Diana Wilder Interviews Seti from Mourningtide
Today I am speaking with Pharaoh Seti of Egypt, the main character of my book, Mourningtide. If it please Your Majesty-
S: Please call me Seti. A character never outranks its author.
DW: What influence did your birth family have on you, your choices, your life?
S: I come from a family of soldiers, father to son to grandson. In my lifetime one had to learn the art of war as well as that of governance. I learned from my family, my father and grandfather, my mother.
DW: If you could relive your life, what changes would you make?
S: I would take time for the small moments, those we put off ‘for another day’. My oldest son always wanted to go with me to the desert to hunt gazelles in our chariots. With the press of war, of kingship, it was put off for another time. He died before the time came.
DW: How did you feel when you first saw the love of your life?
S: When she looked up and saw me, then frowned and asked why I was gaping at her, I thought she was a spoiled brat. And then she smiled at me and I was lost.
DW: Why do you think we fall in love? Is it an eternal emotion or simply a trick of nature designed to sustain the species?
S: I think falling in love is our way, ideally, of finding the missing halves that make us whole. When you truly love, you are truly whole… Even if you do quarrel from time to time.
DW: How do you feel about your family, now that you are an adult?
S: I am amazed that they had the tolerance to allow me to reach manhood without being throttled. But then, I come from a military family, and they seem more tolerant that most, as you know, yourself.
DW: I certainly do. Well…Seti… I thought it would be interesting to speak with you about the events that are covered in Mourningtide.
S: By all means.
DW: Tell us about your history.
S: I was born in the southern part of the Nile delta, not far from what is now known as Cairo. I was born during the reign the king you know as Akhenaten. I was a child when he died. I was named for my grandfather, who was a troop commander in the Royal Army. I came from a non-royal family from the Delta that had spent generations in the armies. We did have some wealth, and ours was a position of increasing influence. In my early career I rose to the rank of Scribe of the Armies before commanding in the armies.
DW: It was necessary to be a scribe in order to succeed in a career, wasn’t it?
S: It was. I was also a Troop Commander and then a General, beginning as Commander of One Thousand. By the time of the book – according to the reality of the book – I had succeeded my father, who had been named by Horemheb as his successor, and had ruled for a year. At the opening of the story, I had been King for three years. Two of those years had been spent on campaign, winning back territory and allies Egypt had lost. I was in my early fifties with four children – two sons and two daughters – and six grandchildren, with two due to arrive at any moment.
DW: Were you expecting a prosperous reign?
S: I was hoping for one. I was prepared to do what I could to achieve it for my people.
DW: And during all this your son died through an accident.
S: He died through a stupid mistake, not an accident.
DW: I’m sorry. It must have been hard. Were you angry? Distraught at this change in your fortunes?
S: Don’t be sorry. My son disregarded the warnings of another, more experienced man, walked into a dangerous situation with his eyes wide open, and was killed. It happens, as we both know. And do not forget that he was a soldier, as was I. Death was a constant possibility for those of my era. But I was also a father. I was overset for a time.
DW: You were overset and you escaped the pressures of court. How could you do that as Pharaoh? You were surrounded by ceremony, a god-king.
S: I was not raised as a god-king. I came to the throne in my late forties, and I had years of soldiering and then serving as Vizier before then. I knew very well who and what I was. Other rulers, raised as royalty from birth, were not so fortunate. One of the very greatest in Egyptian history was set upon by assassins and went down fighting.
DW: Let’s speak of other things. This is not your first appearance in one of my stories.
S: No, it is not. My very first appearance in something of yours was a mention, almost in passing, in Pharaoh’s Son. Prince Thutmose, the High Priest of Ptah and the brother of Akhenaten, entrusted me with a very important secret from the time of Akhenaten’s persecutions, which I, in turn, entrusted to Ramesses as I was dying. My second appearance was in The City of Refuge. In that story I led a division of the Army of Lower Egypt that served as guards and laborers for Lord Nebamun’s mission to Akhenaten’s capital city. My father and Lord Nebamun were good friends. I knew nothing of this at that time.
DW: You had quite a large part in that story, didn’t’ you?
S: It was large enough. I was considered a major character. Enough happened to make it clear that Lord Nebamun – the hero of that story, along with my good friend Khonsu – was capable of running rings around anyone who came up against him. I was thoroughly embarrassed, though I did mean well. Reading over the book, I found myself laughing.
DW: It was something of a romp.
S: Not in so many words. In my society, those in power, whether King, High Priest or General-in-Chief, were in power. Their subordinates, being subordinate to them, were expected to obey. People being people down through history, there were mutinies and murders, but they were not viewed as a matter of course. They were an affront to ‘Ma’at’, to what was truthful and fitting. In your times, if someone commits a crime, you often are told that he committed the crime because he had been warped by some other occurrence in his life. In my society, we understood – few better! – the nature of suffering and disappointment, but we did not believe it excused the behavior.
