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First serialized in 1895, published in 1897, made into a movie (Oscar nominated) in 1965, the only historical novel by Bolesław Prus (of The Doll fame), set in Ancient Egypt and dealing with heavy, heavy politics. As well as social problems of the author's time.

The Film of the Book, 1966 film Pharaoh, is deemed one of the best Polish movies, despite (or because) a shoestring budget and Troubled Production.

A young, ambitious son of the pharaoh is made the crown prince. Despite his fresh (read - naive) outlook and great enthusiasm for the job, Ramesses slowly discovers that good intentions are worse than insufficient when you want to make your kingdom mighty, crush your enemies and bring prosperity to your people. In fact, they might even be detrimental, especially when you've got a host of priests watching your every move...

And their disapproval may not be so unfounded.

Read it here in the original Polish. Also available in English at the Gutenberg Project, under the title The Pharaoh and the Priest.


Tropes:

  • Allegory: Of then-present political situation.
  • All Issues Are Political Issues: Aside being written as a political allegory, the plot by itself still focuses first, second and last on various political intrigues and how they affect the characters and the setting itself.
  • Alone in a Crowd: Ramesses gets several of these moments, usually after witnessing something poignant.
  • Alternate History: Real Life Egyptian XX dynasty ended with Ramesses XI. Other than that, research was done, but some of the history appears to be dated. Herhor was real, though.
  • Ambition is Evil: The priests think so of Ramesses's ambition (which is hefty).Pentuer thinks it'll worsen the condition of people (forcing them to work for Ramesses's wars). Herhor thinks more of the treasury.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: Chaldean priesthood of which Egyptian is an outshoot.
  • Ancient Egypt: The backdrop, right when the third intermediate period is about to start. Definitely not good times for the Nile kingdom.
  • Medieval Stasis: Which Ramesses wants to break out of. Greeks are deemed more creative and liable to inherit the world.
  • Appeal to Tradition: Most priests' favourite trope.
  • Artistic License – Religion: Apparently egyptian -chaldean religion is really monoteistic. Huh.
  • "Ass" in Ambassador: Sargon is Assyrian ambassador in Egypt. So naturally he comes across as a bit crass, even if most of it is thanks to his hosts.
  • At Least I Admit It: Unlike Ramesses, Herhor is fully aware of his pettiness and prideful nature.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Both Herhor and Pentuer have been at this for so long nothing escapes them.
  • Badass Bookworm: Pentuer never forgets anything, has analytical skills that would earn him a job in the FBI and is not afraid of speaking sincerely to those who actually listen.
  • Bad Boss: Herhor secures people's loyalty by carrot and whip. Once he fully takes over, he adds bread to the menu and twice as many whips.
  • Barbarian Tribe: Assyrians are portrayed as such.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Samentu when caught breaking into the Labirynth.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: Ramesses is first and foremost a military commander and few moments in the book exists to show his commanding skills.
  • Bling of War
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Risk the army treading on sacred scarabs? Vile! Better to fill in the channel built by this here poor fellah. He dares to beg the High Priest himself for mercy? Preposterous! The fellahin ought to know their place.
  • Born into Slavery: The fellahin class being, basically, state slaves is one of the things that Ramesses considers to be the root of Egypt's ongoing problems.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Menes's opinion of Ramesses – he would be a perfect pharaoh several centuries earlier, when Egypt was waging wars all around, but now...
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Ramesses sees Egypt in decline and wants to fix the situation, which he plans to achieve by seizing the wealth of the temples and using it for his reforms. The priests are content with the ongoing decentralisation and the resulting rise to power, but they are also correct that neither indebting Egypt to the Phoenicians nor the reforms focusing on building military or going to war with Assyria are going to solve any of the problems, with war bringing nothing, but further ruin.
  • Break the Haughty: Ramesses gets the news of Sarah's death.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Ramesses gets his first taste of those upon becoming the steward of the Lower Egypt. Herhor advises him to delegate. Should he listen to that advice, most of the plot could have been avoided.
