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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1670

First published: Artamène: Ou, Le grand Cyrus, 1649—1653 (English translation, 1653-1655)

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Sentimental romance

Time of work: 500 B.C.

Locale: Asia Minor

Principal Characters:

Artamene, the Great Cyrus

Cyaxares, King of Cappadocia, then of Media

Mandane, his daughter

Philidaspes, King of Assyria, in love with Mandane

The King of Pontus, in love with Mandane

Anaxoris, in reality Aryante, Prince of the Massagetae, Thomyris’ brother, in love with Mandane

Prince Mazare of Sacia, in love with Mandane

Thomyris, Queen of Scythia

Spargapises, Thomyris’ son

Araminta, Princess of Pontus

Spithridates, in love with Araminta

Panthea, Queen of Susiana

Martesie, Mandane’s maid of honor

Metrobate, a traitor

The Story:

Cyrus, son of the King of Persia, had been given away as a child to a shepherd, who was ordered to kill the infant because his grandfather had been told by an omen that his grandson would eventually kill him. Instead, the shepherd had reared the boy to manhood. Now, under the name of Artamene, he was the best general of Cyaxares, King of Cappadocia. He was also secretly in love with Mandane, Cyaxares’ daughter.

The kings of Cappadocia and of Pontus had decided to settle a dispute between themselves by a combat, using two hundred men on each side. Artamene had been given the command of the Cappadocian warriors, to the great disappointment of his explosive rival, Philidaspes. Although all the odds were against him, Artamene was the only survivor and won the victory for the Cappadocians.

He discovered, however, that Philidaspes was also in love with Mandane. They had a violent fight and Cyaxares, unaware of the real cause of the quarrel, had them both put in prison.

There were other great battles fought, and Artamene, now out of prison, was again victorious. Then he disappeared and was believed dead. This was the occasion for Mandane to confess her love for him to her confidante, Martesie, a thing she had never dared do before. Eventually, Artamene returned. He accidentally learned that Philidaspes was actually the prince of Assyria, heir to the throne of his mother Nitocris, and that he was plotting to take Mandane away. The King of Pontus had also become a new rival for the love of Mandane. To make matters worse, Thomyris, Queen of Scythia, who had never loved before, had fallen in love with Artamene the moment she saw him when he was sent on a mission to her court.

Philidaspes, now King of Assyria, had succeeded in taking Mandane to Babylon, where he pleaded with her to love him or at least to let him hope that she would, someday, accept his suit.

Meanwhile, Artamene, sent in pursuit of Mandane, had laid siege to mighty Babylon, but Philidaspes managed to escape to Sinope with Mandane and Mazare, the chivalrous prince of Sacia. Sinope was set afire, and while the Assyrian king was locked up in a tower, Mazare took Mandane away to sea. A shipwreck brought her to the fortress of the King of Pontus.

When Cyaxares arrived at Sinope and failed to find his daughter, he also discovered that Artamene was in love with her. He still, however, did not know the hero’s real identity, and he was about to have him executed when the army assaulting the castle rescued Artamene and proclaimed him as Cyrus.

When Cyrus set out to get Mandane back, Philidaspes insisted on a paradoxical alliance in order to rescue their common love. They besieged Sardis and captured two hostages, Panthea, the wife of Abradantes, one of the enemy rulers, and Araminta, the sister of the Queen of Pontus. Unfortunately, this action provoked Mandane’s jealousy, and in a letter, she accused Cyrus of using her as a mere pretext to further his ambition. She was particularly jealous of Araminta, whose lover Spithridates resembled Cyrus and could easily have been mistaken for him. Cyrus, with his best paladins, managed to enter Sardis, but Mandane was gone, carried away by the King of Pontus, and perhaps not unwillingly. The hunt for Mandane had to be resumed. Philidaspes stole away to search for Mandane by himself.

Cyrus then learned that the King of Pontus had taken Mandane to Cumae, a place protected by marshes and open to the sea on which she had so often been taken away from him. Meanwhile, the Queen of Corinth, who had conceived a romantic but platonic admiration for Cyrus, sent her fleet to help him. Martesie wrote that Mandane was at last no longer jealous, for Panthea had killed herself over the dead body of her husband, and Araminta had been taken away against her will by Prince Phraortes. Spithridates was desperate.

