I’ve just finished reading Pullman’s latest book. Let me say from the outset – it is brilliant! Kester Brewin gave it a review here and I agree with much of what he said and won’t repeat on this blog.
It reads like the good news bible which makes it easy to get thru (I read it in two days which isn’t bad for a dyslexic!) and works brilliantly for this genre. The story is a retelling of the Gospels but with a slight twist – Mary had twins. One called Jesus the other called Christ. Like the Gospels, its brilliance lies in what is unsaid but leaves the reader license to play. So for instance, you are never quite sure if the Immaculate Conception is just that, or whether a cheeky young man has manipulated an innocent Mary into bed! The temptation and Gethsemane scenes are also brilliantly written and imagined.
Pullman is trying to show the reader how truth can be manipulated into myth and has a lot to contribute to the Historical Jesus debate. However, I doubt (sadly) that many scholars will take him seriously just because he’s not in the club!
One interesting point amongst many: the story is held together by a stranger whose name and origin are unknown. Again the reader is left to draw her own conclusions. The stranger takes the role of the redactive process; dictating (or rather manipulating) how the story is to be told and what ought to be missed out. For me, the stranger was both the strength and the weakness of the story. It showed, with almost terrifying clarity, how the story has and can be manipulated by those who have a vested interest in the narrative. (Ironically Pullman has done just the same for his own purposes!). But I would have liked to have seen what happens when more than one interpretive community gets hold of the story. I don’t doubt for one moment that the church has held the keys to scriptural interpretation. But I also suspect that the stories were told in small communities, possibly independently at first, like gossip circles. So whereas Pullman has the story recorded ‘as it happens’ in journalistic mode; I am just as convinced that the story was mythologised through oral tradition and communication. Each village, community, group used their own interpretative framework to hear and articulate the story. Choosing what to embellish, add, and miss out. It would have been good if Pullman had told the story of how the story was told and retold as well as how it was constructed. But I suspect that wasn’t in his brief. Or is it the sequel?
Whatever you think of the bible- its well worth a read and should leave the reader with questions reverberating long after the final page is turned.