Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 12, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman

As soon as I saw this I thought, oh dear, I should have seen the film of The Golden Compass when everyone was making a fuss about it.  Philip Pullman is terribly famous because of this film because it’s based on the His Dark Materials trilogy, and if I’m going to run the risk of receiving hate-mail from Christian Fundamentalists for reviewing a book which is said to be an attack on Christian belief, I should at least know something about his work.

But the truth is, I mooched The Golden Compass a while ago, and it hasn’t made its way up Mt TBR at all.   Eventually I reserved the DVD at the library and started watching it but fell asleep before the end. This may not be a reflection on the book at all because I fell asleep during Lord of the Rings too, (in the picture theatre, with surround blast-your-eardrums sound) though the trilogy kept me spellbound for an entire Easter holiday the year I read it. Poor Nic, why can’t she ever get any good roles in decent movies, eh?

Anyway, back to TGMJATSC.  I think this book with its provocative title was published here to capitalise on the recent Atheists Convention here in Melbourne, but I think I’m allergic to celebrity authors and best-sellers and the fuss that goes with them.  I’m even having a bit of a rejection problem with my much-loved Jane Austens because of all the Austenmania bally-hoo.  Perversely perhaps, I’d much rather read some wonderful author who’s been a bit neglected or not very well-known and offer readers of this blog something different to the books that make their way to the top of the popularity stakes.

Wikipedia tells me that The Times labelled Pullman one of ‘The 50 greatest British writers since 1945‘.   What does this mean, I wonder? I looked it up: there are seriously good writers on this list, like George Orwell and William Golding, Doris Lessing, JRR Tolkien, Iris Murdoch, Penelope Fitzgerald,  Beryl Bainbridge, Anita Brookner and AS Byatt, but there is also a bunch of writers who are definitely not in the same league,  and quite a few I’ve never heard of.  Where does Pullman fit into this miscellany of authors?

Anyway, the publisher’s embargo date came and went and my plans to check out The Golden Compass before starting TGJATSC were swamped by a tide of other really interesting books.  Because it was so much in the news, (check out Ramona Koval’s interview on The Book Show) I picked up TGMJATSC and made a start,  but alas soon found myself distracted by new Aussie books I found at the library.  (This is a bad habit of mine, reading two, three and sometimes four books at once).  I’m half way through Glissando by David Musgrave, and Fiona McGregor’s new one, Indelible Ink is on my bedside table to try next.  Kindly publishers also sent me Benjamin Law’s The Family Law, and I really like the look of The Well at the World’s End by A.J.  Mackinnon which also arrived in the post out of the blue.  I have them ready to read before long.   Persepolis (which Tony from Tony’s book World recommended after I posted about wanting to explore Iranian literature on The House of the Mosque) came in on reserve from the library as well – it’s a graphic novel and I’ve never read one of those unless you count reading Asterix to the kids at school!

Still, I prefer to finish books that I’ve started and so I made my way back to TGJATSC.  I wanted to like this book because I think it’s brave, and I think its premise is valid.  One of the reviews I checked out since reading TGMJATSC tells me that it was commissioned as part of a series where authors were asked to re-imagine well-known myths and I like the idea of that because that’s what story-tellers have always done.  Even with my limited familiarity with the Gospels I can tell that there’s scholarly research underlying Pullman’s work, and his blending and reworking of the Christian story in contemporary language and ways of behaving is well done.  But I have to say that for me, the concept of the book failed to live up to the hype.

Maybe it’s because I did Biblical Studies at school and already have a dispassionate rather than a religious view of the Bible that it failed to make me  think differently about religion or the Jesus story or how stories become stories, as the blurb promised it would.  Perhaps majoring in myths and legends in children’s literature for my first degree had already lent me an understanding of how humans have always tweaked stories to suit their purposes.  Or perhaps one needs to know the Gospels better than I do to pick up the significance of changes that Pullman has made in creating his story.  But more that, I was disappointed in the language, style and narrative structure: so plain, simple and direct as to be almost childlike.  The point of this book is its content, and if that fails to intrigue the reader there’s not much else to say.

However, for those interested in the provocative stance it’s designed to engage, it’s probably a very interesting interpretation of the New Testament story and it might make for lively discussions in book groups that can tolerate differences of opinion about religion and faith.