Cumae was captured, and the lovers met at last. Anaxoris had been instrumental in keeping Mandane from being carried away from Cumae. When Philidaspes turned up again to keep watch on Cyrus, he later entrusted Anaxoris with his secret, asking him to take care of Mandane should anything happen to him. Anaxoris, however, was actually Aryante, the prince of the Massagetae, and brother of Thomyris, the formidable Scythian queen. Aryante surrendered Mandane to his sister, and Cyrus went to fight Thomyris.

Considering himself disgraced because he had not been recognized when he was captured in battle, Spargapises, the son of Thomyris, killed himself. Thomyris then threatened Cyrus by declaring that she would deliver Mandane’s dead body to him unless he surrendered unconditionally. Not wishing to have Mandane murdered or to have Cyrus near her, Aryante sent him a message begging him not to surrender. A tremendous battle followed in which Cyrus set fire to some forests between the two armies. The unfortunate Spithridates, clad in a suit of armor given to him by Cyrus, was mistaken for Cyrus and was killed. His head was taken to Thomyris. Unfortunately, she was not the only one who was mistaken. Cyrus’ troops gave up the fight, and he was seized by an ally of Thomyris. His captor, however, later allowed him to escape because of his admiration for his noble prisoner. Cyrus escaped, but only after many difficulties. Thomyris then ordered Mandane killed, but a maid of honor was mistaken for her and killed in her place. Meanwhile, the queen’s allies were preparing to desert her. When Cyrus’ faithful friends arrived, she fled.

Now Cyrus and Mandane were free to wed, except that an ancient law stated that a prince or princess could not marry a foreigner. An oracle, however, declared that he who had conquered every kingdom in Asia could not be considered a foreigner in any of them. Thus, to the satisfaction of all concerned, the last obstacle to their union was cleared away.

Critical Evaluation:

Some books seem to have a universal value that transcends the time in which they were written. Others seem to be particularly representative of their epoch and eventually stand as a milestone in the development of a genre. Artamenes belongs to the latter category. It consists of ten volumes, each in two books. Despite its length, it has a remarkable unity of interest, if not of plot. The author indulges in lengthy stories within the story. These successive stories are ingeniously knitted together, one character being introduced casually in one, and being caught up with later in another. The organization of the novel is such that it is actually quite difficult to read only parts of it and still understand it. This type of novel was expected to provide a pastime, in the literal sense of the word. Although this may seem ironic in view of its length, Artamenes fulfilled this purpose. It provided noble sentiments together with a little learning. It is still possible to understand why it was such a great success.

Madeleine de Scudéry, known to her contemporaries as the “illustrious Sappho,” founded the most important salon in the Paris of the 1640’s. She belonged to the precieux, women who consciously tried to reestablish the courtly manners and language of the Italian Renaissance. Her novels—better characterized as “heroic romances”—helped to spread this tradition by means of both plot and language. Writing anonymously or with a pseudonym, Mademoiselle de Scudéry became enormously successful both because of her own popularity and because her works were romans a clef, which included thinly disguised portrayals of her readers.

Though hardly read today, the incredibly prolix Artamenes (which runs to some twelve thousand pages) is a landmark work in terms of the development of the novel. The heroic romance represents an important development over earlier stages of prose fiction, the pastoral romance and the historical chronicle. In Artamenes, plot is made central, even in so long a work. In the “Address to the Reader,” Mademoiselle de Scudéry makes clear that she understands the uniqueness of her method, for she says she chooses incidents from her various classical sources not for their historical accuracy but for the purpose of interest. The plot has a central idea, even though interspersed with every possible type of digression—subplots, stories within stories, recitis, elaborate explanation, long description, introduction of minor characters, dramatic “business,” ad infinitum.

One can note how far behind drama was fiction in the creation of character. There still are no real characters in Artamenes such as one later finds in fiction, but the people do have “qualities”; still, the personages are more “types” than characters. One does find hints of character in two maids, Martesie and Doralise. There is almost no real dialogue, but only, in George Saintsbury’s words, “harangue, narrative, soliloquy, and passing of compliments.” Both French and British fiction were greatly influenced by this work: Madame Marie de Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves (1678) owes much to Artamenes, as does Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-1748).

After the French Revolution, women lost many rights—the Napoleonic code decreed that women were economically and legally dependent on men—but since Scudéry’s time, women novelists have been producing some of the most popular “period” or “historical” fiction.

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