DW: And so you think we are too soft?
S: I think you are different. Let me ask you: will I be appearing in any other stories of yours?
DW: You appear as a memory several times in Kadesh. As to other stories with you as a living person… I don’t know. Your conflict was handled in Mourningtide. There may be other stories, I can’t say. But not now. Let’s talk about objections people have to books set in Egypt. The unpronounceable place and personal names-
DW: I beg your pardon?
S: Kealakakua. Angkor Wat. If we are speaking of strange or unpronounceable place names, they might fit. Or, to go ‘across the pond’ as you Americans and British say it, how about ‘Worcestershire’ – spelled ‘Wore SES ter Shyre’ and pronounced ‘Woostersheer’.
DW: Well, I-
S: Or Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch (or Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.) That may be cheating, perhaps, since the name is a sentence describing the location, but it is on the maps. Looking at it syllable by syllable, I can pronounce it. Try Pontchartrain. Neuschwanstein… How are they worse than ‘Waset’ or ‘Men-Nefer’ or ‘Iunu’?
Those who read fantasy books have no problem with ‘Gormenghast’, ‘Minas Ithil’, the Baranduin, or Dol Amroth. Prince Imrahil is one of my favorite characters, but his name is no easier to pronounce than my son’s. And added to my objections is the fact that modern society does not know how my language sounded. Like the Hebrew writings, we did not supply vowels.
DW: I see your point. But some of the Egyptian names can be difficult. Like Amunhorkhepechef.
S: Be careful: you are meeting yourself coming. You said that name was easy to type. And you know better. It is a ceremonial name that means ‘Amun Mighty in Battle’. Your own sources have indicated that that name was altered depending on what city was home for that prince at any given time, so that if he was residing in Iunu (Heliopolis, if you wish), he would have signed his name ‘Rahorkhepechef’, and if in Khemnu (Hermopolis, if you are not a purist) he would have been Tothorkpehechef or Thuthorkhepechef. You were right to give him the nickname ‘Hori’, by the way. That’s what they called him.
Speaking as an experienced father, a person’s name must be something an angry parent can yell at the top of his lungs while running after a naughty child. Amunhorkhepechef does not satisfy that requirement. Ergo, it was not the boy’s actual name. It is as silly as someone thinking that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England – God bless her! – answers to ‘Defender of the Faith’ when that title is used by a grandchild at the dinner table.
DW: You make a good point. Do you have anything else to say on the subject of language difficulties?
S: Yes. A Elbereth, Gilthoniel! Silvirin penna Miriel– You are laughing!
DW: You meant me to. You read Tolkien! (ahem) Let’s talk about that ‘weird Egyptian culture.’
S: The problem with that perception is that all they know of my era… or, let us say, 85%, comes from tombs and the items taken from them. I wonder how archaeologists of the future might view North Americans and western Europeans if their only source of information is what they find in Forest Lawn Cemetery or Westminster Abbey. In fact, there is a hilarious book by David Macauley with the title Motel of the Mysteries that explores what future archaeologists think of a dig in North America. Their interpretations are very amusing – and they are in line with the folly I see pertaining to my own culture.
DW: Tell me about the hero of your story.
S: The hero? There were two. My son, Ramesses, is one – he showed himself to be like a bell that rings true no matter how you strike it – and Djedi, the young man of the small village that sheltered me. He saw a need to protect his town from attackers, and he set out to do so. I helped him as much as I could.
DW: They had no idea who you were.
S: Correct. Lord Nebamun met some ghosts from his past through my inadvertent actions, but he won through, though he did give me a piece of his mind when I returned.
DW: But you were not the hero?
S: I was the main character, the protagonist. I did experience hardship and change – but I was not heroic.
DW: We will have to agree to disagree.
S: You will have to agree. I did what I always did – though I did mourn the loss of my son. I had no heights to scale, and falling in love with a wonderful woman required no heroism on my part. No, Djedi was my hero – and my son Ramesses.
DW: Djedi. You helped him. Why?
S: Yes. How could I not? He needed to be coached, the town needed to be protected, and I had the experience to do so. And they were my subjects, after all. I owed them my life, if necessary.
DW: What about Ramesses?
S: He became the man who would be ‘Ramesses the Great’. That name is spoken with curled lips by some. It seems that a great man or woman is always the target of sneers. People seem to want to see them taken down, their reputations sullied – their clay feet in evidence. Ramesses was great. He ruled for nearly seventy years, and his rule made it possible for that part of the world to enjoy peace and stability in what truly was a golden age.
