The Master of the Magicians
THERE are certain Reservations in the world of human history which have been held pretty exclusively by their original occupants, and kept under the supervision of the encyclopædists and Dryasdust agents ; but, little by little, the human mind, in its multiform activity, impatient of exclusion, has been making inroads and camping out in unexpectedly fertile fields, and offering to overturn all arbitrary barriers which serve to separate the Reservation from common territory. Such a Reservation was for a long time Sanskrit Literature and Hindu Philosophy, but the world has been growing familiar with this field, and general literature has adopted much for its own. Another Reservation is the Egyptian, another the Assyrian, and one a little more remote is the Akkadian. The interesting fact to note is that the incursionists are not only historical students and archæological savans, but photographers of human life, who follow close after and report with nimble minds the results of research. So eager is the desire to know antiquity, not in a museum, but in its conscious activity, that those scholars are listened to most attentively who most effectually diminish the distance between the eye and the subject; and any disclosure of the trivialities of our marble predecessors is hailed with enthusiasm. The Tanagra figurines are looked at with delight, because there is no necessity of feeling any awe, and the mind is relieved by finding representations of antique life that are not severely statuesque.
When it comes to a knowledge of classic antiquity through the medium of modern fictitious reproduction, the mind is apt to be a little virtuous. It reads its Gallus and Charicles with the determination not to skip the notes and excursuses, and solaces itself with the reflection that these mosaics of fiction cannot be mistaken for genuine pictures. But we are still under the thralldom of Greek and Roman tradition, and dare not substitute modern restorations for the classic remains. It is different when we enter the Reservations. No one feels obliged to read Egyptian in the original hieroglyphics, and so he enjoys Ebers without a qualm. One may openly own up to ignorance of the Hindu vernacular, and take his ideas of occultism from Mr. Isaacs without shame. He may safely deny, in any mixed company, all knowledge of cuneiform writing, and not be set down as an uneducated person ; and he may, and probably will, follow his Crawford implicitly in his studies respecting Zoroaster.
And here come Mr. and Mrs. Ward, fresh from their Assyrian studies, with a novel1 which lays low the fences of the Assyrian Reservation, and enables the sympathetic reader to feel as much at home, nearly, in Babylon as in, say, the Calcutta of to-day. To read this book after a stroll through the Metropolitan museum, and a hasty summary in one’s mind of Assyrian life into figures of men with lamplighter-curl beards pulling long bows from which no arrows fly, or sitting in endless reverie with their hands on their knees, is to have a sudden sense that the figures have waked into excessive activity, and would need few lessons to make them very good Americans. No doubt the reader’s cheerfulness in reading a record of such a dusty antiquity is greatly increased by his confidence as he strikes the names of old acquaintances. Nebuchadrezzar, — his r gives us an agreeable sense of our own scholarship ; Daniel, with his other name, Balatsu-usur, which we quietly remind our less quick-witted neighbor is the more exact form of Belteshazzar ; Allit Arioch, — we candidly admit we had forgotten the Allit part; Askpenaz, the head eunuch, — these we knew when we were children ; and some of the very incidents in the tale gain a certain corroboration by being expanded incidents with which we were familiar in a certain old book. But we do not fail to perceive that this novel could not have been written much earlier than the present year, for generations of men had read the book of Daniel before the archives of the University of Bel were deciphered from their original bricks.
What we admire especially in the art of these collaborators is the lightness with which they wear their learning. There is not a footnote, we believe, in the book, and they are as eager as their readers to get at the life of the Babylonish kingdom, and not at the mere shell of that life. They have bottomed their imagination, apparently, upon the impregnable base of human nature, and have sought, in depicting the variation produced by Assyrian and Hebraic conditions, to bring into prominence as factors in the story those elementary forces which would have had fullest play. Thus, though in conventional style, we may say there is a king and a queen; a wise old man and his lovely ingénue daughter ; a military man, who is in love with the innocent maiden, and is himself longed for by the amorous queen ; a singularly pure young man, who stifles his own love for the maiden; and though all these characters may be met with in modern fiction, in evening dress, the difference between such personages in the fiction which records contemporary life and the same personages in The Master of the Magicians is not a merely conventional or external difference. The king has the hard, metallic character which is possible only where authority is absolute ; the queen’s amorousness is accompanied by a nonchalant cruelty which has no touch of remorse, —the outcome of a nature which is not merely luxurious, but has never had sympathy with suffering awakened; the sage, though for purposes of the story he is made to feel his magic power crumble, is yet a confident user of his art, and not a mere Polonius ; the Daniel — Deronda we were about to add — of the story is set apart rather by virtue of a possession than by conscious rectitude. The innocent maiden, indeed, and the impetuous lover can scarcely be distinguished from their modern prototypes, — for we cannot, after all, escape the feeling that modern fiction invented this Babylonish drama, — but the incidents by which the characters assert themselves are so clever and so touched with the decoration of this strange antiquity that even familiar situations undergo a marvelous change, and strike one as fresh and unhackneyed. There are hunting scenes in abundance in modern stories, but it would be hard to match the brilliancy of the scene in this novel where Nebuchadrezzar and Daniel and Allit and Amytis are seen in pursuit of the lions. So, too, the attempted murder of a rival has a melodramatic familiarity, but it gains immensely by its naturalness under the Babylonian régime, and the circumstances of the narrow escape are most effectively narrated.
The authors have availed themselves of the Scripture narrative with a good deal of power in their treatment of the strange affection of the king, and the figure of Nebuchadrezzar is, to our thinking, the most dramatically conceived in the book. It casts a huge shadow throughout the story, and the foregleams of madness which issue in the horrible bestiality hinted at in the book of Daniel are managed with great skill. The success of the writers, indeed, lies largely in the broad strokes which they lay on the canvas ; the minuter touches are of less consequence. They are weakest when they essay to relieve the dignity of antiquity by humor and jocularity. When, for example, they make Nebuchadrezzar say to Daniel, " If thou art, his [Jehovah’s] representative, verily I will consider the matter ; for he appeared to me to be an intelligent god, quite worthy of some attention ; " and add, “ Now, as Nebuchadrezzar was known to be pretty constant to one or two pet deities of the highest order, but was also agile in carrying on what might be called a kind of celestial flirtation with many minor gods, Daniel was not as much impressed with his proselyte as he might have been,” — when, we say, the authors attempt this light style, we are not helped over hard places. On the other hand, the swiftness of action, the real vim of many passages, make the reader quite forget that he is threading the mazes of an ante-Christian and circum-Euphrates romance. We think, also, that there is an anachronism of sentiment which sometimes makes one feel that he is witnessing a masquerade, as when, during the hunt, “ Amytis would fain have drawn nigh and hung upon the arm of Allit. But Daniel gave her a stern look, and her warm hand dropped at her side ; ” and when Lalitha, being asked in marriage by Allit, stammers out, “ I will mention the matter — to my guardian.”
But these are trifling lapses, which amuse ns without greatly affecting our judgment of the whole book as a really brilliant piece of story-telling, — so brilliant that we are never long tempted to inquire whether what dazzles us is burnished metal or tin foil.
- The Master of the Magicians. By ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS and HERBERT D. WARD. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1890.↩