  • Children Are Innocent: In the old pharaoh's vision the only person in all Egypt whose prayer shall reach the One God (instead of clashing with someone else's) is a mischievous little boy. Because the boy wasn't asking for anything.
  • Church Lady: An Ancient Egyptian variant. Queen-dowager Nikotris becomes increasingly more and more fanatically religious as the story unfolds, eventually being more willing to support the priests than her own son.
  • Cloak and Dagger: The priests have their eyes and ears everywhere. Complete with cladestine meetings and passwords.
  • Coming of Age Story: Ramesses personal growth forms most of the plot. Unusual in that he never does get his happy ending.
  • Convenient Eclipse: Used by Herhor to pacify the rebellious peasants in an iconic scene in the penultimate chapter.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: Pentuer thinks these guys (along with Phoenician debtholders) are the kingdom's ruin.
  • Cultural Posturing: Egyptian and Chaldean priests towards everyone. Ramesess's father dismisses The Trojan War as a minor skirmish.
  • Dated History: When written, it was a fairly well-researched book, with extensive inquiry into Egyptology textbooks. And Bolesław Prus is considered to be the greatest writer of Polish literary realism, always putting extensive effort into researching his books. Except all there was for him to research were the mid-19th century textbooks, written mere decades after the Rosetta Stone was deciphered. From the perspective of modern Egyptology, the book just uses Ancient Egypt as a colourful background to avoid censorship, bouncing between widely inaccurate portrayal and full-cloth fabrication.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Old Herhor is soft-spoken, but can snark viciously.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: When Ramesses is on an official inspection, the local governors offer him the company of beautiful women and a good feast when he's about to start a ruckus about their blatant mismanagement and stealing. So what does our ambitious and reform-oriented pharaoh do? He accepts their offer and quickly forgets about the whole issue.
  • Divided We Fall: Ramesses wants slaves and glory (and thinks he'll get them by conquering Assyria). Priests want to save Egypt from getting curb-stomped by Assyria. Neither side will listen to the other. The actual problem - rampant corruption that weakens Egypt - is ignored by both sides.
  • Doorstopper: You are more likely to find a three-tome edition, rather than a single book one, thanks to the sheer page count.
  • Driven to Suicide: The old fellah whose canal was destroyed by the army. He was promised freedom for himself and his family if he finishes the canal.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Menes, Pentuer's old teacher, of the oblivious scientist/inventor variety. Way ahead of his time.
  • Evil Chancellor: Herhor the minister of war plays this role with all the scheming required.
  • Evil Twin: Lykon for Ramesses. Up to and including impersonation, murder of his baby son and of Ramesses himself. Oddly enough, Lykon is Greek.
  • Exposition Diagram: Pentuer makes his out of pebbles, beans, water, grass and sand, and enlists help of some younger priests for an interactive lecture on economy.
  • Fallen Princess: Sarah, when Ramesses learns her son has been given a Jewish name.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Ramesses investigates his kingdom's financial troubles – the reasons are fairly obvious to the reader, but not to him.
  • Fairy Tale: Several are told as moral lessons and examples.
  • Femme Fatale: Kama is using her looks and sex to get whatever she (or her masters) wants.
  • Foreshadowing: At one point, a fictionalised account about Akhenaten (as Amenhotep IV) is brought up - a pharaoh that overthrew the priesthood, seized its wealth with public support, but ultimately was usurped by a priest who was initially one of his supporters. Take a guess how the plot of the third act plays out.
  • Freak Out: Kama becomes extremely paranoid after leaving the temple. Possibly due to Cabin Fever, possibly she's faking it. Possibly she had it coming.
  • The Fundamentalist: Some priests, notably Herhor, but some are simply corrupt.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Of political variety – Prus wouldn't be able to publish a novel with the same themes set in his times, but Historical Fiction set in the Ancient Egypt was sufficiently distant to get a pass from the otherwise strict censorship.
  • God-Emperor: This being Ancient Egypt. However, Ramesses quickly realises how little actual power he has.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Ramesses for Sargon (over Kama). Lykon for Ramesses (also over Kama).
  • Hidden Supplies: Treasures of the Labirynth wait for Egypt's darkest hour. They are never used and after Ramesses death, the country falls apart.
