Probably the earliest form of fiction is the folktale in its various forms, including ballad and folk song. A folktale is a short narrative that is transmitted orally, with various tellers introducing modifications as the tale is passed along to a contemporary audience and down to succeeding generations. It is clearly impossible to come into direct contact with this oldest form of narrative as it existed in antiquity, but it is possible to know with considerable assurance what ancient folktales were like. For one thing, folktales still persist; for another, a comparison of extant folktales from around the globe reveals striking similarities and suggests that paleolithic audiences doubtless enjoyed the same fictive themes and patterns that continue to engross their descendants.
Folktales are popular stories that can be understood by most people in a society, whatever their social status and level of specialized knowledge. Though folktales in pure form are difficult to find in ancient writing, they are frequently embedded within seemingly historical narratives. This is true of two tales from ancient Egypt. The tale of Sinuhe (c. 1900 b.c.e.) involves the adventures of an Egyptian who is exiled from his native country. As Donald B. Redford points out in Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (1992), though the story of Sinuhe reflects plausible historical conditions, it is not certain whether or not it is fictional. In any event, the story of Sinuhe, a high-level bureaucrat at the royal court who flees after the ruler he has served is killed, goes off to the desert, where he lives and prospers among less ‘cultured’ peoples, and then triumphantly returns to Egypt in old age, welcomed by the new king, embodies motifs of adventure and wish-fulfillment often to be found wherever stories are told.
The story of Wen-Amon (eleventh century b.c.e.) is, or appears to be, an autobiographical account of an Egyptian merchant who attempts to trade with the nations of the eastern Mediterranean coast. This short narrative contains a distinct historical background, as Egypt has declined in political power, and the name of Egypt no longer inspires awe in its inhabitants. Wen-Amon wanders forlornly, begging the Prince of Byblos, Zakar- Baal, to give him some wood to bring back to Egypt. The prince finally consents, but not before reminding Wen-Amon that the mountain slopes are littered with the tombs of former Egyptian traders. Wen-Amon finally returns home, though the final parts of the story have not survived in manuscript. The Wen-Amon story’s idea of travel and return, combined with the suspense as to its outcome and the vulnerability of its protagonists, is a splendid example of how narrative works in deploying concrete incidents that can be read in the light of general meanings.
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