Mary, called Magdalene by Margaret George (Viking, 2002)


The remarkable thing in Margaret George's historical novel, Mary, called Magdalene, is how George molds the character of a minor presence in the New Testament, that of Mary of Magdalene, and paints her in a contemporary light. Biblical characters almost always fade into the dust of antiquity, but in Mary's movements as a young mother and wife, her daily preparations and devotions, she is easy to relate to and seems so much like us, despite 2000 years of history that have come in-between.

Margaret George has tackled a number of impressive female characters in other historical novels, including Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I, Helen of Troy, and Cleopatra. By doing her homework thorough intensive research, George combines what has been noted by historians about these famous figures with an ability to probe psychologically the reasoning processes as well as the emotions that make the portrayals of such icons sympathetic and believable. Of her choice of writing material, George has stated that historical figures, “Provide me with something unique to build on. You inherit an existing curiosity about the characters, especially the more iconic ones, but very little detail. With what you might call the 'celebrities' like Mary Magdalene, you just have this outline of her life and the drama in it, even if it is shadowy, tantalisingly brief and potentially misleading.” (Stanford, Peter (April 6,2003), “Saints and Sensibility” for Today's Novelists)

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Of course, writing about the imagined life of an original disciple of Jesus is treading on ground that could make some readers uncomfortable. However, knowing very little about the enigmatic and tormented Mary Magdalene, the novel provoked sufficient questions for me to engage in fascinating conversations with my family and friends, who were raised Catholic. and are more familiar with the stories of the gospels, from which some of what is known about Mary is drawn. The true blessing of a rich read is the desire to share it with others, receive a spark of intellectual curiosity to learn more about the time and period of the characters, and relish in the glow of good writing. George achieves that in this beautiful story.

In George's tale Mary of Magdalene is born into a successful fishing family in the Galilee. She grows up in comfort and strong Jewish faith, observing holidays with her families, including a pilgrimage to Jerusalem when she was a child. On that journey two remarkable things happened. The first was that she found a tiny idol carved of ivory, a beguiling doll-like figure that she knew she should toss away, but somehow could not bring herself to destroy. Instead, she hid the idol for years, which allowed the spirit of the goddess to enter her soul and take possession of it. Later, through that portal, six other demons join the goddess, making domestic life impossible for Mary and her husband, Joel. The second remarkable thing is that she spent an evening with another family which was traveling, a family including an intense boy of about twelve years whose name is Jesus. These are the two incidents that set the plot of Mary's journey into orbit.

When the demons became so great that Mary can no longer care for her beloved child, Elisheba, she and her husband, Joel, seek help from the greatest rabbis to exorcise the ravaging voices. Ultimately, Mary's torment leads her to the desert, where she finds Jesus, teaching among the people who are seeking John the Baptist. In this moment, the intense, dark-haired young man lays his hands on Mary's head and casts out the demons that have overwhelmed Mary for so long. And when her soul is finally quiet, Mary resolves to follow Jesus, even if it means abandoning her family, to spread the word of his teachings.

The novel follows the wanderings of Jesus and his small troop of believers as they travel into the hills, teaching and healing the sick and the poor. Like each of the disciples, Jesus has a way of making Mary Magdalene feel special, and in one intense scene she misinterprets his feelings for her. As they approach the city of Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, Mary reveals to Jesus that she has had a vision in which she sees the body of Jesus beaten and broken. He confirms that he has seen the same. “It was Jerusalem. I know that. And I will die there.”

Jesus continues to predict other horrors to her. “The Temple and its corrupt priesthood have been rejected by God. In a few years, not one stone of it will stand on another.” He foresees that the present age is coming to a close rapidly as they stand on the precipice of a new time for mankind.

Mary misunderstands the revelation of Jesus as his profession of human love for her. She thinks, “He recognized whatever it was that bound them. He was acknowledging it, even thanking God for it. She could not name what it was, it was too special for any name, it just was, and oh! God had led her here and created her just for this. When the words did come to her mind, “Jesus is mine!” was the form they took.

But Jesus gently tries to explain to Mary that she is misunderstands his meaning. “Mary, not that way . . . do not listen to Satan.”

This scene is one of the major turning points in George's story because in it Mary suffers an unbearable personal humiliation of perceiving a kind of love that is not returned in the way that she thinks. But as the story moves towards its painful climax, Mary learns of the depth of Jesus' true love for her in the revelation of the resurrection following his death at the hands of the Romans. It is to Mary that Jesus reveals himself first after leaving the cave in which he had been entombed, and it is Mary who brings the joyful noise to the mourners that Jesus has risen from the dead.

The final part of the novel was especially fascinating in that it details the establishment of Christianity and the Church or The Way as early Christians referred to it. In George's story Mary lives for many years after the death of Jesus, continuing to provoke the wrath of the Romans who wanted to squash the new faith and being arrested on several occasions. The last portion of the book deals with Mary's attempts to reunite with her daughter, Elisheba, who has been raised to see her mother as a lunatic, and her compulsion to spread the teachings of Jesus. As the numbers of converts grows, Mary assumes a new role, one in which she is revered herself for having walked with Jesus, for having heard his words. Although she remains modest and realistic about her role in a remarkable time in history, she stays faithful to her beliefs that Jesus was as he once revealed to a Samaritan woman, the Messiah.

Mary Called Magdalene is one of those books that haunts the reader long after finishing it. George's prose is lilting and rich to read. Her ability to portray Jesus so that he is seen as both human and divine takes a rare talent. If you are looking for an historical novel in which to get lost and wander through the paths of unique individuals who are helped to carve the future world, enjoy the work of Margaret George.