  • Hired Guns: Patroklos and his Greek mercenaries. They are really good at their job, but it's just a single regiment, rather than a whole army.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Greeks come across as this, due to not getting the whole scarab business. Ramesses grows increasingly doubtful about the Egyptian gods as the story unfolds, mostly thanks to observing the priests and their machinations.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Duping Ramesses is a simple matter of agreeing to what he says and behaving like he wants you to. Once the conspiracy against him is formed, it's only a matter of time for things to go nasty.
  • Hostile Weather: Ramesses and Pentuer get caught in a sandstorm.
  • Hot-Blooded: Ramesses is ruled by his moods. They change easily. And often.
  • Idle Rich: Tutmosis. Egyptian nobles display this in general.
  • The Ingenue: Sarah is a bit overwhelmed after moving to Memphis, but Silk Hiding Steel is starting to develop. Then it stops after her baby is born.
  • Infodump: Several, rather skilfully done, sometimes by narrator, sometimes through the priests.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: Fellahin get taxed out of their lives to pay Dagon.
  • Intrepid Merchant: The Phoenicians, with a good dose of slime. Also played for laughs toward Jews, since at that point of history they've been mostly associated with nomadic shepherds.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Priests are correct in assuming that becoming indebted to Phoenicians will not make Egypt mighty.
  • King in the Mountain: A variation. The Treasure of the Labirynth can only be used when Egypt is considered to be in a grave danger. However, the priests are more content with just hoarding the wealth (and Stealing from the Till in the process of hoarding).
  • King Incognito: Ramesses tours the vicinity of Memphis dressed as an engineer.
  • King on His Deathbed: Although Ramesses isn't told for a long time. And doesn't make it home before his father's death.
  • Laughing Mad: When Sarah learns who really killed her baby. This leads to Die Laughing.
  • Lecture as Exposition: Pentuer's on economy, Mentezufis's on Anatomy of the Soul and funeral rites (see Egyptian Mythology).
  • A Lesson in Defeat: Herhor is of an opinion Ramesses needs one. Since he can't execute it properly, the high priest adjusts his plans to simple murder.
  • Lotus Seed Diet: The fellahin. Ramesses rationalises this as fellahin natural food, as opposed to meat and such that nobles eat.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Patrokles conveniently "drinks himself to death", leaving the Greek mercenaries without a commander when the conspiracy against Ramesses goes into motion.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Herhor, as well as prince Hiram.
  • Marriage of Convenience: After Ramesses is assassinated, queen-dowager Nikotris is the last member of the dynasty, making her the ruler. Herhor, operating in the interregnum as a steward, marries her and then easily convinces her to abdicate, vacating the throne for... Nitager, his main political opponent. Nitager quickly realises what's up and politely decline the offer, leaving Herhor with free path the the double crown of Egypt and a wife to further legitimate his rule.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Throughout the book things happen that may be explained by people hiding in the dark or in the bushes... or outright disappearing in the thin air.
  • Mirror Character: Ramesses and Herhor, despite opposite to each other politically, share multitude of traits. Both are extremely prideful men that think they are doing their best for Egypt, but in the process trample over little people and don't really think much about them. Their actual difference is the way they plan to achieve the betterment of their nation, up to the point Herhor ultimately performs part of Ramesses plans once he becomes the pharaoh, finding the entire reform simply impossible to conduct.
  • The Mistress: Aside from the royal harem, Ramesses keeps "collecting" new lovers throughout the book. This includes arranging Tutmosis' marriage simply to justify the presence of one of his mistresses in the royal palace. Notably, the book doesn't comment at all on his countless lovers and affairs - they are just there, often send or used by his enemies.
  • Modest Royalty: Ramesses eats and dresses like a soldier. He also won't take homage from his mother upon ascending to the throne.
  • Morning Sickness: Sarah tries to hide her pregnancy, so Ramesses thinks she's actually ill.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Kama, the Phoenician priestess. There are shades of sacred prostitution in her behaviour, but it's really murky thanks to the sources Prus was using to write the book.
