Opening the Way: Egyptian Mythology as a Redemptive Trope in Ondaatje's The English Patient

Dr. Fred Mensch
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Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient specifically ascribes to his character, Count Almasy, the identification and role of the Egyptian deity Anubis, the jackal-headed 'Opener of the Ways' who participates in the judgment of the dead and the 'Opening of the Mouth' ceremony. Ondaatje explores the rich fictive implications of this final ritual of judgment and redemption for the shattered individuals who haunt his novel, as well as for a culture that appears to recognize only war as the final arbiter of international dissent.

What is not as generally recognized as the above in this postmodern Canadian work which subsequently became an internationally acclaimed movie, is the richly associative complex of imagery and figurative language relating to the entire pantheon of Egyptian deities. These mythological references superimpose a multivalenced palimpsest of associations upon Ondaatje’s fiction of postcolonial disenchantment, personal and political betrayals, and fragmentation of self and society. Ultimately the mythic associations comprise a tenuous but integrated cosmology that signifies possibilities for spiritual, psychological and cultural redemption from the social and spiritual wasteland portrayed in the novel.

In this paper I explore the patterns and associations of Egyptian myth with respect to the possibilities for regeneration, not only for Almasy, but for all the major characters and for an international culture as presented in Ondaatje’s work.

Keywords: Ondaatje, Michael, English Patient, Egyptian Mythology, Anubis, Osiris, Nationalism, Internationalism, Opener of the Ways, Culture and Consciousness
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Myth, Tragedy and the Postmodern in Ondaatje's The English Patient

Dr. Fred Mensch

Department Chair, English Department,
School of Academic Foundations and Bridging, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology


Fred Mensch has been an educator in the Alberta educational system for more than twenty years, during which he has taught as well as served in administrative capacities in English Departments, Graphic Arts, and Computer Systems Technology. Mensch has presented and published in a variety of technical, educational, and academic areas. He has been extensively involved in curriculum development, on-line training initiatives, and collaborative learning projects at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, where he is currently Chair of the English Department. His primary areas of teaching and research are in the Modern British Novel, the Postmodern American and Canadian Novel, and Modern and Postmodern Drama. In addition to his current research on Ondaatje, Mensch is working on a book-length study of History, Crisis and Consciousness: British and German Drama from Shaw to Durrenmatt.

Ref: H06P0144