Return to Thebes

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Allen Drury’s Return to Thebes is the sequel to his A God Against the Gods. Both novels are about political turmoil at a particularly interesting period of ancient Egyptian history—the period of the unsuccessful attempt of Pharaoh Akhenaten to introduce monotheism. Drury’s novel is interesting, readable fare by a popular novelist who has written a dozen books, the best known of which is Advise and Consent, about American politics. As one review put it, “in this novel we are able to learn about the Egypt of 1350 B.C. as painlessly as we absorbed the political world of Advise and Consent.” There is little question concerning the lack of effort with which we absorb the background of this novel: the atmosphere of palace intrigue, the peculiarities of dynastic marriage, the central place of ritual, the terrible contest between monotheism and polytheism. The history is painless too, but how accurate is it? How much is fact? How much legitimate conjecture? How much invention?

When a novelist writes about a historical period generally unknown to his readers, he surely bears some responsibility for historical truth. The reader cannot know that the novelist is inventing rather than dramatizing an event. Therefore, the writer is obliged to make it clear when he crosses the border between fact and fiction. In his “Introduction,” Drury states his credo: “Egyptologists differ. . . . A novelist must make choices from among their conjectures, adding here and there a few of his own. This I have done, trying always to remain within the bounds of what seems humanly logical and eschewing those intense arguments over fragmentary details that understandably make up much of the world of professional Egyptology.” Here Drury gives the impression that his alterations of history have very little magnitude; no more than the magnitude of his one example, whether Akhenaten became Co-Regent at the age of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen.

In fact, Drury handles history with a license which goes beyond the “humanly logical.” In his narrative, both Akhenaten and Tutankhamon are assassinated. There is no evidence for these murders. Nothing is known about Akhenaten’s death and the most likely conjecture is that Tutankhamon was physically frail and died naturally. Another example of Drury’s handling of historical facts concerns a letter sent by Tutankhamon’s widow to the enemy Hittite king. The letter, which asks him for the gift of a son in marriage, is delivered by a peasant especially loyal to the Pharaoh’s memory. He arrives at the Hittite court disguised as Lord Hanis. After some hesitation, the Hittite king agrees to the proposal, only to have the son that he sends murdered by the henchmen of the ambitious General Horemheb. This startling series of events—beyond the wildest flights of a novelist’s imagination—is true, according to Hittite records, but with one exception. There is no evidence whatsoever that Lord Hanis was a peasant disguised as an Egyptian lord.

The reasons behind Drury’s inventions in both these cases are not hard to find. The twin regicides are designed further to blacken the reputation of the villainous General Horemheb, the novel’s protagonist. As such, they are not “humanly logical” events but a means of thickening the plot and heightening the melodrama. The incident of the peasant disguised as Lord Hanis has two purposes: to underline the people’s love for Tutankhamon and to add a little human interest to a plot otherwise overweighted with political intrigue.

It is this political intrigue that is at the center of the novel. In view of Drury’s predilection for sheer invention, and his...

(The entire section is 1520 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIII, February 1, 1977, p. 792.

Critique. XXXVI, Summer, 1977, p. 87.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, February 1, 1977, p. 111.

Library Journal. CII, February 15, 1977, p. 512.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCX, December 13, 1976, p. 51.