Ben-Hur: A Tale ofChristby Lew Wallace (1827- 1905)Type of Work:Historical romantic fictionSettingJudea and Rome; during the time of JesusChristPrincipal CharactersJudah Bur-Hur, a JewBen-Hur’s mother and sisterTirzahMessala, a Roman citizen; Judah’s childhoodfriend, and later hated enemyArrius, a Roman commanderSimonides, an aged Hur servantMallach, Simonides’ servantStory Overveiw(The tale begins with an account of Jesushumble birth, the adoration of the infant by three sages from the East,and the child’s delivery from the hands of King Herod. )Several years following Jesus’ birth, JudahBen-Hur was one day on the streets speaking to his childhood companion,Messala.
Messala had grown up in Judea, but five years earlier had leftto study in Rome. He had changed considerably in those years, and sincehis return Judah had found it difficult to speak with him. A wall had beencast up between them. Now, while Messala bragged, Judah grew more and moreangry at his friend’s new arrogance. Finally he erupted: “You have givenme suffering today by convincing me that we can never be the friends wehave been – never!” Thus they parted. Alone in his room, Judah brooded.
AlthoughMessala’s attitudes were insufferable, there was some justification tohis pride. At least Messala now had a military profession; Judah had nothing. After much thought, Judah concluded that he himself would go to Rome, learnthe arts of war, and return to drive the Romans out of his land. He wouldtell only Tirzah, his sister, of his plans. Days later, Judah and Tirzah climbed totheir rooftop to watch as the new – and much hated Procurator of Judea,Valerius Gratus, passed with his region on his way into the city.
Jewslined the road to hurl insults at Gratus. As Judah leaned out to catcha glimpse of the Procurator, his hand accidentally displaced a loose tile,and he lunged out, trying to catch it. This act made it look as thoughJudah had pitched the tile like a missile – which unerringly flew to itsmark. Gratus “fell from the seat as though dead. ” . In seconds, Roman soldiershad forced their way into the house and pinned the youth to the floor.
Then Judah heard a familiar voice: “That is he!” Messala, dressed as anofficer of the legion, pretended not to recognize Judah. “You have him,”he sneered. “And that is his mother; yonder is his sister. You have hiswhole family. “Judah watched as the Romans led his mother and sister awayand confiscated their property.
As the soldiers moved on toward the coastalvillage of Nazareth, people wondered at their youthful, half-naked prisoner. When the Romans finally paused at the town well, “The prisoner sank downin the dust of the road. ” A young man stepped forward to offer the prisonera drink. As the stranger laid his hand upon Judah’s shoulder, Judah lookedup – into “a face he never forgot.
” His vengeful spirit “melted under thestranger’s look and became as a child’s . . . .
And so, for the first time,Judah and the son of Mary met and parted. “Three years later, Judah was an oarsmanon a Roman galley commanded by the respected and able Arrius, who was leadingan armada to rid the Mediterranean of pirates. As a “connoisseur of menphysically,” Arrius enjoyed descending below deck to watch the rowers. On this voyage, he was immensely impressed by one young man among the exhausted,emaciated slaves. The youth was tall, and “his limbs, upper and nether,were singularly perfect.
” Moreover, he rowed with a certain “harmony. “When Arrius queried him about his background, Judah revealed that he wasthe son of a prince and merchant of Jerusalem, from the house of Hur. Arriuscould not fathom that such a youth would attempt to assassinate a Romanofficial. Presently the Roman ships overtook piratevessels and the battle began.
Ben-Hur could hear the clamor above deckand could smell the smoke of flaming arrows and “the scent of roastinghuman flesh. ” Pirates had boarded the battered ship and water was floodingthe cabin. After finally escaping his chains, Ben-Hur made his way outto sea. As he swam desperately away from the turmoil of death and destruction,he paused to help a drowning Roman – Arrius.
As the two men – slave and master, Jewand Roman -awaited rescue, Arrius promised Judah, “If . . . we get wellout of this peril, I will do thee such favor as becometh a Roman who hathpower and opportunity to prove his gratitude. ” And, indeed, when the tworeturned from sea after being rescued by a Roman ship, Arrius adopted Ben-Huras his own son.
Two years later, Ben-Hur returned to Judeain search of his mother and sister. Trained in the arts of combat, he nowappeared as strong and as fierce as anv Roman warrior. He began his inquiryat the he, use of Simonides, who had been a servant of his father. ButBen-Hur’s new Roman dress and manner aroused Simonides’ suspicions, andhe revealed little.
However, as Ben-Hur left, Simonides ordered his servant,Malluch, to follow him and judge his intentions. Ben-Hur came upon a great coliseum. Therehe watched as chariot racers prepared for competition. He took particularnotice of an Arab man who scolded a Roman driver for whipping his horses. Then, as the chariots lined up for the race, Judah turned to look at thissame driver, now singled out in his resplendent chariot by the crowd’scheers and he “stood transfixed .
