Sunday, 2 October 2016

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Before I blog about the new movie of Ben-Hur I thought it would be useful to go back to the source material, a novel written in 1880 by Lew Wallace. 

Wallace is an interesting character. He was a Union general in the Civil War and later became governor of New Mexico. 

His love of historical adventure novels by the likes of Alexandre Dumas — especially The Count of Monte Cristo — fed his desire to be a writer himself.

He took his first crack at writing a novel when he was 16. That book wouldn't be published for another 30 years. It dealt with Cortez's subjugation of Mexico. And while it quite well received, it was with his second historical novel that Wallace truly hit the jackpot.

Ben-Hur, like The Count of Monte Cristo, is a novel of a wronged man's revenge. It was an epic set in biblical times, and indeed it pretty much invented the genre of the biblical epic. The book slowly and inexorably began to rack up huge sales.

By end of the 19th Century Ben-Hur had overtaken Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as the best selling American novel of all time. It held that record until Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was published in 1936.

But with the release of the Charlton Heston movie of Ben-Hur in 1959, Lew Wallace's novel once again clawed its way back to the number one slot. These massive sales were always helped along, no doubt, by the heavily Christian elements of the book and the fact that America is a strongly religious country.

I have to confess that this aspect of the book — and the fact that it's five or six hundred pages long and written over a century ago by a yankee general — have so far conspired to prevent me reading it.

But I have listened to this monumental BBC radio adapation, in four 50-minute episodes, expertly dramatised by Catherine Czerkawska. And it really brought home how central the iconic chariot race is to the story.

I mentioned that this is a story of revenge. And it's fascinating that Ben-Hur chooses to get even with his arch enemy Messala by racing him in the arena — planning not just to humiliate him by beating him to the finishing line, but also destroying him financially through betting against him.

This is so much more interesting than the usual sword-wielding gladiatorial confrontation. And what's more, it's true to life, given how fanatical the ancient Romans were about horse races and betting on them.

Plus I also liked the fact that the horses are named after stars... Poetic, and apt given that their Arab owner would have spent his life staring up into the clear desert skies at night.

(Image credits: I ransacked Good Reads, where there are more than 500 editions listed. Oddly enough I couldn't find the lovely Signet Classics white cover there, though. I got that from ABE.)

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