In Herod and Mariamne, the last of Lagerkvist’s fictional works published in his lifetime, the concept of love is examined in a lyrical prose narrative of austere simplicity. The novel tells of the relationship of Herod the Great and his second wife, Mariamne. Their tempestuous marriage ends with Herod’s murder of Mariamne. Lagerkvist pares the biblical account down to a short, melancholy song of contrasts.
In the story, the huge, coarse, brutal soldier and reigning tyrant, Herod, is subdued by his love for Mariamne, who is beautiful, gentle, and self-contained. After their marriage, Mariamne requites his sexuality but never his love. She is his bedmate, never his soul mate. His is a desert soul, in need of a temple; she is her own force of life, her own temple. Frustrated by his inability to possess her completely, Herod predisposes himself to his ultimate act against her, ordering her to be executed for conspiracy with her people, the Hasmoneans, whose resurgence he has been quelling. The last years of his life are punctuated by his repeated calling out of her name, by his slaughter of the innocents after the birth of Jesus, and by his slowly succumbing to a painful and horrible disease.
Lagerkvist appears to have wanted Herod and Mariamne to serve as both prelude and postlude to his cycle of five Crucifixion novels. It is historically a prelude, leading up to the birth of Jesus. It is thematically a postlude, qualifying the love that Tobias experiences as he finds the Holy Land within his heart. Love is not a simple thing: It embraces all human life, and it is directed to another individual, with whom one identifies one’s self. General love, without particularity, becomes the love of humanity in the abstract; and the abstraction becomes God, who is not humanity. Particular love, without generality, becomes possessiveness and, ultimately, the love of an object, not a person. Human love, as the foundation of being human, is manifest in both the general and the particular, not merely in one unchecked by the other.
Herod’s love of Mariamne is particular; Mariamne’s love of people is general. Herod softens a little toward his subjects, and Mariamne becomes moderately sensitized to Herod’s sexuality, but there is no full coalescence of the two manifestations of love; they remain at odds.