As part of the 10-year anniversary celebration, this month I’m going to re-read Men of Bronze, posting my thoughts, notes, commentary, and alternate material gleaned from previous drafts. There will be a couple of little side excursions to explore the archaeology, history, and culture of the ancient Egyptians and how that information fed into creating the world in which the novel is set (if you’re unclear or confused by that statement, please refer to my previous posts – what appears to be historical fiction is really just a form of fantasy that employs elements of the “real” world as its setting).
Since editions might vary, I’m going to avoid posting page numbers and simply copy and highlight in bold the portion of Men of Bronze I’m referring to. I’ll be using the 2005 hardcover as my text-of-choice, supplemented by both my edited and unedited manuscripts, previous editions of the manuscript, and files of notes.
I invite you, Gentle Readers, to grab a copy and read (or re-read) Men of Bronze along with me. Thus, without further ado . . .
Chapter One—The City of Lions
And so we begin: with a cup of tea at my elbow and a pad for notes, my original manuscripts pulled up on my computer and a somewhat battered copy of Men of Bronze open in my lap, I start to read . . .
It’s not bad, actually. I tend to wince when, after some time has passed, I read my own words. I can see a marked difference in the quality of my prose between then and now, but it also has an underlying power that I’m not sure I’ve ever achieved since. I’ve read where Robert McCammon mentioned something similar in regards to his first novel, Baal. And now, some notes:
“In the blue predawn twilight, a mist rose from the Nile’s surface, flowing up the reed-choked banks and into the ruined streets of Leontopolis.” I don’t know how it is for other writers, but my mind doesn’t think in terms of words. It visualizes, cobbling imagery from different sources into a collage that I then attempt to describe. Inspiration for Leontopolis at dawn, for example, came from two pictures: one of the pyramids floating above an evening mist (pages 12-13, Egypt of the Pharaohs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Books, 2000), and another of the temple of Amun at Karnak (page 126, Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Leontopolis itself was a real site, though sparse of ruins. Actually, there were a couple of places known to the Greeks as Leontopolis; but the one I chose as the stage upon which to introduce Barca is known today as Tell el-Yahudiya, about 12.5 miles northeast of Cairo. The Ancient Egyptians knew it as Nay-ta-hut. I’m not sure if I ever learned why the Greeks called it the City of Lions, but I took a cue from its name and made it a cult center of Sekhmet, destroyed by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 667 BC and never repopulated.
In my original draft I had a brief preface to this, two paragraphs of atmospheric text written while under the influence of Karl Edward Wagner’s “Lynortis Reprise”:
On the Nile’s banks ruined Leontopolis simmered in silent majesty. The City of Lions, age-old and ageless, its crumbling colonnades and weathered plazas haunted by the phantom tread of long-dead pharaohs. Leontopolis. Built by the slaves of great Rameses; destroyed by the soldiers of mighty Assyria, its sphinx-lined avenues have known both cries of adulation and screams of terror.
Leontopolis . . . your streets are silent now, and the bones of your people are scattered to the winds. No more do lions prowl the temple precincts seeking sacrifices; even the jackals have moved on to fresh tombs, fresh corpses. Silent, alone under the waning moon, you have become a necropolis, a monument to a forgotten time . . .
“The Medjay had come to Leontopolis.” The Medjay were an artifact of history which I repurposed. Originally, they were a tribe of Nubian mercenaries who rose to prominence during the 18th dynasty. They became Egypt’s internal police force; one of their tasks was to guard the various necropoleis and “government towns” like Kahun. In time, “medjay” became less an ethnic designation and more a by-word for a cadre of Pharaoh’s soldiers responsible for homeland security. By the 20th dynasty, even the name had vanished from Egyptian records.
I resurrected them for my own purposes after reading an article at Tour Egypt on how the Saite kings liked to recycle themes and institutions from Egypt’s past, especially the 18th dynasty. So I made the Medjay a company of mercenaries from various extra-Nilotic locales, using the French Foreign Legion as a template, and stuck them out patrolling the Eastern Desert, fighting the Bedouin and cursing the Greeks—who had posh military posts in Egypt’s heart. There’s a great deal of color I added later while trying to make the sequel “Medjay” into something workable.
