Curiouser & Curiouser

My Own Invention:
Discovering Ancient Egypt Through Literature

Beth Roberts

Beth Roberts has a Master's Degree in Children's Literature from Hollins University and teaches English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) in the Alexandria (VA) City Public Schools at Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center. Of the approximately 750 ninth graders in the school, about 120 receive EFL instruction. A typical EFL classroom has students from all over the world; usually more than 10 countries and at least 6 languages are represented within a given class. Forty-seven percent of the student population at the school receives free or reduced lunch; that figure is higher among EFL students.

During the summer of 2002, I was looking for a literary selection to complement the world history curriculum in our English as a Foreign Language program. I teach Advanced English language and literature to the most fluent EFL students in Minnie Howard School, the public ninth grade school in Alexandria, Virginia. Once students have passed Advanced EFL instruction, they move into mainstream classes. As Advanced students, however, they follow much of the mainstream curriculum, and at the end of the school year, they take the state standard-of-learning exam in world history. In Alexandria, the ninth grade history and English curricula are paired so that as students learn history, honors students read literature that was written by writers of the civilization they are studying. Those students not in honors classes, if not reading primary works, at least read literature about the time period they are studying. In my discussions with the EFL world history teacher, it was determined that any literature that would enrich EFL students' study of world history would be helpful. Hence, my seach for a selection that would have both literary merit and that would reinforce history.

I found that piece of literature in Cricket Magazine for Children, in a serialized novel, Casting the Gods Adrift, by Geraldine McCaughrean. It has since been published as a book by Carus Publishing under the imprint of Cricket Books. It is a story of ancient Egypt, and through it readers learn a great deal about life in Egypt during the New Kingdom, specifically about life during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Additionally, the book has strong literary merit. It provides clear examples of literary elements and structure, and has a plot that engages readers. So, how do I use it in my English literature classroom to reinforce students' world civilization curriclum?

Before I distribute the book to the students we look at the first paragraph on the overhead projector:

I know what made me careless. It was the thought of seeing a god -- in person -- breathing, speaking, eating, moving about. Priests had worshiped at his shrine every day for two years. Now I was going to see him in the flesh -- the pharaoh. God on Earth. The thought filled my brain. How could I think about anything else? So you see, it was all my fault.
(pp. 3 &4, Casting the Gods Adrift)

I love this opening paragraph because it provides so much information about the story. Historically, my students establish the time period of the novel based on this paragraph and predict what might have been the narrator's fault. Literarily, we talk about authors using "a hook" to interest readers and the genre of historic fiction. Later during the study of the novel we do historic reasearch, as well, to see who and what in the novel is real. We research Amenhotop III, Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and the mythology, burial practices, and daily life in ancient Egypt. We talk about the revolutionary change brought about by Akhenaten's (the pharaoh at the time of the story) decision to "cast out the pantheon of Egyptian gods" to worship only Aten, the sun god. We talk about how change, one of the themes of the novel, is very difficult to institute, but that it is a contant in life, in ancient Egypt as well as today.

Because Casting the Gods Adrift was first published as a serialized novel, its literary structure is very clear, making it an excellent selection for teaching structure. Each chapter sets a scene in its exposition, contains events that contribute to action rising toward a strong climax, and contains events that lead to a quick resolution, but that leave a reader unsatisfied and wanting to know the outcome of a given situation. The mood of Casting the Gods Adrift is serious, and the main character Tutmose's story is intense, building and falling with external conflicts between him and his father, Harkuf, and with Tutmose's internal conflicts over what he should believe in, his father's pantheon of gods or the pharaoh's one god Aten. These conflicts of Tutmose's, and those of his father over the belief system Akhenaten has imposed upon Egypt, drive the structure of the novel. Fiction and non-fiction intersect to drive the novel to its own climax, an assassination attempt on the pharaoh, late in the novel.

Teaching the literary elements of character, setting, mood, plot, conflict, and theme are equally accessible to students in this novel. McCaughrean draws a beautiful and vivid picture of what life must have been like during the reign of Akhenaten in ancient Egypt. Not only does she describe what daily life was like for the common man and for royalty, but she develops the story so that readers feel the heat and intensity of the sun in that place, and sense the importance of the Nile River for ancient Egyptians. She describes the capital city of El-Amarna, which Akhenaten created, as a heavenly place, new and clean and white. A reader almost has the feeling El-Amrna is bleached by the sun. Tutmose, Harkuf, and Akhenaten are well-developed characters in the novel. Tutmose serves as narrator and describes the difficulties his father has reconciling his belief in the Egyptian pantheon of gods with the revolutionary beliefs of Akhenaten's one god. Harkuf is angry because of this conflict and takes his anger out on Tutmose. Tutmose also describes the pharaoh as a kind and generous god who loves beauty in all things. Readers are treated to a pharaoh who creates beauty in the city of El-Amarna, in the craftsmanship and music he supports, in the way he treats his wife Nefertiti, and in the actions he shows Tutmose, his brother Ibrim, and Harkuf. This beauty is what Tutmose ultimately says he believes in, after Akhenaten has died and Tutankamen, his son, has reinstitued the Egyptian pantheon. With El-Amarna in ruins and the capital city returned to Thebes, Tutmose doesn't quite know what to believe regarding theology, but he says that he believes in both physical and emotional beauty. Life's physical and emotional beauties, then, is another theme in the novel, one that students can relate to their own lives.

In addition to history, literary structure, and literary elements, this novel offers other benefits as well. McCaughrean uses rich vocabulary to create scenes and tension throughout the novel, and she has a glossary of terms that are specifically related to ancient Egypt in the book. Also, there is a sophistication in the language structure that allows a teacher to focus on the use of appositives and compound sentences to help foreign language learners comprehend the story more fully. Another benefit that comes from using this novel is learning research skills. Students can use technology to research historical accuracies, and in the back of the book, a bibliography for further reading about ancient Egypt is included.

I have found Casting the Gods Adrift a wonderful novel for complementing and supporting the world civilization curriculum in our EFL program, and for teaching English literature. Also, because I was fortunate to find the novel in its serialized form in Cricket Magazine, I was able to negotiate an exchange with Carus Publishing for twenty-five copies of the published text for the teacher's guide I created for the novel. All in all, this text is a wonderful addition to my class's reading list; students learn about an ancient culture and land, which for some of them is home. They read about a very controversial time in history, and hopefully, because it is an intense story, it reinforces what they have learned in their history class. In addition, they learn literary skills to help them analyze and comprehend English literature better. What a serendipitous combination!

Volume 8, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, April, 2004

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"Discovering Egypt through literature"
© Beth Roberts, 2004.
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