(Please note, this review is for the novella Behold the Man, not Moorcock’s later novel-length expansion.)
For anyone who has grown up in or around some form of Christianity, or at least read and pondered on the subject of Christ, it is perhaps inevitable to wonder whether the man actually existed, or, if we in the modern era are simply the receivers of a myth tweaked and twisted, forged and reforged through time. No matter which cultural viewpoint you hail from, the story has potential effect. Love, guilt, sin, and sacrifice are, in fact, universal values. Michael Moorcock’s 1966 Behold the Man is thus a noteworthy novella for its very personal examination of the Christ myth-history without dependence on religious agenda.
Karl Glogauer is a bookshop owner who feels the weight of existence. Burdened with emotion from the life he’s lived to date, when a friend shows him a time machine he’s invented, Glogauer jumps at the chance to go back in time and learn whether Christ the man truly existed, and whether the story we know is true. Landing amongts a group of Essennes and meeting John the Baptist, he eventually finds his way to Nazarene to meet the carpenter—the man Jesus. Not finding what he expected at Joseph and Mary’s home, Glogauer’s time traveling thereafter becomes what he, and the reader, could never have expected.
In the introduction Moorcock addresses the reader’s immediate concerns: Behold the Man is not a piece of propaganda for or against Christianity or atheism. It is a personal piece that the reader must experience themselves to make sense of, and, if desired, reflect upon. The ‘science’ of time travel ignored entirely, traveling back to 29 A.D. is merely a plot device to examine the psychological, emotional, social, and personal conflicts under a literary microscope of humanist proportion, the Christ story the lens through which the story is refracted.
Though they two exist in different dimensions, Moorcock’s usage of the Bible, particularly the stories contained within, is similar to Bulgakov’s Biblical play in The Master and Margarita. Each approach the holy book neither to uplift or destroy it, rather to use it as a tool—a spade in fact—to dig at matters that lie beneath its surface. In the process, religious and non-religious doors are opened that shed greater light on theology, the self, and society. It goes without saying neither writer appropriated the revered book for commercial gain, rather ideological exposition.
In the end, Behold the Man is a quality novella that looks at the Christ story and its universal relationship to the self and the psyche. (Should your view of Christianity be too narrow, however, inevitably offense will be given.) Moorcock writes in strong prose that drives his narrative full steam ahead ideologically, so hard in fact, three years after writing the novella he published a novel-length rendering. I have not read the expanded version, but I can imagine the plot, particularly the transitive elements occurring later, receive a greater degree of detail, thus rendering the overall pacing more smooth. I also imagine that with greater background depth, Glogauer’s story possesses all the more impact. Regardless of length, the concepts remain firmly in place due to the well-conceived structure and implementation of ideas within. All in all, it is science fiction used to great effect—without proselytizing.