Retro Review

The Source by James Michener, 1965. 


It is nearly impossible to describe the scope of The Source, a remarkable historical novel by James Michener. Nearly 1000 pages long, the rich details about the evolution of humanity, from the days of the cave dwellings till the modern era, Michener regales us with details of the many civilizations that have dwelled in the fictional site of Makor, Israel. 

Sign Up for Madison Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

The focal point for the story is Tell Makor---a name that signifies that the mound, where an archaeologist dig is taking place. Makor is not a natural mound, “but the patiently accumulated residue of one abandoned settlement after another, each resting upon the ruins of its predecessor, reaching endlessly back into history.”

  The framework of the novel is twofold. In the first chapter, the characters who will be conducting the dig are introduced. The central character is John Cullinane, an Irish Catholic, with vast experience in excavation in Egypt, Arizona, and Israel. Cullinane is joined by Jemail Tabari, an Arab who had grown up in Palestine and fought against the Jews to save the country for the Arabs. When the Arabs lost the war, Tabari, who had been educated at Oxford University, and was a respected scientific archaeologist, chose to remain in the land of his birth.

Dr. Vered Bar-El, a young widow, without whom “Dr. Cullinane’s dig could not succeed” is an expert in dating pottery shards, which allows the archaeologists to date the levels of the dig with some assurance as to the era in which the former citizens of Makur lived.

Thus, the top three authorities on antiquity who are working at the Tell, are a Christian, an Arab, and a Jew. What is important about Michener’s choice of authorities on the dig is that the story which is about to be told throughout the dig, reveals the detail and mystery of the birth and survival of these three important religions. The trio represent the story of Israel, holy to the three faiths. The construct of the crew also underscores the importance of the Arab, the Christian, and the Jew working in harmony, side by side, one of the major themes of the novel.

As the archaeologists uncover the strata of civilizations, they collect artifacts that are then linked to the stories of the inhabitants of Makor, reaching back through time. The scientists locate an old menorah, several shells, a Greek coin, and an important wooden box, dating back to the time of King David.

The thread that carries through the layers is that of the family of Ur, from the time when humans became hunters, in the lush forests of Canaan through to modern day. The artifacts that are found at the site help the workers piece together the stories of the lives and deaths of the peoples who have lived in Makor. 

The story of Ur, the caveman, dates back to 9831 B.C.E. Michener begins Ur’s saga with these words, “There was a well and there was a rock. At the well men had been drinking sweet water since that first remote day, about a million years ago, when an apelike man had wandered up from Africa. The watering place had always been known in memory if not in speech as Makor, the “source.” Without a steady source for water, no civilization could dwell in the area called Makor. 

Ur took a step into modern life when he and his family left the cave for a primitive house, which offered many advantages over their damp and dark prehistoric home. But, the house was subject to fire, rain, flooding, and other natural means of destruction. 

In fact, one day a wild storm hits the area, threatening the wheat fields that Ur’s family is tending. “Ur was no more willing to surrender to the flood than he would have been to flee a lion. Running to the house he grabbed his best spear and with it rushed to the edge of the wadi, a bandy-legged old man ready to fight the elements. “Go back!” he roared at the raging storm. 

When the water finally recedes, sparing the wheat and the house, Ur observes his wife doing a curious thing. She tosses handfuls of wheat into the swirling waters. When Ur asks her what she is doing, she replies, “If the storm has left us our wheat, the least we can do is offer him some in thanks.”

This is a pivotal moment in the history of humankind; the beginning of the I-You relationship, from which the many pantheons of gods and goddesses would grow over the centuries.

In a later layer of the dig, the archaeologists find that the family of Ur is subjected to rule by the Babylonians, who expel the Israelites from their fertile land. Rather than be massacred, the Jews flee to newly formed European nations, where they are never welcome. Germany, Poland, Russia, and Spain are mainly the countries in which the Israelites land and live for centuries, but are always scorned and singled out by their neighbors.

As Michener points out, there were some Jews, who managed to stay on their sacred land throughout the Diaspora. They remained steadfastly through the onslaughts of the Christians and the Muslims; in each case the novelist explains evenly the birth and development of those two religions. Jerusalem is the uniting factor in the triad of world faiths. 

From Ur to Urbaal, who worshipped the goddess Astarte and the harsh god, Baal, and El, the gods of Makor transform over the eons as life changed. 

One of the most significant descendents of Ur was Hoopoe, a brilliant engineer whose story comes from 966-963 B.C.E. Loved by most of the citizens of Makor, the Hoopoe is so named because he resembles the odd bird of the same name. Short, dumpy, always busy, poking around, it is Hoopoe who masterfully designs a hidden cave, from which the women of Makor can get to their well, even in times of attack from the outside. Over the centuries, again and again, it is the “source” that enables the residents of Makor to endure.

In the 1960s there were five brilliant writers of historical fiction, which included Leon Uris, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, Irving Stone, and James Michener. Their fiction not only provides the reader with memorable characters, their writing teaches us historical information in an extremely memorable way. The books that these award winning authors wrote, endure and should be enjoyed from generation to generation.

Michener, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948, for Tales of the South Pacific, wrote a plethora of novels which trace from the beginning of time to modern day, such as Hawaii, Poland, Texas, Alaska, and The Caribbean. Other important works include Space, Matecumbe, and Miracle in Seville.  

The work of James Michener is not recommended for beach reading; the books are too heavy to carry in a beach bag. They are intended for a cold winter night, where one can curl up by the fire, and get lost in the mystery and magnificence of the journey of mankind. If you aren’t familiar with Michener, now is the time to read and relish The Source.