Monday, 12 April 2010

Philip Pullman's 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ'

In response to a tweet from the inestimable Marcus Chown (the power of Twitter!), I've recently read Philip Pullman's new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

It's rather a fancy little hardback with gold lettering and one of those dinky little ribbons to keep your place as you read, though in practice it's short enough to get through in one go.

The premise is simple - it's a retelling of the story of Jesus. The central conceit is that Jesus was in fact twins, the saintly Jesus and the more worrying and pragmatic Christ. It's Jesus we read about in the Bible - Christ was there in the background, changing the story where necessary to ensure it turns out the way he wants, which is to fulfil his vision of a church that will carry the message of Jesus into the future. To make this happen, Christ is prepared to make things up and manipulate events to reinforce the message.

So far, so good. That central concept of Jesus being a twin isn't quite as original as it seems. For example, the mad-as-a-ferret humorous fantasy writer Robert Rankin has a number of books that feature Christeen, who is Jesus' kick-ass female twin (the same books also feature Elvis and Barry the talking time sprout).

I'm rather fond of Christeen, but I'm not totally sure how well the twin idea works in Pullman's book. The way it's used, Jesus says/does all the bits that Pullman likes and Christ says/does the things he doesn't like. Unfortunately this isn't totally convincing or consistent from a character viewpoint. For example, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus has a long internal monologue denying the existence of God, which is totally out of character with everything else he does.

Another slight problem is the approach taken. According to the bumf in the back, this is part of series retelling myths. Now I have no problem with the idea that the bible contains myths. Genesis, for example, has two separate (and inconsistent) creation myths in the first few pages. A myth is a story that's more than a story - it is an illustration of a concept about the universe, or the nature of humanity. But the trouble with calling the Jesus story a myth is that it's pretty universally accepted that Jesus was a historical character. And you wouldn't call a story about (say) Julius Caesar a myth, even if it's as unlikely as (say) Shakespeare's version.

In a way, what Pullman does is entirely consistent with the bible itself. There are four versions of the Jesus story in the bible - the four gospels. Each tells the story differently, and those differences are sometimes inconsistent. Theologians will tell you this is because the different people writing the gospels had different motives and viewpoints. These books aren't history as we now understand it - they are getting a message across involving historical events, but are quite happy to mess around a bit with history to make their point. (This was the norm until really quite recently - try reading Geoffrey of Monmouth's Histories of the Kings of Britain.)

The differences are that Pullman has less access to original sources, and has a rather more contrived central device. But if his point is to emphasize the way the gospels were written, something that's widely written about already, it's dubious whether the best way to do this was to adopt the same approach.

Unusually in a review, I want to comment on the back cover. In big letters it tells us 'this is a story.' My first thought was this might be an ironic take on Magritte's famous picture 'This is not a pipe.' But I don't think there was any irony. Instead, to be honest, I feel patronised.

The suggestion is that I, the reader, don't realize this is a story. Well I do. And for that matter it's not just a story. According to the bumf it's a myth, which is much more than a story. And it has historical content, even if we don't know which bits are truly historical. Sorry, but this statement really winds me up.

Overall, then, a mixed feel. Pullman tells the story in a simple approachable fashion, and has some excellent ideas, but I felt it didn't quite work the way it was intended.

1 comment:

  1. I've bought the book as well, though haven't had a chance to read it yet. But you're not the first person I know and respect who has found it significantly less than expected. An interesting anecdote, though: I sat next to Pullman at a fundraiser once and asked him whether he found it boring to write sequels with the same characters (this was a long time ago!). He said he was lucky to have a readership and it was his responsibility to provide them with books and characters they have come to expect and love. I wonder what he's thinking now...

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