From my original manuscript:
Medjay. It was a name that aroused fear among Egypt’s enemies: a legion drawn from the most savage and feral of Pharaoh’s mercenaries. They were a throwback to another era, to the dawn of the New Kingdom, resurrected a century earlier by Wehemibre Necho to serve as elite guards of Egypt’s eastern frontier. Heavily armored, mobile, the Medjay were trained to crush an invader before they could plunder the temples and granaries of the Nile valley. In that, their effect was beyond measure.
“Phoenician by birth, Hasdrabal Barca ruled the Medjay with the tigerish strength of a born killer.” I got the name “Barca” from Harold Lamb’s biography of Hannibal—who had a brother named Hasdrubal (I had hoped changing the “u” in “Hasdrubal” to an “a” might be enough to forestall confusion); Oded Fehr inspired his physical appearance, and his personality I distilled from equal parts REH’s Conan and Homer’s Achilles with one deviation: Barca’s been suicidal for some twenty years.
I don’t think I ever mention the oath Barca swore after the murder of his wife and her lover. He embraced his guilt and swore to Ba’al Hammon that he would not take his own life. Rather, he would go into the desert—the least hospitable place I could think to send a sea-loving Phoenician—and let the gods do with him as they will. He’s been trying to get himself killed ever since. Early on, it was his berserk rage that carried him through; by the book’s opening, it’s a combination of that and cold skill with a blade.
Here’s my original description of Barca:
Even among the Egyptians he was accounted as tall, and the iron muscles of his arms, chest and back were forged on the anvil of war. The skin beneath his armor bore the dark bronze hue of his Levantine ancestors, with the scars of torch and sword, spear and knife, telling the tale of a life spent in pursuit of violence. Unlike his men, the Phoenician disdained a helmet; he went into battle with his long black hair unbound. There was a savage recklessness in his features, in the jut of his jaw, the snarl twisting his lips. Only in his eyes did this show of bravado not reach. Hasdrabal Barca had the cold, patient eyes of a predator.
“Such was the fate of Habu, south of the vale of Tumilat, on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake.” The original name of the village destroyed by the Bedouin was Tuat. A fine and good name . . . until I read Chapter One aloud to my friends Shannon (now my wife) and Kris, both of whom noted, around gales of laughter, that “Tuat” sounded suspiciously like a slang word for female genitalia. Thus, Habu was born.
“You were right,” the scout, Tjemu, whispered, “they are the Beni Harith.” I mentioned in the introduction to this series that an iteration of Men of Bronze had Barca adventuring in pre-Islamic South Arabia. The Beni Harith and their chief, Ghazi ibn Ghazi, are holdovers from that draft. I first encountered the name “Beni Harith” in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, which prompted me to look for Lawrence’s own book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I took some harsh criticism over my portrayal of the Bedouin in Men of Bronze, with one reviewer calling it an offensive caricature; in my defense, much of my characters’ disdain over the desert dwellers I lifted whole-cloth from Egyptian sources, which showed marked contempt for those who lived beyond Egypt’s borders.
“The Persian, Arsamenes, leaned forward, helping himself to the dates. His eyes, small and dark, flickered up to the Bedouin’s face.” This whole episode of the Persian messenger traveling with Bedouin raiders into Egypt was a late addition to the manuscript, and in my opinion now it’s one of the silliest plot hooks I’ve seen in a long time. The original version wasn’t much better: rather than having Arsamenes in their entourage, the Harith had in their possession a map showing a hidden path through the desert, one that followed a series of man-made wells. Ghazi and his Bedouin were traveling to Memphis to take part in Phanes’ uprising. In both versions, the whole episode is so contrived that it embarrasses me to claim it as my own.
