Robert Graves's controversial historical novel is a bold reworking of the story of Christ. Here Jesus is not the son of God, but the result of a secret marriage - the descendant of Herod and true King of the Jews. Written from the perspective of a lowly official at the end of the first century AD, King Jesus recounts Jesus's birth, youth, life as a charismatic 'wonder worker' and the unorthodox, bitter nature of his death and resurrection. Portraying Jesus not as divine but as a flawed human bent upon his own doom, this retelling of the gospels is a compelling blend of research, imagination and narrative power.
Robert von Ranke Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985) was an English poet and novelist, scholar, translator and writer of antiquity, specialising in Classical Greece and Rome. During his long life he produced more than 140 works. Graves's translations and innovative analysis and interpretations of the Greek myths, the memoir of his early life, Good-bye to all That, and his speculative study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddess, have never been out of print. Graves earned his living by writing popular historical novels, including I, Claudius (for which he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize), King Jesus, The Golden Fleece and Count Belisarius. He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1961 and made an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, in 1971.
©1946 Robert Graves (P)2013 Audible Ltd
“The knowledge of a scholar and the imagination of a poet are brought to bear upon Jesus as a child, boy and man” (Guardian)
“Written with simplicity and reverence” (Time)
A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
O four stars of wonder, five stars of night,
Stars with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
It was amazing. Lying in bed. The kids all tucked in. Christmas Eve, and I'm reading 'King Jesus'. I finally put this sucker to bed last night at about 1:00 am. Sugar plums weren't dancing in my head ... rather parables and planets (Ninib, Marduk, Nergal) and Essenes (אִסִּיִים), oh my, floated and danced in my head as I fell into a deep Christmas slumber.
Robert Graves brilliantly dances in that zone between myth and reality, between poetry and prose, between belief and unbelief with 'King Jesus'. I can certainly understand how both believers and nonbelievers might feel a bit robbed by Graves FICTIONAL (let's not forget that Robert Graves was writing historical, speculative, FICTION here) account of the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ. But for me at least, Graves treatment of King Jesus was amazing (I'll let this review float between four and five stars, so that last star almost twinkles). Historically, the life of Jesus leaves a lot of room (In my Father's house are many mansions) for someone with a bit of audacity to fill in the blanks and gaps.
I really can't think of many other writers (maybe Mann, Mantel, Frazer, Tolstoy?) who might have done a better job with Jesus. Anyway, 'King Jesus' is bold, inventive, messy, and beautiful. Graves was not intending this novel to push any one religious dogma (Catholic, Protestant, etc). So, casual or sensitive readers beware, because by Graves' own admission his "solution to the problem of Jesus's nativity implies a rejection of the mystical Virgin Birth doctrine." While Graves novel allows for mysticism and divinity, he is looking at Jesus from a very unOrthodox and speculative perspective. But, given the thousands of different Christian dogmas that exist ... he is not the only one who has created a damn good story out of the fragments of truth that we possess about this amazing and brave and holy Son of Mary.
What a strange book this is. Robert Graves is a master of classical history and literature - his "Anger of Achilles" is one of the best translations of "The Iliad" around - and he's turned his attention here to what should be congenial territory: first century Roman Palestine. But the results are decidedly mixed.
The basic premise of the novel is easily told. Jesus, in this account, is the legitimate grandson of Herod the Great. Herod's first-born son Antipater contracts a secret marriage with Mary and gives her into the safekeeping of the elderly widower Joseph. Antipater is executed by his father on a trumped-up charge, and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape to Egypt. But a small group of people know the secret, and when Jesus is ready to announce himself, they are there to offer support.
What makes the book so odd is not this historical fantasy but the bizarre mythology and superstitious rituals that surround it. Jesus, on being crowned, is immediately pushed off a cliff by his adherents, because of course the King Must Be Lame. He limps his way around Galilee, getting into interminable (and sometimes incomprehensible) debates about theology with other Jewish leaders and with Mary the Hairdresser - a witchlike incarnation of Mary Magdalene.
It all comes to a head in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. Most Jews want a traditional king, one who will throw out the Romans, but Jesus is after a bigger and more spiritual kingdom: he is after nothing less than the Suppression of the Female. And this is where, for me, the novel really goes off the tracks. Graves has turned it into another occasion for beating his personal dead horse, the supremacy of the "White Goddess." Jesus fails because he turns his back on the power of The Mother.
But ultimately it isn't the strangeness that makes this book (in my opinion) an artistic failure: it's the endless debating about minutiae. "King Jesus" is boring. The story is told from the perspective of an upperclass Roman citizen some 60 years later, and in Graves's masterful hands, it sounds like it's been translated - by Robert Graves - from a Latin original. It is straightforward, earnest, devoid of passion, and dull.
It's not the narrator's fault. Philip Bird does an excellent job making it all sound real; the narrative pace is steady and clear, and the voices of the characters are differentiated by tone and accent. But in this case, the audacious, opinionated, brilliant Robert Graves missed the mark.
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