For five years now, Canongate’s Myths series has been imaginatively recasting the ancient stories that are the foothills of myth across cultures from China to ancient Greece and the Amazon; now comes one of the major peaks. So far none of the various distinguished authors in the series has had such a risky task as Philip Pullman in his retelling of the four Gospels: Margaret Atwood’s sideways glance at the Odyssey or Salley Vickers on the Oedipus story are hardly as vulnerable as Pullman to the fury of devotees worldwide. I wonder whom Canongate has signed up to have a go at the Koran. In Pullman’s book there is material enough for the virulence of the self-righteous: a transformation of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels that follows on from Pullman’s earlier indictments of institutional religion. It turns a gaze on the Jewish prophet from Nazareth that is both satirical and serious, blending canonical gospel, ancient apocrypha, modern critical commentary and the wit and subtle invention of a great storyteller.
As in the Gospels, we begin with Mary, but in the first sentence we are confronted with the proposition that in the stable in Bethlehem she has not one son but two. Jesus is a fine healthy boy, while Christ (whose name Mary chose from the Greek translation