23 January 2014

Historical Fiction from Ancient History?

At the Oxford University Press blog, Yale professor Colleen Manassa suggests that ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE) saw the birth of historical fiction:
During the New Kingdom, particularly the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, the “Ramesside Period,” another literary efflorescence occurred. Among the genres of this new corpus of literary productions are stories that can be most properly described as works of “historical fiction.” Set in the past with attested historical characters, these works of historical fiction are an ancient Egyptian counterpart, albeit ultimately unrelated, to the mammoth corpus of modern historical fiction from Sir Walter Scott, Patrick O’Brien, and George McDonald Frasier to Ken Follett and Philippa Gregory. . . .

The second story, known by its modern title The Capture of Joppa, opens with an Egyptian army besieging ancient Joppa, located near modern Jaffa. The beginning of the story is lost, but the preserved portion describes a group of drunken individuals and chariot horses being safely put away lest they be stolen by the Apiru, a group of local brigands. The Egyptian general Djehuty — another attested historical individual — is holding a conference with the enemy rebel of Joppa, apparently in a neutral space outside of the city walls. The enemy ruler of Joppa, who remains unnamed, is obsessed with seeing the staff of pharaoh, and in a moment of slap-stick humor, Djehuty obliges by smiting the ruler with the staff.

With the ruler of Joppa incapacitated, but not dead, Djehuty puts into motion one of the first attested ruses in ancient military history: he pretends to surrender to the city of Joppa, presenting hundreds of baskets as the “tribute” of his capitulation. Unknown to the citizens of Joppa, Egyptian soldiers are hidden within the baskets, and they promptly capture the city in what can only be described as a Trojan-horse style story. While the basket stratagem is in the realm of fiction, the setting of the story, Joppa, and its protagonist, Djehuty, are known through archaeological and textual sources — The Capture of Joppa truly is one of the world’s first examples of historical fiction.
One of the hallmarks of historical fiction, I believe, is that both authors and readers understand that it’s fiction. Even something as carefully researched to accord with documented events as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is nonetheless presented as one author’s imagined recreation of the past, not as how people actually thought and events definitely occurred. How did the Egyptians of the New Kingdom understand these tales about figures and events they knew from their history? Did they consider The Capture of Joppa as an entertaining legend or as history?

Another hallmark of historical fiction for me is the determined effort to depict the past as different from the present. That makes it a different mode of storytelling from realistic contemporary fiction, more akin to fantastika in the challenge of smoothly introducing readers to an unfamiliar setting. Again, does that criterion apply to The Capture of Joppa and Manassa’s other examples of ancient historical fiction? Did Egyptians enjoying the story of Djehuty also hear clues that his world was not like theirs?

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