produced a less flattering image, that of a religious bigot, incompetent ruler and sexual pervert. Besides, he was funny-looking -- "hideous to behold," as Donald B. Redford puts it.
Redford, author of Akhenaten: The Heretic King, is professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto, and a leading authority on this perplexing period. His book is directed toward a nonscholarly audience. His style is easy and agreeable, his critical apparatus is kept to a minimum, and there are excellent introductory chapters giving background information. However, a reader who has had no previous acquaintance with the subject will find the book hard going. It will appeal primarily to Egyptology buffs, for it presents a good deal of material that has been unavailable except in scholarly journals, including the results of the Akhenaten Temple Project at Karnak, which Redford directed.
Redford candidly admits that he has a poor opinion of Akhenaten. He is too good a scholar knowingly to allow his personal appraisal to color his interpretations; but one of the problems about writing a popular book on this period is that it is virtually impossible to summarize the complex and conflicting evidence without oversimplifying it or sounding dogmatic. It is also virtually impossible to find two students of the period who agree on all the issues, so perhaps it is my own personal appraisal that leads me to feel that in some cases Redford's discussion does suffer from oversimplification. What precisely was the nature of the object or entity Akhenaten worshipped? And did his innovations constitute the first recorded instance of true monotheism? The arguments over these questions have echoed down the years and will probably never be resolved. Be that as it may, Redford has produced a first-rate book which should be in the library of every scholar and enthusiastic amateur student of ancient Egypt.
UNFORTUNATELY the same cannot be said of The Twelfth Transforming, by Pauline Gedge, the latest in a long series of historical novels which have Akhenaten as their hero or anti-hero. Historical novels usually reflect contemporary scholarly opinion, and this is the case here. Gedge also has a low opinion of Akhenaten. She tries to soften her depiction of a man sick in body and soul by pointing out his lovable qualities. Except for a certain childlike simplicity, verging on simple- mindedness, it would be hard to say what is lovable about her protagonist.
Since the basic criterion for respectable historical fiction is that it must not contradict known fact, the life and times of Akhenaten offer the novelist a wonderful source. He or she can find scholarly support for a variety of interpretations, from the heric to the perverse -- including the claim that Akhenaten's peculiar physical characteristics (known only from artistic representations) indicate a grave medical condition which inevitably results in eunuchoidism. This theory is still wobbling around academic circles, despite some rather overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in the persons of Akhenaten's six daughters. With such a plethora of legitimate, if far-out data available, it is disconcerting to find in The Twelfth Transforming echoes of one of the silliest of the theories produced by the lunatic fringes of Egyptology -- the suggestion that the life of Akhenaten inspired the legend of Oedipus. Gedge doesn't support this absurdity, but she uses the legend as the basis for Akhenaten's unorthodox ideas and behavior. Warned by a soothsayer that his son will one day murder him, Amunhotep III exiles the boy -- not out of Egypt, but into the royal harem. This ambiance presumably accounts for some of Akhenaten's peculiarities (though surely not for his effeminate figure). Finally freed from the prison of women, Akhenaten does not commit literal patricide; he murders his physical father symbolically, by destroying his name, and kills his spiritual father, the god Amon, by forbidding his worship. His marriage to his mother is dictated by his religious principles, and the basic elements of the legend are completed when Akhenaten is blinded, not literally, but by his failure to see the disastrous consequences of his policies.
To say that Gedge's picture of Akhenaten and his court "feels wrong" is unfair criticism. However, if the novel fails -- and in the opinion of this reviewer, such is the case -- it is because of its literary inadequacies, and these stem, in part at least, from an inadequate understanding of the historical background. There is no impression, in this gloomy and depressing work, of the imperial grandeur and cosmospolitan splendor that earned Akhenaten's father the sobriquet of "the Magnificent." The contrast between Akhenaten's decadent, malaise-ridden court and that of his father falls flat because the contrast is not clear-cut. Palace intrigue, murder, and moral and sexual degeneracy mark both reigns; courtiers and royal relatives are equally power hungry and self-seeking. Gedge has attempted to create an image glittering with gold and adorned with gems. Some of the ornaments are the wrong shape and color, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that the exotic image is lifeless. It has no heart and no soul.