Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Adventure classics -- Casting light on history’s darkness

The Robe

by Lloyd C. Douglas


“My father was a country parson,” Lloyd C. Douglas told an interviewer. “(Father) loved to tell stories and I’ve seen many a farmer right on the edge of a bench hanging on every word Father said. They were the old Bible stories, but Father thought of every one in the Bible as alive, and he made them seem alive. And if he needed to throw in a little drama to make the story even more interesting, why he threw it in.”

Following his father, the younger Douglas became both a minister and a storyteller. Except that after retiring from the pulpit, he put his stories in writing. His first novel was published in 1929 when he was past fifty. Douglas would spend the next twenty years writing more than a dozen novels on moral and religious themes.

1942’s The Robe was among his last. It was inspired, he said, by a question from a fan asking about the fate of the unknown Roman soldiers who gambled for Jesus’ clothing during his crucifixion.

But the point of storytelling, either for preachers or novelists, isn’t simply to inform. To be effective, the stories must intersect with the lives of their hearers (or readers). And so, into a world steeped in the most hideous war in modern history, Douglas sent his tale of a young soldier, Marcellus Lucan Gallio, driven to mental and physical collapse by the brutality he is forced to participate in.

When a serious episode of misspeaking puts the aristocratic Marcellus at odds with the imperial regent, he is torn from the woman he loves and posted to a lackluster command in the Middle East. There his troops draw the unlucky duty of executing a small-time troublemaker. Or is the man an innocent victim, as Marcellus believes? Or, as some say, and he comes to fear, a god?

Going through his dreaded duties in a drunken stupor, Marcellus joins his officers in drawing lots for the condemned man’s clothing. Marcellus’s share: the man’s plain woolen robe.

It’s a garment that for Marcellus holds the power both to destroy him and ultimately, to heal him.

But Douglas’s story didn’t stop there. His first century characters ask the questions his mid-twentieth century audience was grappling with. What is the proper response to evil in the world? What are the responsibilities of rulers to their countries? Of employers toward workers? Of the rich toward the poor?

In an improbable but charming idyll, a healed Marcellus flees persecution, becoming a wandering, penniless preacher who reconciles a dysfunctional family and their rebellious farm workers with a mixture of respect, kindness, and just a dash of guile. When Marcellus’s beloved Diana finds him, they marry and receive the grace of a single night of wedded bliss before the imperial authorities arrive. But the demonic emperor Caligula can’t be charmed away, any more than could the secular demons of the twentieth century. Outside the judgment hall, the metal music blares for sacrifice.

Douglas’s works, including The Robe, are widely available on Amazon and elsewhere. And check YouTube to view scenes from the 1953 movie version starring a young Richard Burton.

(Next week, Adventure classics continues a December of spirited adventures with Brian Moore’s Black Robe.)

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