Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Robe

The Robe
by Lloyd C. Douglas

I just half an hour ago finished this book, and am deliberating on how to right this review. I'm not going to be writing a passionately-worded review, designed to steer others away from reading the book... but I am going to be writing a critical review, which can be very difficult. Difficult to be fair, to be just, to not let my personal irritations get in the way.

I would like to point out, before beginning, that this review will contain definite spoilers.

My first real familiarity with The Robe came from reading the excellent book Norms for the Novel by Harold C. Gardiner. I was rather surprised to see that Fr. Gardiner took a very negative view of the book, faulting it for its lack of literary quality and for its historical inaccuracy. Naturally I had to pick up the book to see for myself.

I'll say little on the historical inaccuracy. Errors in actual historical personages, in ways of life, and so forth, can be tolerated up to a certain point in a work of fiction. And then again, they can't be. When I realized how many people based their knowledge of the early Christians and Ancient Rome on The Robe, and, in that case, based their knowledge on inaccuracies, it makes me re-think how far you can go with tweaking history for the purpose of a novel and still be legitimate (I guess that's another post in itself).

For the literary quality, I can definitely see where Fr. Gardiner is coming from.

Douglas has problems forming a consistent dialogue. At times the dialogue is almost overly archaic; at other times it takes a drastic turn and phrases such as "I think you're pretty dumb" and "He was terrific" come up. The language is occasionally Victorian, occasionally a rather strained Middle Ages, and occasionally a frankly 1940's American.

Douglas also seems to have some difficulty in regulating his pacing. A slow meandering pace will suddenly shift to some almost contrived event sending the characters scattering every which way. While these passionate moments, such as Demetrius' sudden attack on Quintus, can be envisioned to take place unexpectedly and quickly change the course of events, it's not so much the mere fact of them but the handling of them that I find problematic. Douglas has a tendency to appear on the sidelines of every such scene, by becoming too emotionally involved in what is occurring and hence getting a little too carried away in his description. What should have been dramatic starts tipping towards melodramatic.

The concept of a man, Marcellus, briefly encountering Christ face-to-face, and then coming to know Him more intimately not through direct association with Him, but through the words and testimonies of His followers, was an intriguing concept, one that I think had much potential. However, I also think Douglas executed it rather poorly. Marcellus' tour with Justus was sprinkled with discussions of a philosophical sort, which, rather than enlighten, seemed often to be a bit stiff and contrived, and lacked a logical progression from one point to another.

Justus retold many of the events that we are familiar with by the Gospels, but in a way that was frankly less inspiring and often gave us no more than Douglas' personal interpretation. For instance, the miracle of the loaves and fishes was presented in a way that makes the center of the occasion not Christ's miracle, not His power, but the rather sentimental 'sharing and caring' of the selfless little boy who shamed the others into also sharing. This, too, this diminishing of miracles, this loss of wonder, deserves a blog post all of it's own.

And it was rather contradictory in the context of the story. Marcellus' great struggle is in believing that Christ has the power to perform such miracles. He spends a great deal of time trying to find natural explanations for them, and when Justus helps provide them, it's outright confusing.

Marcellus' conversion to Christianity also left much to be desired. There was no real deep progression of his character from his former life to his life as a follower of Christ. We hear a great deal about how changed he is, how kind he is, how he inspires others to kindness and selflessness, but as for the own depths of his character... hardly anything. In outside accounts of him, we hear of a change; but in our personal encounters with him, there's nothing deeper than a tendency to smile more. And, when a man spoke harshly and insultingly to him, he lectured said man, warning him against such harshness and telling him that he was not going to tolerate it... rather than tolerate the roughness towards himself, and bear it patiently, he finds it necessary to state that he will not permit such tones to be used to him.

Towards the last pages of the book, when he is eventually martyred, there I can see a manifest change. But previously I saw nothing, except perhaps a misguided sense of what was right and Christian. In fact, I saw almost a self-righteousness in him. That he was willing to suffer the ultimate martyrdom in the end was what let me come to see him as having developed in his character; but his apparent lack of ability to suffer small martyrdoms early on left me wondering if I were confused, or if Douglas were.

I greatly enjoyed the first hundred or so pages of the books, where I felt that Douglas was setting up for a great story. I also greatly enjoyed the last hundred or so pages of the book, where I felt Douglas was adequately, if abruptly, wrapping up what should have been a great story.

What I did not enjoy was the lack of the great story, which seems to have got lost somewhere in the middle.

My main objection to the book is, I suppose, the always-present Douglas. I was too conscious of him throughout the book, as if he were standing in a dark corner of the stage... he's not quite in sight, but you can feel him. And in the passionate moments, his enthusiasm makes him step a little more into the light, and become a little more obviously present. I tried very hard to find a story in the book, and to find a picture of Christ, but it seemed that Douglas was always in the way.

Nevertheless, I'm not recommending anyone to avoid it. It's an enjoyable book, an adventurous book, and though it fell flat on me, I have no doubt that it can be a very inspiring book. I'm just very sorry that it couldn't be a grand experience for me.

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