Friday, November 28, 2014

An Ethiopian princess seeks help in 'The Eunuch and the King's Daughter' (spoiler alert)

Waltenegus Dargie's novel "The Eunuch and the King's Daughter" is set in 19th-century Ethiopia. A princess wants to run away. She seeks the collusion of her eunuch guard. Originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 13, 2012.

Spoilers below!

In Waltenegus Dargie's story The Eunuch and the King's Daughter, set in the fictional kingdom of Méthi in 19th-century southwestern Ethiopia, the only child of King Badar's second wife, Mersabel, is unhappy. She is tutored by Temari, a Christian, who is fixated on destroying the sacred oak where the local people sacrifice to their gods. He attempts to teach the princess to recite the story of St. George and the Dragon (a story of one of Ethiopia's most popular saints who was said to have saved a maiden from a dragon). Mersabel's mother privately suggests that she would do well to marry Temari, but Mersabel finds the idea repulsive, and anyway has her eye on another man.

This novel does not depend too much on the suspense of what will happen next, but more so on the meaning of the characters' social roles and their choices. The king is embroiled in battles, his second wife is an angry person, the princess is bored, the prince is beheaded, and all their slaves are subject to their whims. The beautiful princess is always required to be accompanied by a guard and is never permitted to venture beyond the sacred oak. The eunuch Head Guard is Marebath, son of Maliwa, and he is ultimately responsible for the princess's welfare and is subject to punishment if any ill befalls her. The story is about the characters' awakening to what they need to do to save themselves.

The story turns on the odd arrival of Ferenj, a big, red-bearded, middle-aged Englishman who speaks the Ethiopians' Amharic language. A man tries to give Ferenj to the king of Méthi in exchange for 100 eunuch slaves, but the king ends up giving him only 30 eunuchs. He cannot manage more, having previously tried to motivate his slave soldiers to fight well in the battles against the king of Gimira by promising them that he would not castrate them, and he intends to keep his word to them; therefore, he cannot make more eunuchs, and may only barter with the eunuch slaves already in his household. The slave-dealer insists on eunuchs because he intends to sell them to Muslim nations that do not permit the act of castration to occur within their borders.

After the departure of the slave-dealer, the king learns that the high-priced Ferenj is not a riflemaker, as he was told, but merely a poet and historian. Ferenj is now put into a position where he competes with Temari, the other literature tutor in the king's household. They have a lot to talk about, as they are both interested in literature and religion, but Temari perceives Ferenj as a rival.

While deciding what to do with Ferenj, the king orders the eunuch Marebath to add the protection of Ferenj to his duties. One night, the king's second wife orders Marebath to kill Ferenj, but Marebath refuses, saying that he will obey the king before he obeys the king's wife. She calls him a "wicked, stiff-necked eunuch" and orders the bystanders to disarm him, but no one does.

The climax of the book builds as the princess Mersabel forms the idea of escaping from the king's household. She wants to escape with Ferenj, although there is no romantic connection between them; Ferenj wishes to return to his wife and children in England, and Mersabel simply wants to be free of her family and her repressive lifestyle.

She suggests to Marebath that he could help them escape, but he refuses in horror, afraid that they will be overheard. She calls him a coward, reminding him that the king has castrated him and alleging that he has nothing further to gain from his employment, so why, she suggests, should he remain loyal to the king? At that moment, a bolt of lightning strikes nearby.

After this outburst, the two retire to their rooms separately. Mersabel is repentant, realizing that Marebath has suffered a great deal in a way that she, as a spoiled princess, cannot imagine, and that she is asking too much of him: "Will there be no end to what he is asked to give up?"

However, by the time Mersabel apologizes to him, Marebath has decided that he is finally ready to die for a cause. He only becomes a significant character in the final quarter of the book, so one might ask why is the book is called "The Eunuch and the King's Daughter." Why not "The Red-Bearded English Poet and the King's Daughter"? After all, it is her tutor Ferenj with whom Mersabel wants to escape. The eunuch Marebath is merely someone from whom she requests assistance, and he becomes part of the escape party only because he needs to take a stand for his own freedom and safety as a result of assisting her.

Mersabel's relationship with Ferenj is quite different from her relationship with Marebath. She likes the foreigner Ferenj who has opened her mind to the joy of literature. But it is with her countryman Marebath that she has a spontaneous moral awakening, coming to see him as a loyal sufferer and to appreciate his service, while simultaneously reaching a better self-appraisal of her own assumptions and the limitations of her own experience. This explains why the book is named for their friendship.

The story's final paroxysm of violence is reminiscent of Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo, a story set in ancient North Africa. That story followed the daughter of a military leader and her devoted eunuch Schahabarim. In The Eunuch and the King's Daughter, as in Salammbo, the eunuch is always on the periphery of the narrative, yet is a significant character who carries the final scene.

Written mostly in direct language with a lot of dialogue at an easygoing pace, this is a deceptively challenging novel. The reader has to be able to imagine the unusual perspective of the various characters to truly understand their needs and their actions, as this novel's message is character-driven. It will be appreciated by people who would like an image, albeit somewhat of a fantasied one, of this time period in Ethiopia.

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