If I were writing it today, I’m not sure what catalyst I’d use to get Barca and the Medjay out of the Eastern Desert and into Memphis in time to scuttle Phanes’ plans, but I hope it would be a little less ham-handed than this.
“Sounds like locusts,” Tajik said. The young Bedouin craned his neck . . .
. . . and died as a bronze-tipped arrow split his skull.” To this day, I love how the ellipses and paragraph break here work to create an image of a split-second passage of time. I think an editor tried to change this, but I argued against it. I wanted to keep this structure intact just as I’d written it. My love for it spread to other parts of the book, and eventually to other books. Jokingly, I call it my “literary signature”.
“The Bedouin called the captain of the Medjay al-Saffah, the Blood-letter; with each killing stroke, Barca demonstrated the truth of that sobriquet.” Barca’s nom de guerre, al-Saffah, is an homage to Robert E. Howard’s desert hero Francis Xavier Gordon, called El Borak, the Swift. I swiped it from Philip K. Hitti’s excellent The Arabs: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1943); it was the self-given nickname of the first Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Abu’l-Abbas. I wanted the Bedouin to know him as something other than Barca or the Phoenician, something that would hint of a long and bloody association with the People of the Desert.
“With a chilling cry, Hasdrabal Barca unleashed the Beast.” I do not now recall what possessed me to make Barca a berserker, or to characterize his rage as “the Beast”. I think I wanted a touch of the supernatural about him, the idea that at his most murderous he essentially becomes a vessel for something more powerful than himself. He surrenders to rage and guilt; he relives that moment when he gave in to his baser side and allows it to fill him with a rich red wrath—he becomes a creature of reflex and instinct that the gods use as they see fit.
As I type this, there’s something else about Barca that I’ve noticed . . . he’s fairly agnostic. He is no zealot, nor does he deny the existence of the gods. He rarely invokes them, actually. I believe deep in his soul he retains a fear of them, and of the unknown, but he has tempered this with a total willingness to die. It is interesting that his recklessness is not a desirable trait among Greeks, despite the fact that it carries him through to victory and glory. Unconsciously, I seem to have made him the anti-Greek.
“Pain blossomed in Ghazi’s left shoulder. A fist-sized chunk of masonry, hurled with all the strength of Barca’s arm, splintered the bone.” In my original manuscript, what Barca hurled was his shield—he carried a Greek-style aspis, inlaid with a lapis lazuli uadjet:
Something struck him low, in the upper thighs, knocking his legs out from under him. Ghazi hit the ground hard, breath exploding from his lungs. Barca had hurled his shield like a discus. Ghazi scrabbled at the dusty ground, crawling, pulling his body toward the safety of the Nile.
But that was a bit too . . . Captain America-y, right? Instead, I envisioned him plucking up a fist-sized rock and taking the fleeing Arab down like a hunter dropping a bird . . .
“Ithobaal, who could claim kinship with King Achish of conquered Gath, shaded his eyes with a spade-like hand.” Ithobaal was a relic of the Babylonian version of Men of Bronze, a henchman of the villain—a sinister Egyptian, of all things, cast in the mold of REH’s Thoth-Amon. Here, I can’t help but feel that he, along with some of the other Medjay, was an underused resource. He was tall and skeletal, a distant kinsman of that great Gittite (“from Gath”) from the Bible, Goliath.
Ithobaal’s secret pain is the fact that for many years he’s remained the number two man among the Medjay. He was lieutenant to Barca’s predecessors, Potasimto and Mâthu, passed over again when Pharaoh elevated Barca to the captaincy of Sile. It was a measure of his quality that he bore the Phoenician no grudge.
“Frowning, Barca drew out a heavy sheet of vellum. Tjemu grunted. The Libyan could not read, but his eyes marveled at the delicate Aramaic script filling the page. “What does it say?” This whole thing about an unencrypted letter offering sedition carried over a perennially disputed border by a man of obvious Persian descent, escorted by an undisciplined rabble of Bedouin . . . it makes me shake my head and wish for a do-over. As I mentioned before, the original draft made mention of Ghazi being in possession of a map, which Barca finds on his corpse. Here’s how that scene played out:
Barca sat on the stump of a column and handed Ithobaal the papyrus roll. “What do you make of that?”