There are certainly plenty of reviewers out there who are intrigued.  It made its way into all the review pages of the newspapers I read, and was treated extensively by most of them.   Andrew Reimer reviewed it for the Sydney Morning Herald and Thornton McAmish read it for The Age.  He likes the authenticity of psychological realism in the story and it’s true that the J & C of this re-imagined version are credible characters.  Some people of course are just not going to like the provocative nature of the book and may even consider it blasphemous.  (No fatwas I hope!)

Other reviews are at Readings and at Vulpes Libris (my favourite).

The dust-jacket design by W.H.Chong is terrific.  There’s a no-expense spared feel to the paper which is designed to look like parchment with inlaid gold lettering , and the blood which drips from top to bottom represents the duality of Pullman’s Jesus and Christ and the fate which befalls Jesus.  It’s clever and it’s beautiful too.

You can check out the rest of the Canongate Myths series here.  The only other one I’ve read was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, a marvellous retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope’s feisty POV.

Author: Philip Pullman
Title:The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
Publisher: Text Publishing 2010
ISBN: 9781921656194
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.


Responses

  1. Lisa,
    Thanks for the mention. I appreciate it. I hope you enjoy Persepolis.

  2. I’m quite intrigued by it, Tony! I’ll let you know how I cope with ‘reading’ a type of text I’m not used to.

  3. Your review fits with the general impression I have had. I forget for the moment the review I read, but that reviewer’s reaction was very similar to yours. I intend to read His Dark Materials before anything else by Pullman. I actually already intend to read more YA lit this summer to stay somewhat current with (and maybe recommend things to) my 13 year-old. So, His Dark Materials fits that project.

    Good job, I enjoyed your review.

  4. Hi Kerry – I’d like to make a recommendation for your 13 y.o. Carole Wilkinson is an Aussie writer who has written two series which the (thoughtful, keen reader) boys at my school love: the Ramose series and the Dragonkeeper series. The Ramose books are set in ancient Egypt and are the adventures of the heir to the throne trying to escape the clutches of a wicked rival; they are shorter and easier to read. The Dragonkeeper series is a superb fantasy about a slave girl trying to protect the last dragon in ancient China. It’s going to be made into a film. You can buy them all on Amazon see http://tinyurl.com/2a8bpvd.
    Cheers
    Lisa

  5. Lisa,

    Thank you for the recommendations. I will check them out. While looking for promising books for my daughter, I stumbled on another Aussie writer, Melina Marchetta, and her book Jellicoe Road. I plan to read it before finally deciding whether (when) to suggest it to my daughter. Are you familiar with her? It sounds like it may be targeted to readers older than 13.

    But, I will be checking into The Dragonkeeper series. Thanks!

    • Hi Kerry I haven’t read Melina Marchetta but she is a widely admired author of YA novels. Her first book Waiting for Alibrandi (which has also been made into a film) won heaps of awards, including the Children’s Book Council Best Book for Older Readers and her books are often on school reading lists as well. Another much awarded and widely admired writer is Gary Disher, but I think he writes for slightly older children. I’d like to suggest that you also get in touch with a teacher-librarian friend of mine who works with older children than I do… Tania at http://tsheko.wordpress.com/ is a wonderful source of recommendations about books for 13-16 year olds and will be only too happy to help you make good choices. Cheers Lisa

  6. I was going to read this at Easter, but the mood has passed. I took a Diploma in Religious Studies a few years ago so like you have a background which would make this book not as startling as it has been to others.

    Re your comment on my Germania review, for an excellent book on Spain, I highly recommend Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain. See –

    http://snipurl.com/xddsc

    • Hmm, I’d be interested to see what you think of TGMJATSC, Tom. As I say, I think someone with more knowledge of the gospels might find it quite intriguing to see how he has drawn them together, but I’d have to read them properly myself to do that and that’s not on my reading agenda at the moment. (I am actually going to embark on reading the Bible, using James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible to guide me, but that means the Old Testament comes first). Thanks for the recommendation for the Tremlett; I’ve ordered it from the Book Depository with their free delivery. Postage from Amazon UK is horrendous, I still haven’t got over the shock of buying 3 JG Farrells from Amazon UK a few years ago. The postage was more than the books. I don’t know how the BD does it, or if it’s their business plan to offer free postage just for a while, but it makes book buying affordable to those of us on the other side of the world! Lisa


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