Sunday, 9 May 2010

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

So, the last book I read was (in keeping with the theme of the introduction post), Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Now I'm already a fan of Pullman, and very recently wrote an essay about the relation of His Dark Materials to the works of William Blake, so I'm bringing a bit of baggage to this post. For instance, I began reading the book with 99% certainty that I would really, really, really like it. And I did.

It's a very clever, simply- but well-told alternative version of the story of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The premise is that there were actually two of him, one called Jesus and one called Christ, and that all our assumptions about the religion of Christianity are wrong. In fact, this book seems to fit in with Blake's view of Christianity too. It explores the idea that there are two sides to the religion: one side is about peace and love and morality, the other is about controlling people and imposing a hierarchical structure on the world. The two main characters embody these opposite sides. Christ's eventual choice of profession - as a maker of nets - might be a telling reference to Blake's Urizen, the grumpy, white-bearded old tyrant who wanders the earth spreading a "net of religion" behind him.

As I said, it's told in a very simple style, almost like a children's story. It's a style Pullman excels at, where the overall narrative takes precedence over individual scenes, yet there are still some memorable scenes and some powerful pieces of prose. One chapter, in particular, should be given to drama school students to recite; if you've read the book, you probably know the one I'm thinking of.

Some Christians won't like it; they're probably already making a fuss right now, but boys will be boys. The great big gold "This is a story" printed on the back cover reminds me of the BBFC's 18-certificate symbol blown up to three times its normal size on the packaging of violent computer games. The BBFC do their very best, but there is of course, always some airhead parent who will buy it for their kid anyway and get angry on TV or in the newspaper when the kid shoots them with a BB gun. Ignoring these people is one of the trials of modern life, I suppose. The important thing is, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a piece of fiction, but it's also a metaphor for an idea: the idea that human impulses and ambitions - to embellish facts until they become myths, to nurture myths until they become legendary, to start trends build structures and impose laws on people you've never met - can interfere with history and shape the future. It's an idea that, once you've had it, is impossible to ignore, and it's also pretty scary.

It's this idea, as much as Pullman's prose (which shifts from childishly simple storytelling to devastating outbursts of emotion), that gives the novel its power.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, thanks for a very well-written and informative overview. I had my eye on this book, being a huge fan of the His Dark Materials series, and now it seems I'll have to order it. I'll continue to read this blog for recommendations. :)