Tjemu glanced over the Canaanite’s shoulder as he unrolled the blood-stained papyrus. The Libyan could not read, but his eyes were drawn to the delicate hieratic script ringing the map. “What does it say?”
Ithobaal looked up sharply. “It marks the Way of the Wells!”
“You think it’s genuine?” Barca said.
The Canaanite pursed his lips. “I cannot say for certain. It looks to be correct, from what I remember of the map Potasimto once had. See, back when Lydia fell to the Persians, Pharaoh ordered all copies of the map destroyed save one. A sole copy was to be kept in the archives of Ptah’s temple in Memphis. He feared just this sort of thing—”
“Wait,” said Tjemu, frowning. “What is this Way of the Wells?”
“Until now one of our greatest secrets, little brother,” Ithobaal replied. “A series of man-made wells, huge stone cisterns, buried in the Eastern Desert at its harshest points to emulate the great oases of the Western Desert.”
“Why is that a vital secret?”
“Because,” Barca said. “From these wells an army could vanish into the desert and strike where they pleased along the Nile’s east bank, between Thebes and the Delta. Imagine the chaos of trying to ensnare a well-watered invader in that inferno.”
Tjemu shivered. “I see what you mean.”
“Before he died Ghazi said the Greeks were behind this,” Barca said, indicating the carnage around them.
“The Greeks? Why? They live like merchant-princes.”
“The only reason I can think of is they plan an uprising,” Barca said.
I am dumbfounded over how I could have made the leap between “the Bedouin have a map!” and “the Greeks are revolting!” It makes zero since to me now, a decade and more since first writing it. If any of my beta readers have an answer . . . please chime in!
In retrospect, it should have been a band of Greeks disguised as Bedouin, returning in secret from a diplomatic mission along the border. That would have made sense—and provided the perfect catalyst for Barca and his Medjay to descend on Memphis . . .
“All around the square, his Medjay cared for their dead. They stripped them of their armor, laid them out with reverence; their shields and personal effects would be taken back to Sile and enshrined in the temple of Horus Sopdu.” The identification of Horus Sopdu, “Sharp Horus”, as the patron god of the Medjay came late in the editing process; so, too, the imagery of their temple—the arms and armor of fallen Medjay displayed beside trophies of their victories, all of it wreathed in a haze of incense. Once that detail fell into place, the Medjay became to my mind less a band of mercenaries and more a great warrior-fraternity, like a precursor to the Knights Templar, turning men who would otherwise be the dregs of society into proud and ferocious brothers.
One failing of mine was I never took the time to sketch out more about the organization and practices of the Medjay. How many companies were there? Who and how many were their officers? Was Barca A captain or THE captain; and if the latter, how did he avoid the administrative duties of his rank? How did they recruit? Was the prohibition against Greeks serving in their ranks just Barca’s prejudice? What were some of their more memorable exploits? This is something I may just revisit under the auspices of writing a short story.
“The Phoenician turned away and held the diplomatic pouch aloft, using it to gesture at the scattered Medjay. “Gather round, brothers! We’re not going back to Sile, not yet!” And thus, Chapter One comes to a close. As I mentioned at the outset, it’s not a bad bit of work. It has some outstanding moments alongside some I find, in retrospect, to be quite wretched. The tone and tenor of the whole book owe a great deal to the influence of Robert E. Howard, but I can see glimpses of others, too. Threads from writers as diverse as Karl Edward Wagner, Mary Renault, and Homer add weight to the tapestry of Men of Bronze.
Tomorrow, in Chapter Two, we’ll meet Barca’s nemesis: Phanes of Halicarnassus. And we’ll ponder whether or not I gave a good man the short end of the stick . . .