Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the ChristBen-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a very small genre that I love. Set during the late ancient times, it tends to be sensational, exciting, and full of moral fibre. That's right—I'm talking about that guilty pleasure of the Christian fiction world, the Tale of Early Christianity, the ultimate have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too book, in which people with shocking vices get saved and then (like as not) served to the lions in the Circus Maximus. Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for Quo Vadis, perhaps the masterpiece of the genre in 1907, but it continues today with the Mark of the Lion novels by Francine Rivers and many others.

Ben-Hur, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, may have been the first notable work in this genre. And it's a really good one. When Judah Ben-Hur's estranged childhood friend, the Roman Messala, betrays him into a life as a galley-slave and leaves his mother and sister to rot in prison, Ben-Hur survives only by vowing revenge. The wheel of fortune eventually brings him wealth, power, and an incredibly well-developed physique, so he returns to Palestine hell-bent on exacting the kind of comeuppance that would make the Count of Monte Cristo raise his eyebrows and tut. Along the way he makes the acquaintance not only of Messiah claimant Jesus of Nazareth but also of the beautiful and scheming Iras the Egyptian.

There is, at one point, a chariot race, but that's only a fraction of the fun to be had. In case you didn't notice yet, this is one ripping tale of backstabbing, revenge, adventure, true love, and more melodrama than you could possibly imagine. Mixed in are some theological musings which I, when I first read it, found very profound, and still enjoy.

I had read the book perhaps five times when I got around to seeing the movie, and was consequently surprised to see the decidedly pale and husky Charlton Heston playing Ben-Hur, although gratified to see some of the storylines played with even more melodrama. Unfortunately, the movie did not include the character of Iras the Egyptian. This is a shame, because she might be the best character in the book. I was also a little disappointed by the omission of the scene at the Palace Idernee.

Before I finish—you, dear reader, may go off to read Ben-Hur and be disappointed to find it slightly more slowly moving than you expect. It does take a little time to get underway, though it gathers steam after the Prologue and kicks into high gear halfway through. It's a fantastic adventure story well worth being patient with.

Gutenberg etext

1 comment:

Laurence Almand said...

About BEN-HUR being slow-moving: Most novels of the 19th Century are overwritten and quite verbose, rambling and sometimes almost incoherent, but that was the writing style in those days. Ever try to plow through WAR AND PEACE or MOBY DICK? Although corny and dated by today's standards, BEN-HUR remains a classic; I don't think it has ever been out of print, in one version or another.
(Note about the films: Many people say they actually prefer the silent 1924 version to the 1959 remake.)


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