We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant

Introduction

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is found with The Tale of Sinuhe in two Middle Kingdom manuscripts, displays a comparable complexity of form and style, and was probably composed at approximately the same time. Like Sinuhe, it concerns problems of motivation, and of suffering and its justification, but it is mostly concerned with exploring the significance of a single event, rather than with narrating a sequence of events.

The plot of the Tale is deceptively simple, like a folk tale: once upon a time a clever peasant was robbed, spoke eloquent protests, and got his goods back because of his eloquent appealing for justice. The narrative is a clear and precise relation of the event, which is developed with swift dialogue, and is then left hanging at the point of crisis as the peasant's appeals remain unanswered. The style has a studied simplicity, but the exchanges between the peasant and the official who robs him are highly literary, and this prepares the audience for the rhetoric of the peasant's subsequent appeals. The narrative avoids anything fantastic, and its general naturalism helps accommodate the inherent improbability of the plot—the studied eloquence of the provincial peasant, who is presented as a sort of noble savage.

The peasant's appeals occupy most of the poem, and are a complaint against the falseness of the world. They are partly reflective, but, since they are inspired by a specific crime and are directed against a specific individual, they have considerable didactic force: the Eloquent Peasant is a wisdom text as well as a Tale. The peasant's appeals comprise nine separate petitions, which create an episodic and cyclical presentation in which a single theme is variously and repeatedly expounded; this complexity contrasts with the unitary progression and simplicity of the narrative. Much of the Tale's meaning is presented through viewing the same theme in different ways, revealing new implications and associations of the fundamental subject matter—Truth and justice. The range of genres and styles expresses the universality of the Tale's contention, that Truth is a prerogative of all mankind.

The style of the petitions is highly wrought, exuberant, and profuse; the continuous ingenuity of the speeches is one sign of the speaker's eloquence, and attention is repeatedly drawn to the virtuosity of the style. The petitions display a rapid play of ideas and a high level of imagery, with frequent repetition of keywords, syntactic patterns (such as series of negative constructions), motifs of imagery, and heightened recollections of earlier phrases. These features increase the forcefulness of the petitions. Shifts in emotional tone—from eulogy to denunciation, from subtle criticisms to direct abuse—mark the peasant's desperate recourse to different approaches, and are patterned to express his mounting anxiety. This rhetorical exuberance is in part the point of the Tale; it is a dazzling display of poetry as entertainment and impassioned expression.

The Tale is, however, very ambiguous as a whole: it is a treatise on the value of Truth, and yet also in part a satire on the difficulties of dealing with the Egyptian bureaucracy that was meant to uphold this value. It is a moral anecdote, but one fissured with a deep irony. The eloquence which ensures the peasant's success is also the cause of his prolonged suffering: he is so eloquent that, after the first introductory petition, the king commands that no response be given, simply to force him to continue talking. The peasant assumes that his words are unheard and so speaks on, while his audience withholds any acknowledgement, prolonging his misery. As he speaks, his complaint about a theft becomes a larger questioning of why society ignores justice.

There is a continuous dichotomy between the actual audience's awareness of the situation (shared with the fictional audience of the High Steward) and the peasant's awareness. This is articulated in the stylistic dichotomy between the rhetoric of his appeals and the simplicity of the narrative: one is highly subjective, the other objective. The irony of the plot is intense, as the peasant's discourse concerns Truth, and the value of his eloquence is in its revelation of Truth, but his speeches are founded on a misconception. Most of his underlying accusations against officialdom are false, although one early episode, in which a group of officials sides with the villain, justifies his complaint to some extent.

