I've been interested in the occult and, by extension,
Wicca/Witchcraft/Paganism/Neopaganism/magic since I was about the same age as the protagonists of Zilphia Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game, which is to say sixth grade, or eleven years old. (This is also the suggested reading level of this book, but I tend to disregard that kind of thing left and right.) Most recently it was a liner note in Dar Williams's The Green World that reawakened my interest: because of Dar's recommendation,I kept Margot Adler's encyclopedic Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today out of my local library for months at a time, until I gave in and bought a copy at my friendly local independent bookstore. Since then I've taken and lost extensive notes on Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, plowed through reams of Robert Graves's The White Goddess, Diane Stein's Guide to Goddess Craft, and even started in on Monica
Sjöö and Barbara Mor's very intimidating The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth. I plan to incorporate all these myths and more in my National Novel Writing Month entry, but all of this is beside the point, which is The Egypt Game.
I love this little book. The story is simple: eleven-year-old neighbors Melanie Ross and April Hall have little in common besides hyperactive imaginations, but it turns out that's more than enough to make the two
of them fast friends. Soon they've cleaned their local public library out of everything they've got to read on ancient Egypt, and soon thereafter, they're putting their reading to work in an elaborate imagined game of the beautiful, good goddess Isis/Nefertiti and the evil god Set. They alternate between playing priestesses of these deities, and Melanie's brother, Marshall, is soon recruited to play the boy king Marshamosis, heir to the kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt, and as such subject to all manner of religious and political intrigue. Their game eventually expands to include a total of six players, or maybe seven, depending on how you count non-participating
witnesses. Eventually reality intrudes, and it's a learning
experience for kids and grownups alike.
The Egypt Game is at its strongest when describing the kids' self-made world and its effects on their friendships. On my most recent rereading (which began and ended less than an hour ago: this is a quickish read and very quick reread), I was especially moved by an incident involving the loss and recovery of Marshall's beloved
toy, the stuffed octopus Security, but that's because I lost my Security-equivalent for the third time this past year, and it still hurts to know it's not coming back this time. (Okay, done crying now.) My point is mostly that imagination rules, and that's largely the point of my favorite parts of this book as well. Snyder relates "the
Egyptians"'s rituals of play in an engaging and sympathetic way.
The Egypt Game is at its weakest when bringing the kids into contact with the adult world. This is an awkward area for everyone, and especially sixth-graders, so I guess in that respect it's very realistic. However, it kind of bothered me that a pivotal
adult character turns out to have sort of a sixth-grade approach to human interaction. The scenes in which his involvement irrevocably changes the Egypt game for the better and the worse are pretty painful, and his dialogue is by far the worst in the book.
Still, I recommend this book highly, even if at least one of the overarching plot elements turns out as disappointingly as I have just described. The kids' interactions and their game are all kinds of fun. I wish I could say they've aged remarkably well over the past 35 years, but the fact is they were probably a bit idealized even when this book first came out in 1967. Do kids even go outside to play and make up worlds of their own anymore, or did that go out of style when I hit puberty. Sigh. I digress. The best thing about The Egypt Game, and here's where all that rambling about magic and witchcraft in my introduction ties in, the title game is exactly the kind of magic I've been trying to find in all my readings on the topic. It's fun, it's games, it's as real as the players/practitioners want it to be. It makes me smile, and say to myself, "This is as real as magic gets." The fact is, I'm not interested in Witchcraft or Paganism as religion. I don't believe in any of it, but it all inspires me. All the books and reading I mentioned earlier make me want to play games like the kids in The Egypt Game do. They make me want to write stories about the flights of fancy I'm taken on by reading the myths and magic of others, which is just another kind of game it's slightly more acceptable for so-called "grown-ups" to play. This imagining and writing is magic, too, and probably my favorite kind of all. So three
cheers to Newbery Honor Book The Egypt Game and National Novel-Writing Month for making me think about all this. Hip, hip, hurray! Hurray! Hurray!
Snyder, Zilphia Keatley. The Egypt Game. New York: Athenaeum Publishers, 1967. Reprinted by Dell Publishing (a division of The Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.) as a Yearling Book, by arrangement with Athenaeum Publishers, 1986. Illustrated by Alton Raible. ISBN 0-440-42225-6