Inspiration and Ego

I haven’t read “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin (I need to, though), but I have seen the film based on the short story: The Emperor’s Club. Excellent film. Anyone who works with young people over a period of years, especially in a teaching or mentoring fashion, will very much identify with the main character, Mr. Hundert, perfectly portrayed by Kevin Kline. However, it isn’t the story but the past that is my focus here.

There is a shadow character in the story, a long-dead king named Shutruk-Nahhunte whose braggadocious quote — all that is left of his empire — is inscribed on a plaque and hung over Mr. Hundert’s classroom door: I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shutruk Nahunte – 1158 B.C.

Shutruk-Nahhunte was a real king, but like many a past conqueror was himself conquered — by Nebuchadnezzar I.

As a writer, I’ve been inspired by crazy things that, at the time, may have appeared to have no connection with one another; and, on occasion, I’ve wondered where Canin may have received his inspiration to write a story involving disparate characters: a prep-school history teacher, a politician’s son, and an ancient king.

Perhaps (and I’m just guessing here), among other experiences that may have led to the story’s creation, he read this 1817 poem poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

As for the two kings — Shutruk-Nahhunte and Ozymandias (a/k/a Ramesses the Great) — there is a similarity to their pronouncements about themselves: “Look at me! Ain’t I great?”

Millennia later, no matter what they did, built, or said, there is no one left to remember them. What remains are fragments for archeologists to find, to speculate about what might have been.


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