  • Nepotism: Sarah tends to employ her friends and relatives, annoying Ramesses over it. He sees it as even worse than the priests and their machinations.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Herhor isn't. Neither is Ramesses, actually, but he never notices himself.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Ka, according to Mentezufis, looks like the person did alive, except more ghostly, and needs sustenance, provided by the mummy (the entrails are taken out of mummies to prevent ka from needing food – if underfed, they would suck blood out of the living.)
  • Pacifist: Priests are of opinion that wars are the kingdom's ruin.
  • Perpetual Poverty: For the fellahin. Part of Good Old Egyptian Ways.
  • The Plan: Ramesses has sweeping reform in mind even while still being the heir apparent. The problem is the amount of money he needs to kick-start it, which puts him at odds with the priesthood, which is sitting on a treasure they are unwilling to part with, both due to running a Corrupt Church and the fact that the reform would remove them from the political landscape. Ultimately, it is a severe deconstruction. When Herhor crowns himself as the new pharaoh, he decides to go through with Ramesses' reforms, despite spending the whole book opposing them... only to find out they don't and won't work out. Instead, he focuses on the Bread and Circuses part of the reform to gain popular support, leaving the country otherwise unchanged and thus heading toward decline.
  • Puppet King: Egypt is run by Ramesses' father in theory and by the priests in practice.
  • Purple Prose: Stylised after Egyptian scrolls. Some conversations with Sarah resemble The Song of Songs.
  • Pride: Ramesses' Fatal Flaw. Also possessed by Herhor in vast quantities. The main difference is how Herhor knows about his vice.
  • Realpolitik: Herhor again. Also the Phoenicians. In fact, everyone who isn't Ramesses and is at any prominent position engages in it, exchanging looks whenever the young pharaoh does something rash or idealistic.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Ramesses tries his best. He's not perfect himself, though.
  • Religion is Magic: Priests do rituals and recite litanies, and they do know their astronomy.
  • Rotating Protagonist: After Ramesses is assassinated, the final chapters shift focus to Pentuer, who struggles under the moral burden of what just happened and how his lack of help probably killed the young, rash man.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Ramesses has an ambition - he wants to change the Good Old Egyptian Ways. He ultimately achieves nothing and his actions are the final nail to Egypt's coffin.
  • Sacred Scripture: Or songs. Priests claim their've been plagiarized by those pesky Jews who don't know how dangerous it is to sing them out in the open.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: So Ramesses thinks.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Not sex itself, but getting Sarah pregnant makes Ramesses think of himself as of a real man.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: The priests, even the well-meaning ones, try to convince Ramesses that his idealistic (read: utopian) goals are impossible to achieve and that he should concentrate, if not on maintaining the status quo, then at least on things that can be solved, rather than daydreaming about fixing all the woes of the world.
  • Silly Reason for War: Ramesses is trying to get the Assyrians riled up enough to attack Egypt on their own and thus get an excuse for taxing the temples and especially getting the Treasure of the Labirynth. At one point, he treats the Assyrian delegation with open contempt and does his very best to breach the protocol. When the terrified priests ask him what he's doing, he coldly says to them that he's starting a war.
  • Shown Their Work: Actual Egyptian texts are extensively quoted. Large sections of the plot are relatively well-researched historical fiction, close to the actual events.
  • Snake Charmer: Provides some colour in the inn scene.
  • Space Jews: Weird as hell. The Phoenicians are stereotypically Jewish characters of the time, while actual Hebrews are noble and honorable shepherds.
  • Spare to the Throne: Ramesses is the fourth son to the pharaoh, his (half-)brothers being: a cripple, dead and claiming to be a monkey, respectively.
  • Slimeball: Dagon the Phoenician usurer.
  • Undying Loyalty: Sarah would rather accuse herself of her baby's murder than let Ramesses be blamed.
  • Vast Bureaucracy: The priesthood is doing double duty as extensive bureaucratic apparatus running the show. And they employ their own clerks. While the pharaoh employs his.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The priesthood as a whole, and especially Herhor in the end, who made people love him and completely forget Ramesses in months, while cynically embracing some of his reforms to boost own popularity.
  • Vow of Celibacy: Priestesses of Astoreth's fire, though dispensation may be obtained (as in case of Kama).
  • Young Conqueror: Ramesses.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Kama's illness, unless it really is a Curse.

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