In which Kate Elliott talks Court of Fives, history, myth making and Cleopatra
“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Veteran Fantasy author Kate Elliott is about to have her first YA novel released – the excellent Court of Fives. We invited the author to talk about some of the things that inspired and influenced the story.
Please give a warm welcome to Kate Elliott!
History and myth making often get intertwined. History is tricky. There are facts–George Washington was the first president of the United States–but not everything gets remembered and written down, and even if it is written down in the past it doesn’t necessarily get passed on into “common knowledge.” Facts and events get discarded as unimportant or as not fitting the story people think is realistic. Like the guy in the late 1970s who said to me, “There were no women composers before the 20th century.” He believed that because at that time none were mentioned in the music history he was taught.
Sometimes the history we think we know has become a form of myth making.
In this context I want to briefly discuss Cleopatra–one of the most famous women in history– and how the story of Cleopatra influenced Court of Fives even though the novel isn’t about her and isn’t inspired by her life.
Court of Fives is inspired by Little Women, by epic fantasy which I’ve written for years, by my wanting to write a story that’s also a love letter to female athletes, by the history of Hawaii, and by my husband’s work at an archaeological site in Egypt dating from the Greco-Roman period, a period when first Macedonians/Greeks and after them the Romans ruled over the Egyptian population.
So the quick, potted, simplified history: When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, he left an empire that stretched from Greece to India. What he did not leave was a strong adult male heir. After his death his generals fought over his empire for thirty years (trust me, they were not nice guys).
One of these generals, Ptolemy, went to Egypt to grab territory for himself. Besides being an incredibly rich country, exporting grain, gold, and papyrus, Egypt also was located conveniently off to one side of the main imperial territory, which meant that most of the thirty years of fighting took place in other areas and left Egypt itself relatively unscathed.
There’s a lot more I could write about Ptolemy but I’m just going to mention that he founded what we now call the Ptolemaic dynasty. He and his descendants ruled Egypt for almost three hundred years.
Our Cleopatra is actually Cleopatra VII because she is the seventh Cleopatra to be queen. She was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty. After she died Rome made Egypt a province. Because the Ptolemies came into Egypt as outsiders they were careful to style themselves both as kings in the Macedonian/Greek tradition and also as pharaohs in the Egyptian tradition. So Cleopatra is not only the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, she is also (I believe) the last pharaoh of Egypt.
Let me tell you the three main things I learned about Cleopatra when I was young.
1. She is the historical epitome of the exotic erotic seductress. She used her sexy feminine wiles to seduce two different powerful Roman men, Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony, because obviously she needed a powerful man’s support to hold on to power.
2. When all failed (as it was obviously doomed to do, her being an ambitious woman), she killed herself supposedly from the bite of a poisonous snake.
3. The third lesson I learned from her story was about appropriate rulership and political power.
This is how that story goes: That the last Ptolemaic ruler was a woman is a sign of how the dynasty had become degenerate. Only weak dynasties can ever be ruled by women. You know a dynasty is on its last legs if all you have left is a woman to take power.
This is myth making in the sense of how we define ourselves and our history and how we understand how the world should properly work. We define these things through the stories we tell.
In fact, as I learned much later, Cleopatra VII came from a tradition of powerful queens. She wasn’t the first (and thus first, last, and only) ruling queen in the Ptolemaic dynasty. A number of women co-ruled and ruled before her. Even in the larger Hellenistic world — the world that begins with Alexander the Great’s death and ends with Cleopatra’s death — you find women playing prominent political roles and even in some cases going to war themselves.
Cleopatra as ruler is not an anomaly. She was an extraordinary woman — make no mistake — but in her time and place she was not doing anything that had never been seen before or that was even hugely unusual.
She made alliances with Rome–with or without sex involved–because she was good at diplomacy and strategy. Multiple independent kingdoms were being swallowed up by the expanding Roman Republic at this time; she wanted Egypt to remain independent. She accompanied her fleet and her army, and she wasn’t the first queen to do so.
She was purportedly the first of the Ptolemies to be able to converse in Egyptian (the court language was Greek), and was also famous for speaking so many languages that she would answer servants and envoys and diplomats in their own language, not through a translator.
She studied extensively at the famous Library of Alexandria. Here is a scroll–a legal document–that may have her writing on it.
The main text is a scribe’s writing but at the bottom you can see, in a different hand, a phrase that basically means the equivalent of “Make it so.” Not everyone agrees that this is her writing and obviously it can’t be proved or disproved; I’m not scholarly enough to join a side, but I do like the idea that it could have been her.
Yet what was the story I was told about her? That she used sex, the woman’s weapon.
Popular culture never showed me how she portrayed herself:
here on a coin:
or here presenting her son Caesarion to the gods as co-ruler:
In Court of Fives the main character is a girl named Jessamy. I use Greco-Roman Egypt as a template for my fantasy world. It’s not an historical novel, and I make no attempt to re-create the societies of that time; rather, I draw from the dynamic and the history. For example, in Efea — the country where Jes lives — the rulers and upper class are outsiders and the indigenous people are subjects.
As I was writing I took to heart the story of Cleopatra. People often say that history is written by the conquerors and that history has an agenda. This is true of how the Romans wrote about Cleopatra and certainly true of how later historians and tale tellers turned Cleopatra into the seductress queen rather than the hard-headed, ambitious, and fiercely intelligent woman she obviously was.
It’s that gap between myth and history that is part of what inspired me to write Court of Fives because, in my story, the history and religion of Jes’s mother’s people has been buried, just as so many aspects of the history of our own world have been discarded or covered up or simply lost through disinterest or contempt.
This interrogation of the standard history-we’ve-been-taught is something I think novels, and fiction in general, can do so well. We can write history, we can reflect on how myth making becomes intertwined with history. But novels and stories give us an incredibly effective voice to bring overlooked and forgotten stories back into our consciousness, to give them life, and to make them vivid enough to stick in our imaginations.
Through story, we remake the mythology of the past and build a new narrative of the world.
About the author:
Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. As a child in rural Oregon, she made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. She now writes fantasy, steampunk, science fiction, and YA.
It should come as no surprise that she met her future husband in a sword fight. When he gave up police work to study archaeology, they and their three children fell into an entirely new set of adventures amid dusty Mexican ruins and mouthwatering European pastry shops. Eventually her spouse’s work forced them to move to Hawaii, where she took up outrigger canoe paddling. With the three children out of the house, they now spoil the schnauzer.
We have one copy of Court of Fives to give away. The sweepstakes is open to ALL and will run until August 30 11:59 AM EST. To enter, use the form below. Good luck!