In “A Tale of the White Pyramid,” young Willa Cather tries her hand at historical fiction.
Have you read this short story? What did you think?
I was surprised by the Egyptian setting of a short story written by a Nebraska college student in 1892, but really shouldn’t have been. I suppose I was thinking that the Egyptology craze only began in the U.S. after archeologist Howard Carter uncovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
But there was a long fascination with Egypt during the 19th-century that got its start after Napoleon’s invasion of the country in the late 18th-century. Victorian “Egyptomania” apparently was a thing. In England, Europe, and America, Egyptian imagery, style, and stories made their way into literature, architecture, music, and more.
Cather was definitely into literature and music, and I think its safe to say she had an interest in architecture or construction considering that the hero of “A Tale of the White Pyramid” is a builder as is the protagonist of her first novel, Alexander of Alexander’s Bridge, which would be published twenty years later in 1912.
What struck me about this story is that the builder is an outsider:
“He is a youth of the Shepherd people of the north, he is a builder and has worked upon the tomb. He is cunning of hand and wise of heart, and Kufu has shown him great favor, but the people like him not, for he is of the blood of strangers.”
When I first read this story, I didn’t understand what the “sin of the king” was that’s mentioned at the end of the story. Initially, I thought it was that there was talk, even before his father was properly buried, that he was going start building a more magnificent pyramid than his father’s. The sin of pride? Of not honoring his father?
The story may be set in ancient Egypt and mention Egyptian deities, but the concept of sin brings to mind Judaism and Christianity. Making the stranger a shepherd who saves the day also brings to mind stories of Jesus. However, in “White Pyramid” the good shepherd doesn’t roll back a huge boulder from a tomb, he guides one over the mouth of a tomb to seal it.
We saw Christian themes in “Lou, The Prophet” and “Peter,” so it is not surprising to find it in this story. Unlike the first two stories which focus on lone men who suffer and are ostracized by their communities, the stranger in “White Pyramid” has a protector in the king, even if the people don’t like him.
Which brings me to the point that maybe the new king’s sin is going against his people. They may cheer when he announces the stranger will build his great pyramid, but “their faces were dark.” They are pissed that this stranger is literally getting the royal treatment.
I didn’t do any research to see if this story is based on a real king or a known mythical story, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. Cather’s later ventures into historical fiction such as Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock are steeped in both legends and facts.
Strength like ribbed steel
I enjoyed the physicality of the scene when the stranger runs toward the great stone to save the day. Does the description below remind you of anyone?
“He threw off his garments as he ran, and at the edge of the stone tier he paused for a moment, he crouched low, gathering all his strength, then suddenly straightening his body he threw back his head and shot straight forward, like an arrow shot from the bow, over eighteen cubits, and fell lightly upon his feet on the uppermost end of the stone.”
Superman of DC Comics fame comes to mind for me. Clark Kent is often shown running and pealing off his clothes to reveal his Superman tights under his business suit. Also significant is that the stranger is from the north, as are the enslaved men building the pyramids. They are described as having strength “like ribbed steel.” Superman is called The Man of Steel. This is a wild connection, isn’t it?
The first Superman comic appeared in 1938 and now I feel compelled to dig into the origins of Clark Kent/Superman.
What do you think?
What did you think of “A Tale of the White Pyramid”? Please leave a comment below. Let’s talk!
New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Jump in anytime!
CATHER EVENT NOTICE: You can still register for the National Willa Cather Center’s special VIRTUAL fundraising event and preview this Friday, March 26 at 7:00 p.m. CST. Dr. Melissa J. Homestead in Conversation with Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, will discuss her groundbreaking book, “The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis.” A signed copy is available with two of the three patron levels. All proceeds will benefit the Willa Cather Foundation education programs. For TICKETS (register by noon CST on Friday): http://willacather.org/events/dr-melissa-j-homestead-conversation-alex-ross… • The book will be published by the Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press) on April 1st, but is available through the National Willa Cather Center Bookstore first.