That title is a mouthful. The title of this post, I mean, not Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s book. The Golden Goblet.
I read this book because I thought it might be a book I read in elementary school and never found again. I’m not sure even now whether or not The Golden Goblet is the book I sought (if so, I remembered certain details appallingly askew). It was, however, an enjoyable read. I have a soft spot for EJM’s Mara: Daughter of the Nile, and The Golden Goblet did not let me down.
The setting is Ancient Egypt under the reign of Pharaoh and his consort, Queen Tiy. Our protagonist is Ranofer, an orphaned boy of twelve or thirteen years, whose dearest wish is to be a goldsmith like his father had been. Unfortunately, Ranofer has no choice but to live with his heavy-handed half-brother, Gebu, our main villain. Gebu refuses to apprentice Ranofer but has his half-brother work as a menial porter to a goldsmith, never to learn the actual art of crafting the precious metal. Ranofer constantly daydreams of the beautiful necklaces, inlaid daggers, cups, and other objects he wishes to make of gold.
Enter friend number one: Heqet. Heqet is Ranofer’s age and works in the same goldsmith’s shop. There the resemblance ends, however. Heqet has a secure and prosperous family, and is apprenticed. Ranofer is horribly envious of Heqet. He controls himself, however, and when Heqet makes an unexpected joke and asks for Ranofer’s help, their friendship begins.
Shakily. The inquisitive Heqet unknowingly prods too close to Ranofer’s injured feelings with his unending questions, and our protagonist repulses him. Fortunately, Heqet is as good-natured and generous as he is prone to chatter. Hequet is also observant (sometimes), and works around Ranofer’s prickly pride: Heqet has food; Ranofer is hungry; Heqet manages to get some of his food into Ranofer.
In fact, their first (really, their only) argument comes about through this clash of aims: Ranofer nursing his pride (and his empty stomach), and Heqet failing to convince his friend to eat.
Ranofer jumped to his feet, furious and shaking with humiliation. Heqet stood up too, an impatient scowl on his usually amiable face.
“I mean only that you have not enough food at your table. Is that so bad? Why must you get angry with me? Come, I have plenty. Take half and let’s forget the matter. It’s stupid to quarrel.”
“It’s stupid to waste pity on your friends, who do not need it!” yelled Ranofer. (p. 112-113)
Enter the third friend of this odd trio: the old man Ranofer calls “the Ancient,” who carves out a tenuous living for himself and his donkey, the patient Lotus. The Ancient, who has spoken with Ranofer before, interrupts their fight and becomes judge on the matter, hearing the case and settling it with an invitation to both of them to join him and eat together.
“… he insists that I sit here like a pig in a trough rooting my way through cheese and fish and bread and figs while he eats a wilted onion. Is he a friend when he finds pleasure in ruining the taste of everything for me?”
Ranofer stared at him. “Is that the way it seems to you?”
“Aye.” Heqet gave a defiant kick at the food scattered upon the matted ground. “If you will not take half this stuff, then I don’t want the other half.” (p. 113-114)
The Ancient becomes something of a guide to Ranofer, advising him that even a loathed trade is better than none. He is also a beacon: with goldsmithing made impossible, Ranofer’s dream lost, he begins to consider the (slightly) more attainable fantasy of owning a donkey like Lotus, so that he could build himself a cottage and earn a living (hoewver scanty) by gathering and selling papyrus, as the Ancient does. More than that, however, the Ancient is a friend, the third in the trio.
The Ancient, as much as Heqet, joins Ranofer in spying; the Ancient and Heqet worry over and search for Ranofer when he cannot be found. The Ancient brings a balm to cool Ranofer’s wounds when Gebu beats him, and entreats the boy not to go out after dark, as the khefts who steal children at night might not distinguish between a boy on the verge of adulthood and a young victim.
(Which brings me to a slight tangent: the characters in The Golden Goblet* – at least, characters who are not thorough-going villains – do take their beliefs seriously. Which I enjoy: whatever else our characters may be skeptical of, they aren’t anachronistically blase about khefts (spirits/demons) or unconcerned with the effects of – shoot, that would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that when it comes to beliefs, these characters are pretty convincingly period.)
Ranofer faces a great terror alone – but his friends are far from abandoned in the climax of the story. Especially lovely is their reunion. At the end, Ranofer is still enfolded in the circle (triangle?) of their friendship: he does not move away from them as a result of their adventure, but he and they are honoured, still part of ordinary life, yet exalted – and still together.
* Also in Mara: Daughter of the Nile, which has a saucy, ferociously determined protagonist who is set on winning her freedom, no matter what – no matter who she has to use or betray. Mara is wonderfully aware of her abilities, particularly when it comes to manipulation, and is cunning and quick to boot.
Also, if you haven’t read anything my EJM and you’re not into Ancient Egypt, I highly recommend The Moorchild. Two covers below, because they’re both pretty.