Friday, March 27, 2020

How Are the Mighty Fallen

Thomas Burnett Swann
Completed 3/27/2020, Reviewed 3/27/2020
4 stars

This is a retelling of the David and Jonathan story as if they were lovers and with some fantasy thrown in.  The question of the relationship between David and Jonathan has been a matter of speculation, that it was more than a bromance.  Of course, it is very controversial.  Published in 1974, it’s a subtle romance, with more emphasis on the forces around them than in the details of the relationship.  And it has a rather cold narration, not flowery or overly prosy, but it reads well.  It has gods, goddesses, cyclopes (yes, that’s the plural of cyclops), war, and intrigue.  It packs in a lot for such a short book.

Jonathan is the son of King Saul and Ahinoam.  But it turns out that Ahinoam is a siren and a queen from Crete and Jonathan Saul’s adopted son.  The two fled their island during the onslaught of Goliath, a giant cyclops.  They made their way to Israel where she met the King and married him.  Through a tragic incident, Ahinoam introduces David the shepherd and psalmist to Jonathan.  The two young men fall immediately in love.  David is kept in the court by Saul for his poetry and singing.  When Goliath comes to Israel to fight with the Philistines, Jonathan is fevered, and David takes up the mantle and slays Goliath with his sling.  David becomes a hero.  The rest of the story mostly follows the Biblical tale, with David and Jonathan trying to keep their relationship secret and pledging themselves to one another.

The story is well told.  I was impressed that the author was able weave in the subplot of Ahinoam and her background as a siren, though the full story of how they got to Israel is kind of an info dump.  It also goes into detail about Ahinoam’s patron goddess Ashtoreth and adds some humanity to the Philistines, creating a more well-rounded social setting. 

The character development is good, but Ahinoam really stands out.  She’s an immortal, so she has not aged while her husband the king has.  He does not divorce her, but he takes a concubine, effectively displacing her.  Still, she has figured out how to stay relevant.  She is the envy of Israelite women and the fantasy of Israelite men.  She is also the only one who knows about David and Jonathan, and councils them on the beauty of their relationship rather than the Jewish laws prohibiting it.  This is in stark contrast to Saul, who is losing his mind, and is tortured by Samuel the prophet’s constant scrutiny. 

The narration is third person and it has a coldness to it.  It’s almost told like a documentary.  As a result, I enjoyed the book tremendously, but didn’t feel particularly connected to it.  This next part is a bit of a spoiler.  The story has a tragic ending.  I thought I would have felt more at the end than I did.  I attribute this to narrative style. 

I give the book four out of five stars.  I didn’t know much about it going into it.  The cover, while exciting, doesn’t give you any clue that it’s about David and Jonathan.  None of the blurbs tell you this either.  I only knew that it had a gay relationship in a fantasy setting.  Once I figured out what was really going on, I buried myself in the book despite the coldness of the prose. 

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