DW: You started it.
S: Perhaps. But my reign was not long, and Ramesses stepped in and did his magnificent best. Poor lad.
DW: ‘Poor’ lad?
S: Yes. He is to be pitied. Think of it: he saw the deaths of all he loved. His four oldest sons – three of them serving as Crown Prince – died before him. Hori after thirty years, Rai – another Ramses – after another twenty-five, Khay (Khaemwaset – one of the heroes of ‘Pharaoh’s Son’)- after another five, when he himself was old. He watched his children – the children of his youth and his loves – die one after another, themselves old men. And then he began to fail, himself. Those people who like to examine corpses and do DNA testing and x-rays have shown that Ramesses had arterial occlusions that probably led, late in life, to senility. There was, I know, a moment when he stood aghast and realized that he was failing, growing feeble… I was spared that.
DW: I am sorry.
S: Don’t be, Diana. There is nothing to weep over. All hurts are healed now, but we would do well to take that lesson with us. There. You are smiling again. What else do you wish to ask me?
DW: As a character in historical fiction, what is the one thing you would like to say.
S: I would say that people don’t change:
You are an historian, as I was (at least in your novel). In your studies, have you found that people have changed at all? Time has given us ways to kill more people, or heal more people, ways to suppress our imaginations – all the imagining seems to be done for our children now – but as a species, if you will, there is no change to our fundamental nature. There is a song by Neil Diamond, with the title, I think, of ‘Done Too Soon’ that ends with this verse:
They have sweated beneath the same sun,
Looked up in wonder at the same moon,
And wept when it was all done
For being done too soon…
For being done too soon.
DW: You make a good point. And I thank you for spending time with me. I assume you are going back?
S: Yes. To the place you left me this morning. The village is fighting off the attackers, Djedi leading under my eye.
DW: Does he know you are king?
S: You must ask him. And now, if I may, he is down with a spear in his side and I am holding him…
DW: Will he die?
S: You are the author. You know already. And if I told, you would never let me forget it.
DW: Probably not. Thank you for stopping by and speaking with me.
S: It is not for a character to object to its author’s actions. Adieu-
Seti I, King of Upper and Lower Egypt
Another attack? How could they be so bold? Djedi tore down the path that threaded down from the hills to the town.
And then the screams started. What were they doing? Torturing him
He shouted a warning, saw them turn and eye him. They were different people this time, narrow-eyed, somehow more dangerous. There were more of them, as well.
He was carrying a staff. He raised it over his head and increased his speed…
** ** **
His neighbors surrounded him. “You were brave!”
“I did what I had to. Will we send to Count Intef now?”
He saw them exchanging looks. “Kenamun has Intef’s ear,” Neferhotep said. “Yes, and His Majesty’s too. When he returns–”
“What about now?” Djedi demanded. “We can’t stay as we are!”
Neferhotep frowned. “When Master Kenamun gets back.”
“We need to do something now!”
They traded glances. “And what do you suggest?”
Djedi closed his eyes and saw old Akhti’s disintegrated face before him. “I will serve as guard for now. We need to get everyone together to help.”
“Very well,” they said. “You will be the guard…”
Later, as the moon mounted the sky, he walked along the dark pathways, raised his head to the pale light and wondered what he had done.
If only, somehow, someone could show him what to do.
** ** **
The papyrus was awaiting Seti, as he had ordered. He had his own writing kit. He eyed the reed brushes and thought for a moment. And then he composed the second set of messages, smiling as he imagined the various responses they were likely to cause. He almost regretted the fact that he would not be around to watch.
He folded the last of the packets, tied it with fine linen string, set a pinch of clay over the knot, and pressed his private seal into it.
He rose and stretched. His belongings—three tunics, three kilts, several shentis, other miscellaneous items—were in his pack. He wore the lion pendant Gold of Honor that he won a lifetime ago, with his wife’s ring on its cord. He needed nothing else, and it was time. He had an idea where he could go. He had read documents concerning Nakhtamun’s burial, sent from that little village of craftsmen who had constructed his son’s tomb. Based on the terrible scribbling, they certainly needed a scribe who knew what he was doing. No one would recognize him. Who would expect to find him at Deir el Medineh, certainly not unadorned and carrying a writing kit.
He strolled through the hallways of the palace, bowing to the guards, who did not recognize him, bareheaded and humble as he was. He spoke briefly with the gate guard, who eyed him and concluded that he was a middle-aged man who wanted companionship that night and was going to the docks to find it.
If he only knew, Seti thought as he moved through the gateway and out onto the street.
And so, in the third hour before dawn, Men-Maat-Re Seti Merneptah, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, stepped out of his world and left it behind as completely as a man boarding a ship that will take him to another land.
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