King Jesus - Robert Graves

King Jesus
Robert Graves
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374516642 (Amazon link)

Like many others, I became an instant fan of Robert Graves upon reading I, Claudius, and have often wished he wrote more novels. Recently, I've even been working my way through his The Greek Myths, in case his non-fiction is as enjoyable. I was therefore startled to come upon King Jesus more or less by accident. A quick web-search turned up almost no reviews, and I've never seen this novel on bookshop shelves... I presume this makes King Jesus Graves' Satanic Verses, but of course, being a very English author, there's no angry outcry about this novel, people just don't mention it much. Which is a pity, because it's very interesting.

First, let's get a couple of things out of the way. One - King Jesus isn't as good a read as I, Claudius, Claudius the God, or Count Belisarius. Two - I understand Graves to have been an atheist, but although this novel will be deeply shocking to someone raised in a strictly traditional Christian Catholic/Anglican tradition, it's never less than respectful to the historical person and teachings of Jesus. Three - I've never summoned up the interest to read The White Goddess but understand from those familiar with the field that Graves' views on ancient mystery cults and the classic myths are held to be very speculative. Four - I'm utterly unqualified to review this novel!

King Jesus is an attempt to portray Jesus' life and teachings within the wider context not only of the older Jewish tradition, but within the entire corpus of mystery cults and religion across the ancient world. In particular, Graves sees Jesus' life as an important battle between the Jewish male-Jehovah and the wider pantheon centred on the various manifestations of the Triple Goddess - the central theme is that Jesus has 'come to destroy the work of the female'. While the broad outline of Jesus' life is preserved, much of the material is clearly provocative - not least his very inventive (to me anyway) solution to the Virgin Birth, and the adoption Jesus' royal and messianic roles within the wider tradition of religious monarchs. Even where the events are portrayed as being close to the familiar 'Sunday school' version of the Bible, Graves interpretation and 'hidden reading' of these events is radically different - and fascinating.

You'll note that 'fascinating' doesn't always imply 'entertaining'. While Graves' learning is impressive, it frequently threatens to overshadow his formidable skills as a novelist, and vast sections of this novel are straightforward exposition of the author's views on the mytho-poetic religious tradition that Jesus is confined to working within. The story is often buried under pages and pages of dense erudition from the author through the mouthpiece of the novel's narrator - Agabus of Decapolitan, writing in Emperor Domitian's reign. Explication of the dizzying layers of reference and symbolism often obscure the narrative's direction, particularly in the early chapters. Once the novel warms up, things improve, with a sympathetic cast of characters replacing the narrator, but frequently continuing the PhD level info-dumps; here is an example of a fairly lively conversational gambit by this novel's standards:

"But just as the Calebites of Ephrath were later swallowed up by their allies the Benjamites, so were those of Hebron by their allies the Judeans; and a century or two after Hebron had been incorporated in the Jewish Kingdom by david the Calebite - for David traced his descent from Hur - the tribal genealogy was adjusted to make Caleb a descendant of Judah, and by a further interpolation Kenaz, the eponymous ancestor of the Kenizzites, was absurdly reckoned a son of Caleb. The Calebites, however, still obstinately regarded themselves as Kenizzites, and Children of Edom. The unfavourable Judaic view of this tribe's history is expressed by the Chronicler in the names of the children begotten by Caleb on Azubah Jerioth: namely, 'Upright', 'Backsliding' and 'Destruction'. It is clear that they resisted all attempts to make them conform with changes in the jewish faith, and being still a tented people they avoided the Babylonian Captivity by escaping in a body to Edom, whence they soon afterwards returned with an armed following of Edomites. Moreover, one of their clans, that of Salma, went on to reoccupy Ephrath. The Salma chieftain married the priestess of Bethlehem, and you, Prince, are lineally descended in the elder line from this chieftain."

Remember, this is a lively and exciting bit of the prose, with Herod Antipater learning A Great Secret which will drive the plot. There are two reactions to this prose style, one involves stopping within a few pages, and the other involves becoming oddly fascinated in this level of detail, letting yourself be drawn into the complex web of argument Graves is writing, for it soon becomes clear that King Jesus is as much an amusing 'What if...?' entertainment for Biblical scholars as it is a novel. The latter sections are much more traditional in form; with the central argument laid out, and the background to much of the upcoming Passion explained, Graves becomes able to focus the narrative on the central characters, and the pace accelerates to the crisp, fluid prose familiar from his other novels. This return to a more traditional narrative form coupled with the familiar story of the crucifixion makes it easier to see how radical Graves' interpretation is. Clearly, those of a conservative religious bent will find much here to offend them if they want to be offended, but as a thought experiment it's remarkable how sympathetic Jesus' character and teaching remain.

Worth reading? Well, yes, I think so. King Jesus is obviously not a book you'll rip through on the bus to work, but it's a thought provoking work, and I did enjoy it. Recommended if you liked Graves' other novels, or similar works like Gore Vidal's Julian (which I can recommend without hesitation).

Posted: Wed - April 7, 2004 at 02:36 AM