Selfishness And Conniving Sorcerers In The Tale Of Nectanabus

Is it the con-artist’s fault? The artist paints an image that is very appealing, but it’s up to the viewer to decide whether they want to follow along with the artist and blindly believe in his fantasy. In John Gower’s “Tale of Nectanabus”, Nectanabus tries to convince Queen Olimpias that he is a sorcerer by showing her fantastical dreams of a God, prophecy or strangeness. He hopes this will allow him to seduce Olimpias for his own selfish desires. Nectanabus’s tricks are not the only problem. Human desire is also at play, and we all want to see a future that’s amazing, no matter what. The King and the Queen are both tempted to believe that this prophecy will bring them unimaginable fortune, when they should instead be skeptical. They are blinded by their desire to believe and live in fantasy. The story warns us to beware of people like Nectanabus claiming to be gods or the voice for fate. This tale warns of the dangers of believing in false prophecies.

The story begins with Queen Olimpias being the first to be swept up by the excitement and imagination that Nectanabus generates. Nectanabus reveals the queen’s human weakness when he says that a fictional god would “begete one of you,/ Which with his sword will winne/and gete/the wydeworld in lengthe/and brede”. Gower notes that Olimpias in her mind, “She wiste litel what he mente, / For it was guile and sorcerie, / Al that she tok for prophecie(6.1950-52). Olimpias is not careful to consider that Nectanabus may be a complete fraud. She takes this as “prophecies”. In her dream she does ask for evidence, but the scene shows how she is prone to believing in thrilling tales. She is overcome with happiness when she thinks of having a wonderful son. Olimpias chose to be dangerously optimistic in the face of a questionable prophecy, instead of being cautionary. It is strange and counter to wisdom and reason that someone would believe that such hypnotic dreams will lead to a great leader. The Queen is unaware of her desire for information and situations that are fantastical, hoping for the best possible future. She is also blinded by her own stupidity in this pursuit. Nectanabus sees into her dreams where she was “silent and nothing cride” (6.1990) and “With Childe arons hire wombe over” (6.2000-1). Strangely, she doesn’t question the vision. Despite her stomach expanding immediately, she seems to be “wonder-glad” with it. It is her desire to be amazed and awed that blinds the judgment of this woman. “She soffreth all his wille” (6.2082-3). In this text, it is stated that she wished to have all his will. She also thought that there was nothing wrong. She believes in fiction because it’s more exciting and fantastical, but this blinds her. This story shows that it is important to not get so caught up in the fun of reading fiction. It can blind you and cloud your reasoning. Both parties have selfish intentions, which makes it difficult to see the larger picture.

The king is often regarded as a wise leader, but in the Tale of Nectanabus King Philipp also falls victim to the conjurer’s spells and his own interpretation of what appears to be supernatural events. The strange dream Nectanabus shows the king is that of the god Amos, with his lion and sword, between the king and queen. This seals on the wombs of the king’s wife. Amphion is the clerk of king Amphion who first interprets this strange dream.

One of the subordinates of the king views the dream as more than a mere disguise. The king may say he’s “doubtif” of the dream, but I believe that the seeds of imagination have been planted in his mind. Subordinates who are incapable of seeing through deception or those who accept positive interpretations willfully because they too have fantasies do not help. These clerks are probably accepting these ideas in the hope that their empire or kingdom might grow exponentially. They can also gain favor with the king by bringing good news. Here, it isn’t so much whether or not fortunes are made but rather that everyone wants to make themselves happy and take the easiest route. They don’t appear to have any sense of perspective or be open to a different interpretation. Another scene shows King Philipp and the subjects watching a dragon turn into different creatures. At the end, King Philipp thought that he “knew well, as said,/ Sche was there with the childe and a godd.”(6.2214-15). In this case, even though these visions may seem fantastical and unreal, the king is only acting out of selfishness. The king’s clerks also see a pheasant lay an egg which cracks to reveal a snake inside. It dies shortly after. The king’s clerks believes that this is a prophecy about Alexander. “Him will befalle. And in yonge age / He’ll desire to torn agein / Into the lond where he born. The answer is “His jealousie has been forgotten” (6.249). The King seems to be able to sate his own jealousy by thinking that Alexander will not live long, and that he is therefore less likely than others to surpass him in strength. The King is a good example of the self-righteousness that people have in this story. Philipp does not consider the good that Alexander may bring to the world. Instead, he focuses on how petty and small he thinks a comparison of him will look. It doesn’t appear that this is the typical traits of a successful leader. A good leadership has a healthy degree of doubt. They are not superficial in their interpretations and have the wisdom to view the bigger worldview which is not only for themselves. The King’s clerks are content to make assumptions which benefit them. They may be leading to poor governance or bad kingship.

Nectanabus the Egyptian king was the most shrewd and selfish character in this story. Nectanabus is like Philipp or Olimpias in that he creates a fantasy world without realizing it. He fled Egypt after Thurgh, the sorcerer, he was a great partie. When his enemies approached him, he would not be able to defend him.

Nectanabus, here, flees Egypt with cowardice and abandons his responsibility as King to protect Egypt’s welfare. Abandoning your country is probably not an honorable act. Nectanabus is only concerned with his own well-being and benefits. He does not care about the nation. Nectanabus may have achieved a significant historical result through his sorcery and trickery, but it is important to determine whether he has good intentions, an ethical code of conduct, and is fit to be a king. The evidence seems to show his selfishness in passages like “Nectanabus hash that he will: / with guile, he hash his love speeded, / with guile, he came into bed, / with guile, he goes him out agein.” (6.20094-97). Nectanabus never tries to see the big picture or consider the benefits or consequences of his actions. He does not think about the consequences of his actions, or what they will bring to the world. This behavior is not considered responsible and leads to the death of the man. Nectanabus, according to the narrator, has a narrow mindset. He says: “Asthogh knewe of everything; /but yit hadh he not knowleching/What schalunto himself befalle.” (6.2295-97). This narrow-mindedness is caused by his selfishness and self-importance. Ultimately, his own child kills the man to test its prophecy. They choose the fictional interpretation because they assume it will benefit them. Nectanabus believes that sorcery, manipulation and magic are easy ways to get out of problems. Nectanabus believes that the only thing life requires is to satisfy one’s bodily needs. When things get serious, such as a real army invasion or a fear that his child might kill him he is unable to cope because he cannot move past petty spells. It is clear that he is not a fit man to be in a position of power. His selfish motives are the reason he is doing it.

The “Tale of Nectanabus”, a tale of a king, shows the flaws of those who believe that they alone are important. The tale makes me think that humans should be more conscious of their beliefs and the way they interpret the divine. By moving beyond the petty and selfish desires, a leader can be wiser about themselves and their place in society.


  • ewanpatel

    I'm a 29-year-old educational bloger and teacher. I have been writing about education for about six years, and I have a B.A. in English from UC Santa Cruz. I also have a M.A. in English from San Francisco State University. I teach high school English in the Bay Area.