Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, January 28, 2021


 Queen Cleopatra by Talbot Mundy (1929)

Let's talk about Talbot Mundy for a bit.  Mundy (1879-1940) was born William Lancaster Gribbin in London. to a middle-class family.  He was a fairly rebllious child and dropped out of school when his father died in 1895.  He worked briefly in London, then moved to Germany, although he spoke no German.  From there he moved to India, working in administration and jouranlism, then to East Africa where he became an ivory poacher.  He had a tendency to inflate his experiences during this time and many of his stated adventures could be viewed with a discernment; many others were definitely true.

Mundy was of a mystical bent, intersted in Eastern religion and philosophy.  He was briefly a Christian Scientist, then embraced Theosophy for many years.  These mystical beliefs found their way into many of Mundy's books.  In his early life, biographer Peter Beresford Ellis wrote, Mundy was "a wastrel, confidence trickster, barefaced liar and a womanizer;" later he had changed "his philodophical approach to life...and became better for it."   Nonetheless, Mundy married five times and was heavilynin debt for most of his life.

He sold his first story in 1911, some two years after he had immigrated to America.  This began a long and successful career as an adventure writer, setting most of stories in exotic locations, and a number of them in the past.  His most successful novel was King -- of the Khyber Rifles, which was made into a popular film in 1953, starring Tyrone Power; the book was also the basis of John Ford's 1929 film The Black Watch.  King of the Kyber Rifles was part of Mundy's Jimgrim/Ramsden series of 22 novels, some of which featured the alluring chracter Yasmini.  Other books in that series include Om:  The Secret of Ahbor Valley, The Nine Unknown, The Devil's Guard, Jimgrim, and C.I.D.

Mundy's other major series was about Tros, a warrior from Samothrace who waged war against Julius Ceasar in ancent Britain.  The adventures of Tros were published as six short novel and one three-part serial in Adventure magazine in 1925-26.  They were eventually collected in a massive, 949 page novel in 1934.  (Because of its large size, the paperback reprint of the novel from Avon appeared as four separate volumes in 1967:  Tros, Helma, Liafail, and Helene; Zebra Books published the novel in three separate volume in 1976:  Lud of Lunden, Avenging Liafail, and The Praetor's Dungeon; in 2007, Leonaur Books published the novel in four separate volumes:  Wolves of the Tibur, Dragons of the North, Serpent of the Waves, and City of Eagles.)  Tros reappeared as a major character in Mundy's 1929 novel Queen Cleopatra. but the main thrust of the novel was the relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar.  This novel (never published in magazine form) provided a bridge to the last four stories of Tros, which appeared in Adventure in 1935 and was published in book form as Purple Pirate that same year.

Back to Queen Cleopatra.  

Egypt is in turmoil.  King Ptolemy had died and various political factions are vying for power.  Cleopatra, not yet quite twenty, has survived serveral plots to assassinate her.  Her younger brother. the Prince Ptolemy, is a rash, headstrong, and entitle being, controlled by his minister, the eunich Potheinos, anf by his tutor, Theodorus.  While living, King Ptolemy had borrowed large amounts of funds from Rome, giving Caesar a claim to Egypt as the executor of Ptolemy's will.  Before Caesar arrives in Alexandria, however, Tros sails into port with his magnificent ship and his fleet of followers.

Tros has no love for Caesar.  Caesar had murdered Tros' father and his child, and Tros had fought him with the Druids of pre-roman Britain.  Tros had several opportunites to kill Caesar but did not; Caesar remained a bitter enemy for the Samothracian.  For his part, Caesar respected Tros as a brilliant warrior and enemy but would gladly see him dead.  Tros, now the master of a large fleet, is trying to find safe haven since Caesar had defeated Pompey and is now the singlemost power in Rome; anywhere that Caesar touches holds no safety for Tros.  For her part, Cleopatra must resist Caesar's potential conquest of Egypt; thus Tros and Cleopatra becomes allies.

In addition to being beautiful, Cleopatra is very savvy and knows how to manipulate people.  Her wit, charm, and quick thinking, along with her almost preternatural instincts, serve her well as she tries to preserve power.  Caesar arrives in Alexandria to administer King Ptolemy's will and falls for Cleopatra's charms, seeing in her a person who is almost his equal in intellect.  Caesar is courageous, sly, intelligent, politically aware, and able to motivte his armies, as well as being vain and loathe to share power.  As the novel progresses, Caesar begins to consider himself as a demigod and one who can unite the known world under his power.  Tros, pledged to Cleopatra, will not make a move against Caesar and an uneasy truce is declared between the two warriors.

Cleopatra uses her most potent weapon against Caesar -- her sexuality, and soon they become lovers.  Caesar considers himself apart from Rome, whereas Cleopatra considers herself the embodiment of Egypt.  Cleopatra uses her wiles to seduce Caesar, considering him separate from Rome itself.  she would gladly have Caesar rule with her in Egypt if that meant Rome would not have a hold on her country.  Using mainly exposition, Mundy takes the reader through the many political machinations of and plots and counterplots involving both Rome and Egypt.  As Caesar moves more toward Egypt than Rome, his enemies plot against him.  But Caesar remains popular with the Roman people if not some of its senators.

Caesar would be a king or emperor, something some Romans endorse.  Under Cleopatra's subtle urgings, he soon sees himself conquering Parthia to the west and then descending on Rome itself to conquer it, moving the empire's capitol to Alexandria.  Cleopatra has given birth to Caesar's son, Caesarion, and Rome will not accept Cleopatra as his queen, nor will it accept his son as his heir.  Caesar, ever savvy, bides his time.

Eventually Caesar returns to Rome to quell some discontent there and Cleopatra follows him.  The Romans distrust Cleopatra and soon forces merge againt both her and Caesar.  Two days before he is to embark on his conquest of Pathia, Caesar is scheduled to give a speech to the city -- on the Ides of March.  We all know what happens then.  Tros himself is witness to the assassination but is unable to stop it.  He wants to take Cleopatra back to Egypt for her safety but she stubbornly refuses to leave immediately, instead spreading discontent about Caesar's assassins and trying to save the reputation of her dead lover.  

Queen Cleopatra is a dense novel, some 52 chapters and 426 pages of small type, and covers much of the histroy of the known world at that time.  The cast of characters is large and the brutality of the era is evident.  Although mainly exposition, there are some exciting actions scenes throughout the novel and the interplay between the two main characters -- Caesar and Cleopatra is fascinating.  

This one takes some effort to get through but the reader is amply rewarded.

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