Improving the Story

Frank Kermode

  • The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
    Canongate, 245 pp, £14.99, April 2010, ISBN 978 1 84767 825 6

This book describes itself on its jacket as ‘a retelling of the life of Jesus’ and also as a book about ‘how stories become stories’; which might lead one to expect some sort of refined Jamesian experiment, for it was James who thought a novel, if thoroughly ‘done’, was as much about itself as about its ostensible topic. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, however, is a game of an older kind. Philip Pullman is a writer admirable for his control of tone and genre. Open his trilogy, His Dark Materials, almost anywhere and you may find bears boasting their readiness for ritual combat in language vaguely reminiscent of Beowulf, and onlookers who enjoy the company and protection of friendly daemons, all of it plausible and smooth. But this new book has nothing to do with that sort of thing, being a reworking in plain language of the familiar story of the birth, ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Obviously most of the material is drawn from the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke, with Mark behind them and John ignoring them. They offer accounts of the infancy of Jesus that are often quite wildly at odds with one another, but anyone wanting to retell the tale can pick and choose, ignoring conflicts of testimony and adding more if desired. It does not bother many people that Matthew and Luke supply contradictory accounts of the holy family’s straitened accommodation in Bethlehem, or of the Annunciation, or of later events in the life of the boy Jesus, like his teaching in the Temple. There is more fanciful material in various uncanonical writings – anecdotes of the childhood of Jesus, for example the one about him making clay sparrows and ordering them to fly away – now perhaps remembered only by aged fans of Hilaire Belloc, mere fairy stories, presumably always recognised as offering a different kind of truth from that proposed by the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, truth of the sort defined, by a sinister character in this latest treatment, as being independent of history.

The reason such conflicts are not a serious problem to retellers of the tale is that, taken as a whole, the story has a clear outline, and elements that conflict with it may be omitted or ignored. It may be slightly puzzling, but in the end it doesn’t do much harm that Mark represents Jesus as not being on very good terms with his mother, or as referring to Gentiles as dogs. The author of The Good Man Jesus can draw on three versions (Mark, Matthew, Luke) of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and he uses most of that material but significantly changes the identity of the tempter. On the other hand, there are passages not really essential to the main story but of strong appeal to a storyteller. It was necessary to report Herod’s execution of John the Baptist, but the dance of Salome could, perhaps, have been left out.

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