Review of Pharaoh by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Warning: This review contains mild spoilers!

Pharaoh was published in 1958, five years after the publication of Mara: Daughter of the Nile. Like Mara, Pharaoh takes place (mostly) during the reign of Hatshepsut, although the first 150 or so pages focus on the reigns of her predecessors Thutmose I and Thutmose II (called Nenni in the novel).  I knew only one thing about the book going in, and that was that, unlike in Mara, Hatshepsut is portrayed as a heroine rather than the villain in Pharaoh. After reading the book, I realized that this wasn't exactly true—Pharaoh's Hatshepsut would be more accurately described as a sympathetic character, but in most ways, she is pretty much the same person as we met in Mara. The relationship between Mara: Daughter of the Nile and Pharaoh could best be compared to the relationship of The Wizard of Oz and Wicked, a novel by Gregory Maguire that tells the story from the Wicked Witch of the West's perspective, following her from her birth and childhood through the events of The Wizard of Oz. Although Pharaoh is not an official companion to Mara (most importantly, Mara and Sheftu are not in this book), the similarities between them are so startling that fans of Mara cannot help but feel that McGraw might have been surreptitiously writing her own unofficial "Wicked". 

The novel begins towards the end of Thutmose I's reign. His oldest son, Amenmose, has just been killed in an accident, and he is faced with the burden of naming a new successor to the throne. His two choices are his daughter by First Royal Wife Aahmes, Hatshepsut; and his son by a secondary wife, Nenni (Thutmose II). He is torn because although Hatshepsut is a girl, she is strong and has all the qualities of an excellent pharaoh , while Nenni is sickly and overall disinterested with kingship and the ways of Egypt. The novel shows Hatshepsut grow from teenager to adult; her first encounters with Senmut, her future lover and chief architect; and her emergence as the true power behind the throne of Egypt. Initially, Hatshepsut is strong, admirable, and beloved by her people. Her courtiers and subjects all believe that she truly should be the one to rule Egypt, despite her sex. However, it is not long the burden of kingship begins to take its toll on her (as it does on the other three pharaohs whose reigns are depicted in the novel—more discussion on that theme further on). Thus, while Hatshepsut begins as a strong, admirable heroine, she slowly begins to devolve into the madwoman we encounter in Mara: Daughter of the Nile.

After the death of Nenni, the book begins to focus primarily on Thutmose III (Thoth), and here is where the similarities to Mara become apparent. Events that were mentioned as taking place during Hatshepsut's reign in Mara (but which have no historical documentation, thus further indicating the relationship between the two novels) play out before the reader's eyes. Examples include:

  • After the birth of Hatshepsut's second daughter, Meryet-Re, the queen takes advantage of one of Nenni's fits of fever to have Thoth sent away so as not to jeopardize her own position. Thoth is sent to Babylonia, where he is raised for 6 years. This provides an excellent explanation for why Thutmose spoke Babylonian in Mara.
  • After he returns to Egypt, Thoth is sent to become a priest, just as Sheftu describes in Mara. And also as Sheftu described, Thutmose leaves the temple as the result of a "miracle" that is arranged by the temple priests—during a ceremony, the golden image of Amon approaches Thoth, bows before him, and leads him into the holy of holies to stand in the place of the king. This event is probably the most obvious reference to Mara in the whole novel, because I can't find that it has a basis in history, and yet it plays out in exactly the same manner.
  • Hatshepsut's death, although portrayed in a sympathetic and tragic manner in Pharaoh, plays out much the same as in Mara, with the exception of the involvement of Mara and Sheftu, since they do not exist in the universe of Pharaoh.
  • In addition to these similar events, there are a number of physical descriptions of characters that indicate that the author had the same mental image of these characters in mind as when she wrote her previous novel. For example, Thutmose is described as pacing like a caged lion, just as in Mara; and further, his physical build is described in the same manner—short and stocky, but strong and powerful looking. In the latter part of Hatshepsut's reign, as she descends into madness and paranoia, she is described as having the same "high, unnatural" voice that grows shrill when she feels threatened.  A final reference to Mara is that "The Song of the Harper," which is the papyrus that Mara reads before she runs away from Zasha, is quoted in its entirety here.

    There are only two major differences between the events of Pharaoh and of Mara: Daughter of the Nile. The first of these is the absence of the characters of Mara, Sheftu, and Innani. However, the roles these characters played in the Thutmosid succession fall to other characters (for example, Sheftu's role is divided among Thoth's friends Rekhmi-Re and Amenuser).

    The other difference is the adjustment of certain details for historical accuracy. Eloise Jarvis McGraw heavily researched her books, basing her interpretations on the most up-to-date information for the time (in the introduction to Pharaoh, she references Winlock, Wilson and Edgerton, stating that their work is "not only authoritative but the most recent done on the subject"). Thus, in Pharaoh Thutmose III is changed from being Hatshepsut's half-brother to her stepson; and historical figures that were omitted from Mara such as Hatshepsut's daughters Neferu-Re and Meryet-Re feature prominently. Although scholarly perceptions of Hatshepsut have changed greatly in the 50 years since this book was published, I was surprised to find that other than the characterization of certain historical figures and the cause of Hatshepsut's death, even now an Egyptologist would not have much to object to about this novel. Unlike with Mara, it seems plausible that it could have happened this way.

    These differences aside, it is actually quite easy to imagine Pharaoh as a companion to Mara. However, this in itself is a double-edged sword. While as a Mara fan I was excited to see references to aspects of my favorite book, I was also frustrated because I felt like I had done all this before. If I'm going to read a novel that tells me how Thutmose III snatched the throne from Hatshepsut, I would really rather just read Mara. Pharaoh is a very good book, but it's twice as long as Mara and ten times as heavy. While Mara is a light action-adventure-romance novel for young adults, Pharaoh is a book for adults, and it's largely introspection over action. The novel focuses heavily on death (and perceptions of death); religious doubt; and the overwhelming burden of kingship. The four pharaohs portrayed in the book are all eventually crushed by the weight of their crowns. They are preoccupied with doubts about their own strength and moral uprightness, their own mortality, and their own spirituality. These themes are all very poignant, but a light and easy read they do not make.

    It seems to me that this may be the reason why Mara continues to be a well-known and beloved classic while Pharaoh has been out of print for 40 years. Both novels feature most of the same characters, and both follow the exact same event playing out in almost the exact same way: Thutmose III overthrowing Hatshepsut. If forced to choose between the two, I would much rather have Mara, despite its historical inaccuracies. But, that said, Pharaoh is a very good book, much better than many I have read, and I highly recommend that fans of Mara at least check it out (if you can find it—it's a very rare book, but I got it through interlibrary loan so I recommend interested readers trying that), if only for the novelty of hearing "the other side of the story."