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The Robe

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Jaci B.: reading late into the night to bring you a review of a bestselling book (from 70+ years ago). This is The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas.

There was no limit to the credulity of unsophisticated people. Indeed, they rather liked to believe in the uncanny.

How I got the book: DC Public Library. As I mentioned before, by rights this should have been the fourth book in the project, but because it was a library book I bumped it up to read it before it needed to be returned. If you want to read it, there are three more copies available here in the city to anyone with a library card.

The writer: Lloyd C. Douglas. Click on his name to read the full Wikipedia article. Douglas was a very popular writer in his time--in fact, this isn't the first of his books I've read. One of my mom's favorite books is Magnificent Obsession (1929), and she gave me a copy several years ago. Douglas was a Lutheran pastor before he became a writer, and that previous calling strongly influences the tone taken in the latter.

The book: Bible fanfic. Seriously, though, if fan fiction is defined in large part by practitioners who take minor characters or pre-existing settings and spin new stories from those materials, the term suits this book really well. Douglas dedicated the book to Hazel McCann, "who wondered what became of The Robe," and the back of the edition I read (a 1975 reprint) elaborates, explaining that McCann was an Ohio department store saleswoman who wrote Douglas to ask if anyone knew the fate of Jesus' robe, famously won by one of his Roman executioners in a game of dice.

Two years later, Douglas had produced the story of Marcellus, a Tribune who is punished by being sent to the Roman fort at Minoa when he offends Prince Gaius, presumptive heir to the throne, and who while in Palestine is charged to crucify a certain Jewish carpenter. Marcellus, drunk and heartsick, wins Jesus' robe, a fateful event that changes the course of his entire life.

In the course of the novel, we meet many Biblical characters--not just Jesus but also Simon Peter and Saul of Tarsus, as well as many of the people who witnessed miracles, and two separate emperors. Given this fact, the other possibility for classifying this novel would be, I suppose, historical fiction. And it runs into one of the main problems I have with historical fiction--that we know how things turn out, so it becomes a bit of a game, making some characters prophetically wise and others tragically short-sighted, based on the audience's foreknowledge of events to come. For example, during the crucifixion Demetrius, Marcellus' Greek slave, thinks regretfully that Jesus "had paid a high price for his brief and fruitless war on wickedness"--but later he will come to see things quite differently. Marcellus, who later returns to Palestine, muses that if the Christian idea spread, "all of the armies could be demobilized," which must have seemed like even more of a dream in 1942. Surprisingly, it is Emperor Tiberius who perhaps sees things most clearly: "It will collapse--after a while. Soon as it gets into a strong position...[t]hen it will squabble over its offices and spoils--and grow heady with power and territory." Marcellus and Demetrius come across as hopeless idealists (and in some ways prod Douglas's readers to imagine what could be were they to take more seriously their Christian burden), while Emperor Tiberius' realisms seem quite damning, coming as they do from the mouth of an infirm lunatic. Douglas writes with a point of view and a teaching, preaching intention that has fallen entirely out of style, at least in literary fiction--but I'd read him over contemporary Christian fiction any day.

A few other notes:

  • The Romans all "drawl," in this book. He drawled, she drawled. Also, things are "vasty." A breathtakingly gorgeous young woman is "adorable," an adjective we now apply to small cute animals. And rather than say "bitch," Douglas charmingly writes "a kennel word."
  • In light of the Holocaust, well underway in Europe at the time this book was published (and at least moderately well publicized in the United States, according to this article from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), there are a few mentions of violence against Jews that stood out as I was reading. According to the captain of the ship that delivers Marcellus and Demetrius to Minoa, "The Emperor could send in all the legions that Rome has under arms, and put on such a campaign of slaughter as the world has never seen; but it wouldn't be a permanent victory. You can't defeat a Syrian. And as for the Jews! -- you can kill a Jew, and bury him, but he'll climb out alive!...Yes, sir -- he will climb right up the spade-handle and sell you the rug he died in!" I actually flinched, reading that. Other parts of the book focused on the Jewish hope for a Messiah. Benjamin, a Jewish weaver in Athens, explains it to Marcellus: "All of our great prophets have foretold the coming of the Messiah...In periods of national calamity there has been much talk of it. In times of great hardship and persecution, the Jews have been alert to discover among themselves some wise and brave man who might give evidence of messianic powers." Those lines seemed especially poignant as I reflected on the time, not to which they refer, but in which they were written.
  • I didn't often quibble with Douglas on details, but I was surprised that in a letter from Demetrius to Marcellus, Demetrius talks about being robbed by Bedouins and finding a general lack of hospitality. The Middle East as a whole has a long-standing reputation for hospitality, reportedly bred of the harsh landscape. It struck me as an off-note.
  • Finally, there is much in the novel about slavery and master-slave relationships. Demetrius outright refuses manumission at least twice, in order to better serve the master he loves. Douglas seems more influenced here by Biblical depictions of slavery than the form that ended in his own country only a few years before he was born.

Next up is the Song of Bernadette, which should be quite interesting given its genesis as the product of a vow undertaken by the writer during his flight from Nazi persecution in 1940. Until then, here's my quick cover redesign sketch.

IMG_5811

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