The peasant appeals to an absolute standard of justice, and evokes images of the gods, and of the otherworld as the place where Truth itself dwells. There is, however, no divine intervention in the Tale, and this conspicuous absence implies the question: if the gods will not intervene to save a man who suffers innocently, can they be just? The Tale raises this problem both through metaphors from the world of the gods and by establishing a hierarchy of authority which should also form a hierarchy of perfection; this runs from the lowly peasant, through various attendant officials, to the High Steward to whom the peasant appeals, from him to the aloof king and, beyond him, to the gods. The mortal official is poised halfway between the gods and the lowest forms of life. His non-intervention calls into question the aims of his superiors in allowing evil to flourish and the just to suffer, and his ultimate superior is the creator-god. Thus, in the third petition, the peasant likens the High Steward both to the allpowerful creator-gods and to the most wretched members of society: an individual's ethical choices involve the whole of this hierarchy. The involvement of this range of hierarchy parallels the involvement of specific events and absolute generalized principles, and informs the style of the whole, which intermingles abstract and concrete. The peasant's poetry draws on metaphors in which Truth is both a pair of scales and a cosmic creation of order, is both the very breath of life and a pile of grain. The imagery of grain also alludes to the dramatic situation, in which the peasant has been deprived of his means of subsistence, grain, ostensibly because one of his asses had eaten a mouthful of grain; in this it is dramatically ironic, as he is being secretly sustained by the High Steward with grain.

If the peasant is driven to question the justice of the gods, he exonerates them of responsibility for his suffering, and justifies it by distinguishing between the absolute justice of the otherworld and the partial embodiments of this ideal that are found in the officials of the mortal world. The belief that this world is imperfect, and that man is both potentially perfect and inherently inclined towards chaos, is implicit throughout his speeches. The later petitions reiterate previous ones, but they move towards a treatment of justice that is at once more personal and more generalized and abstract. They also become more desperate, and culminate in the ninth petition, which is a final statement of the peasant's faith in the absolute Truth that cannot be found in this world. This petition provides a paradoxical definition of the relationship of Truth and Falsehood, in which Falsehood is the withdrawal of Truth, and evil exists only as a negation of the transcendant Truth. In this way the justice of the gods is upheld. These themes are couched in more abstract terms than earlier, reflecting the peasant's abandonment of this world, and his desperate recourse to the beyond. He is driven to suicide in his pursuit of the ideal, but at this moment the High Steward intervenes and reveals that the ideal and the actual coincide more closely than the peasant realizes.

He tells the peasant that his speeches have been heard and have been recorded on a ‘new roll’. The subject matter of the text is very much its own production: the ‘roll’ which he shows the peasant is the model for the roll from which the Tale would have been read to the actual audience. Literary production is also an image of the embodiment of Truth, which is here finally actualized. The High Steward's neglectful silence is now revealed to have been the very listening that the peasant has been beseeching. He does not provide an explicit answer to the peasant's complaints, and no justification of authority is didactically stated; instead the formal change to narrative itself provides a response. After this interchange there is no need for further dialogue, and the peasant is finally quiet. A concluding section of descriptive narrative provides a resolution to the Tale. Just as the villain's evil is contained within the ultimately just established order, so the narrative encloses the discourse's nightmare vision of the world in chaos, without negating its force.

Whereas, in Sinuhe, the structural significance of the various genres runs parallel to the action of the plot, in this Tale tension is maintained between the passionate suffering of the petitions and the irony of the narrative plot. Because of this irony, the Tale is no simple allegory in which the peasant represents a suffering mankind in search of justice from an official who represents god. The legitimation of suffering advanced by the peasant is made equivocal by its problematic presentation, and the Tale's examination of justice implies that there is no simple answer. The subtlety of its form articulates the complexity of living and the difficulty of the problem of suffering, while its literary virtuosity makes it a source of entertainment.

The only known copies of the Tale are four Middle Kingdom papyri, but it was still being quoted in the Ramesside Period, c.1160 BC. Numbers give the line numbers of principal manuscripts: first R (P. Ramesseum A h P. Berlin 10499), then B1, then its companion manuscript B2 (P. Berlin 3023 and 3025).

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2018. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice