Posts Tagged ‘The Three Kings’

This is one of the most lovely book jackets I've ever seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday "Book Club Edition".

This is one of the more attractive vintage book jackets I’ve yet seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday “Book Club Edition”. This is the front.

And this is the bag. Try to imagine them together. I tried scanning it as one section, but my scanner is just a bit too small for the whole thing.

And this is the back. Try to imagine them together. I wanted to include it as one continuous illustration, but my scanner bed was just a bit too small for the whole thing.

How Far to Bethlehem? by Norah Lofts ~ 1964. This edition: Doubleday, 1965. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

I’d decided to try to read some seasonal literature to go with the upcoming Christmas season, and what better way to start, I thought, than with this one, going right back to the source, as it were.

As you can see from my rating, it was an adequate though not an astounding success. I mildly enjoyed Norah Lofts’ attempt, but found that I could not fully enter into this creative re-imagining of the story of the birth of Christ, for reasons touched on below.

The narrative abruptly jumps around from character to character, which, though initially confusing, actually turned out to be a good thing, as the side characters were much the most interesting, with completely invented backstories, unlike Mary and Joseph, who were constrained by the traditional story.

We start out with the young Mary, imagined by Lofts as an enthusiastic lover of both lilies and donkeys – themes which tenaciously follow the girl throughout the tale – and the Annunciation, with the Angel Gabriel appearing to her and then to Joseph. Mary is portrayed as a very lovely, rather dreamy girl, much prone to episodes of introspection when she seems to be communicating with a greater power, which of course she is, if we accept her special status as Mother-of-God-to-be. She accepts the angel’s visit as the nebulous “big thing” she has been waiting for all of her life, and surrenders herself fully to her fate, though she has moments of great inner turmoil when she considers her baby’s eventual torment and death according to the ancient prophesies concerning the Messiah.

And this was were my first moments of readerly disconnect came in, as the author insisted on discussing the popularly accepted details of the end of Christ’s earthly life. It’s been a good many years since I attended a Bible Study class, but I don’t recall that much detail in the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah; it was all rather mysterious in a soothsayers’ sort of way, and didn’t really get in to details such as how long the Messiah would be here on earth for, or the manner of his demise, even that he would be born of a virgin. Mary and Joseph both discuss the role that the coming Messiah will play in sacrificing himself for mankind’s sins; the expectation among the Hebrews of the day was more in the nature of a military leader. Though it is lovely of the author to provide Mary with this insight, it didn’t feel all that convincing. And more was soon to come.

The three wise men/three kings share the spotlight with Mary, and they are imagined in rather untraditional ways, made possible because their mention in the actual Bible narrative is superficial at best, and their place in the Nativity story more folkloric than theologically based. In Lofts’ version, Melchior is a Korean astronomer, Gaspar is a Mongol chieftain, and Balthazar is a runaway African slave, and their coming together and subsequent travels make up the better part of the book. It generally works, and some of their escapades are nice little novellas all on their own.

Highlights toward the end of the book which I thought interesting and well written as the author rather let herself go away from the constraints of clinging to the skeleton of the Biblical framework were a visit by the three “kingly” travellers to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, and a night at a Roman military barracks; both episodes had some creative detailing which sparked them to life rather more than some of the other vignettes.

The innkeeper at Bethlehem gets his own mini-history as well, some of which was quite enthralling. In Norah’s imagination he is a Greek ex-sailor, and her description of his perilous voyage on a tin ship through the mist-shrouded ocean to the barbarous isles on the other side of the Pillars of Hercules was a fascinating and convincingly written inclusion which had me wanting more.

Her version of the shepherds was less than stellar, though. It felt highly contrived, with the chief shepherd being a grieving father of a son recently crucified by the Romans for a minor infraction; the author just wouldn’t quit with the meaningfulness of all of this, and it was another jarring note; much better if it would have been played a bit softer. Oh, and that very shepherd is represented as being the father of Lazurus, Martha and Mary – key players of an incident some years later in the New Testament narrative, and another glaring coincidence which annoyed the heck out of me by its total improbability. (If one can use “probable” in the context of any of the events in this re-imagined tale!)

Though there was much to like in this ambitious and creative retelling of the Nativity story, I found that the sections which worked well fictionally were overwhelmed by the less frequent but awkward attempts at bringing in Biblical quotations, and in the excessive use of coincidence in the creation of incidents. What might have been an excellent piece of creative fiction instead turned out to be a slightly off-key homage to a story we already know in its earlier form. The King James version very adequately stands alone and I would have been much happier if Norah Lofts had let herself go a little more and not tried to incorporate so much of the Gospel narrative in her own work.

Does that make any sort of sense? I mean, we already know how it goes, so letting the reader do the work in mentally making it click with the original would have worked, and given us the pleasure of the “Aha!” moment, instead of being bludgeoned by the exceedingly obvious “taken from the Bible” parts. And if one isn’t familiar with the original, it would be a more accessible read, and might well lead one to investigate the source. Perhaps?

I’m a bit grumpy about this, because some of this was, as I already said, quite excellent, and I felt cheated in that it all could have been that way.

Norah Lofts appears to be a firm believer in the Biblical versions of the Nativity which inspired her book, and one must respect that. This is an unusual novel, and rather brave in its attempt to fictionalize such an iconic religious tradition, while remaining true to the source. And her writing is always more than competent, and occasionally inspired.

Damning with faint praise, this feels like, but I could not completely give myself over to the tale, and I was fully willing to when I started. I do wonder how much having a previous knowledge of the King James version of the story influenced my reading pleasure, or lack thereof. While it definitely helped me to appreciate the author’s use of narrative nuances and connections between characters, it made me continually stop and try to make Norah Lofts’ version jive with my memory of what was contained in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I did come away with a strongish desire to reread the originals as a sort of refutation to Lofts’ tale, so I’m not quite sure if that is a point in favour or against How Far to Bethlehem?!

But please don’t let my personal response put you off giving this book a whirl. It is much beloved by Norah Lofts’ many dedicated followers for good reason, and it was definitely not at all a chore to read. I easily got over my annoyed moments and followed it through to the end; I will be keeping it around for future personal perusal, and because my mother enjoys reading it now and again.

But am I at least more in the Christmas mood now?

Honestly, not really. I think I need to revisit some old favourites, the Margot Benary-Isbert stories (The Ark, Rowan Farm and A Time to Love, all set in wartime and post-war Germany) and Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge, for its sweet Christmas-time finale. And of course Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, and Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy, from the children’s bookshelf of annual re-reads.

And Heavenali’s post on Christmassy books gives much scope for exploration of some titles I haven’t yet read, and reminded me of a few I’d forgotten, like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.

Other Christmas reading suggestions always welcome!

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