. . his instinct and memory had servedhim faithfully – the driver was Messala!”After the race, won by Messala, the servantMalluch approached Ben-Hur. As they walked together, Ben-Hur quizzed Malluchabout the chariot races and trustingly revealed his budding plan for revengeagainst Messala as well as his quest for his family. Malluch then returnedto report to Simonides. Upon learning that the Arab sheik, Ilderim,was interested in employing another driver, Ben Hur offered his services.
He proved to be so well trained in horsemanship, that any fears Ilderimmay have had were satisfied. The day of the race finally arrived. Ben-Hurgave one searching look” at his “cruel, cunning, desperate” opponent. “Atwhatever cost, at all hazards, he would humble this enemy!” The trumpetsounded and the chariots strained forward behind their steeds. Ben-Hurkept abreast of Messala as they rounded the first turn, but suddenly, Messalagave Ben-Hur a savage glare and lashed Ilderim’s horses, “a cut the likeof which they had never known. ” Ben-Hur lost ground, but then regainedit.
Messala and Ben-Hur ran together at the front through the first sixturns. Then, on the final lap, Ben-Hur, just inches behind, with a “cunningtouch of the reins by which, turning a little to the left, he caught Messala’swheel with the iron-shod point of his axle, and crushed it. ” Messala’schariot splintered into the ground, sending its driver head over heelsinto the path of the onrushing chariots behind. Ben-Hur was declared thevictor. Remarkably, Messala lived, but he wouldnever walk again.
Shortly thereafter, he hired two brutes to murder Ben-Hur,but the Jewish rebel escaped and renewed his search for his mother andTirzah. It so happened that at this time the newJudean Procurator, Pontius Pilate, had ordered a review of all prisoners’penalties. Tirzah and BenHur’s mother were unearthed from deep in an undergroundcell and set free, both women leprous and near starvation. When they approachedtheir house, the mother caught sight of someone asleep in the doorway. After a closer look, she cried, “As the Lord liveth, the man is my son. “But as Tirzah ran to kiss her brother, her mother restrained her: theywere “unclean” outcasts.
The women left the city, eventually to enter aleper colony. It was better that Judah remember them as they had once been. On the following day, Ben-Hur and otherJewish zealots made their way to Pilate to protest a recent tax edict. When the demonstration turned violent, Roman centurions pushed throughthe crowd swinging clubs. Challenged by a soldier, Ben-Hur found himselfforced to fight.
But his single sword thrust hit home and the Roman fellto the ground. Ben-Hur became a hero in the village. Believingthat his family was dead, he now turned his attention to another goal:the elimination of all Romans from Judea. Spurred on by Simonides’ insistencethat a “deliverer” would soon coi-ne to lead the Jews to victory againsttheir oppressors, he secretly raised and trained three legions of Jewishsoldiers. Then one evening Ben-Hur received a letterfrom Malluch in Jerusalem. It told of the arrival in that city of a “King,”a Savior, who was the one to lead the Jews out of bondage.
Ben-Hur wasstunned; he must go and discover for himself if this man was indeed thelong-awaited “King of the Jews. “When Ben-Hur finally found this man, theNazarene did not look at all like a king; his “calm, benignant countenance,the very idea of war and conquest, and lust of dominion, smote like a profanation. ” He stared at the figure. “Faintly at first, at lasta clear light, a burst of sunshine, the scene by the wall at Nazareth thattime the Roman guard was dragging him to the galleys returned. . .
” Atonce he fathomed the truth: “this is the SON of GOD!”That same day, Ben-Hur’s mother and sisterwere also seeking out this prophet, who was said to have the power to healthe afflicted. Amid a mob of admirers and curiosity seekers, they werefinally able to approach him. All he asked them was if they believed. “Thouart he of whom the prophets spake. Thou art the Messiah!” they responded.
Then Christ’s “eyes grew radiant, his maniier confident. ‘Woman,’he said,’great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt. “‘ Immediately,each woman “felt the scourge going from her; their strength revived; theywere returning to be themselves. ” Soon thereafter, these two were reunitedwith Ben-Hur and his bride Esther, Simonides’ daughter.
They were reunitedin their love for one another – and for Christ. CommentaryWallace’s mixture of adventure, melodrama,period language, and accurately-depicted intercultural relations make Beti-Htiran amazing blend of history and intrigue. Wallace also revels in lengthydescriptions of ancient architecture and customs. At times these deviceshelp pull the reader closer to the action, and, at other times, they producefatigue.
Ben-Hur chronicles a man’s triumphant risenot only out of the depths of slavery but also out of the depths of anger. Perhaps Ben-Hur’s greatest victory came when he ultimately put off vengeanceand chose instead to celebrate love, and to forgive his enemies as Jesushad taught.