Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In spite of the seeming defeat of Jesus, or at least his participation in rituals that predate both Judaism and Christianity, there is no satire or contempt implied in this treatment of the compassionate wonder-worker some called the Messiah. Neither is there any particular sentimentality. The narrator, who takes no part in the action but looks at it objectively as neither a Christian nor a Jew, maintains a respectful neutrality. He points out learnedly that there are five distinct meanings or assumptions about the Jewish Messiah, and the reader notes that no one of them is quite the same as the later Christian one. In any case, the Messiah was assumed to be human, though no doubt God’s instrument, like Moses or David or Samson.

It does not offend such a narrator, accustomed to living in a world of many competing gods and cults, that the hero should be born, according to folklore, in the grotto of Tammuz outside Bethlehem. Absolute exclusiveness to particular mythic imagery is not yet necessary, nor is it especially desirable. Significance does not depend on absolutely unique action; on the contrary, it must resonate in a context of traditional meanings, enriched, not endangered, by the echoes of the past. To be sure, the Jews, with their singleminded devotion to the exclusively male deity, must struggle mightily with the forces of contamination around them, especially the goddess cults. One of the dangers of being ruled by mad King Herod was that he secretly sought to bring back the pagan desert god Set, which the Jews had known in Egypt he who tore to pieces his brother Osiris and appeared to men in the guise of a wild ass.

Graves creates a mythopoeic world in which factual reality does not exclude the possibility of miracles. Some incidents, such as the resurrection of Lazarus from the tomb, have no rational explanation. Others, reported as miraculous, are apparently traditional symbolic rituals, such as the Temptation of Christ and the Scourging of Christ, the latter attributed in the Bible to Roman soldiers, but in the novel presented as a ceremonial scourging of the anointed king. Herod lived in political uncertainty partly because his power was dependent on Rome, but traditional kings of old had been chosen and anointed by the prophets, as Jesus was by John the Baptist.