He set the bar rather high with His Dark Materials, his brilliant trilogy of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spy Glass, and so one reaches for Philip Pullman with a certain amount of expectation and excitement. That was a bold retelling of the Book of Genesis with its central character Lyra reclaiming the much-maligned Eve — mother of mankind and originator of sin. The wonderful dose of fantasy and reinvention has found parallels in C.S. Lewis and many after him.
Pullman’s latest venture The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a retelling of the Gospels. While it begins promisingly, it loses steam halfway through as it blindly remounts some of the most well-loved tales and parables of the Bible without really introducing the Pullman bite into it.
Admittedly, the book opens well with hallmark Pullman scepticism as he overturns some sacred truths of the Roman Catholic Church. Mary is a virtuous and lovely Virgin but only until an Angel of God tempts her. The angel coincidently bears a likeness to the boys who tease her at the well. Pullman’s gentle hints that perhaps it was not an angel after all are thrown at the reader with good humour. This, however, has been done in several texts and re-readings of the Bible.
Joseph as the bumbling but honest old carpenter is God’s perfect cuckold; but Pullman complicates his character as Joseph initially rejects the proposal to marry Mary on the grounds that he is already married and has several children.
Jesus and Christ are not one but two sons born unto Mary, one strong and robust while the other is weak and snivelling — so far so good. There is mirth in the retelling of the three wise men going directly to Herod to find Jesus at the palace since they assume that is where the Son of God would reside.
In his early years, Jesus is a lovable, naughty child — a normal kind of boy — while Christ is a rather smarmy goody-two-shoes, spouting the scriptures and “rescuing” Jesus from trouble by performing “miracles”. The roles are brilliantly switched in the chapter, “Temptation of Jesus”. According to the Gospel, Jesus was tempted by Satan but Pullman turns things on its head by casting Christ in the role of tempter. With his slick talk and plans of world domination, Christ comes off as a cheap marketing agent while Jesus is the true zealot, rejecting publicity and choosing to clash head-on with the Gentiles.
After this high point, though, the book becomes less nuanced and takes lesser risks. Though the writing is short and crisp, by the time one reaches the Sermon on the Mount, the story becomes lame and predictable. In the end the tagline, “This is a story”, almost comes as a cop-out, since Pullman leaves many shibboleths intact. This is only a ripple in the pond.