Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace--On Stage September 2, 1901!

A lively advertisement for the stage production of
Ben-Hur in theaters in Chicago September 2, 1901. [1]

By Lew Wallace

Book Review (Plus) by:
Sharon Powers.
     Ulysses S. Grant sat to read the new novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The words of the book soon caught his im- agination and he was unable to escape. He couldn't put the book down, and so, mesmerized, he continued to sit and read. Abandoning all responsibilities and his family, he immersed himself in the pages of Lew Wallace's book. He sat reading. For thirty straight hours, the Great General of the Civil War, leader of men, mastermind of battles, the General who accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, left his duties and lived in the pages of the book. [2]

April 19, 1881. Dear General. I have, this morning, finished reading "Ben-
Hur"--and I must thank you for the pleasure it has given me-- The theme 
was difficult, but you have handled it with great delicacy and power. 
Several of the scenes such as the wise men in the desert--the sea fight--
the chariot race--will I am sure take a permanent and high place in litera- 
ture. With this beautiful and reverent book you have lightened the bur- 
den of my daily life--and renewed our acquaintance which began at Shi-
loh. Very Truly Yours J.A. Garfield. 
     The 19th day of the month was portentous for Garfield, as he was ass-
assinated exactly five months to the day (09-19-81) after he penned this 
thank you note to Lew Wallace. [3]
     Similarly, the then President of the United States, James A. Garfield, was likewise, dumb- founded by the work. The mo- ment he finished reading the novel, early in the morning, Garfield im- mediately put pen to paper and drafted a note of gratitude, ad- dressed directly to Lew Wallace, for his masterful work. So re- spected was Lew Wallace that within the month, Pres- ident Garfield offered Wallace an ambassadorship to Turkey. [2]

This Broadway production of Ben-Hur "...was a triumph of
theater technology as well as acting. Shown here [is a] chariot
from the race scene." The chariot was first staged in front of
a panorama that moved behind the actors and horses, and
then, the horses and chariots were put on a treadmill. With the
horses running on the treadmill, the chariot was rigged so that
it could even "lose a wheel during the race" scene. The effect
was with the horses running in place and the background
moving, it somewhat gave the impression of a more realistic
setting for the stage production. [4]
     Humanities (The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Hu- manities), tells us that from November 12, 1880 to the present, Ben Hur has not been out of publication. By 1900 it was translated into over twenty different lan- guages, including Braille. In twenty-one years (1899-1920) over twenty million people saw the story of Ben Hur live, on the stage. The stage productions used live animals including camels and horses. For the chariot race, producers concealed treadmills and had horses running on them. [2]

     Humanities goes on to tell us that Ben Hur outsold every book published (except the Bible) until Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell in 1936. Then in 1959, MGM's adaptation of the book to movie caused tens of millions of people to see the movie; subsequently, in 1960, the film won eleven Academy Awards and stimulated a renewed interest in the book. 

Here is photograph of a first edition of Ben Hur by Lew
Wallace; published: 11-12-1880.
It's not my book, but I wish it were![5]
     In the 1960s, with the surge of book sales, remarkably, the book again was at the top of the best-selling novel list. And even with all the veneration the movie has prompted, it doesn't hold a candle to the almost religious fervor the book has sparked. In fact, it is claimed that the novel is "the most influential Christian book written in the nineteenth century." [2]  

Ben Hur: 
A Tale of the Christ
by Lew Wallace

         Almost everyone knows the story of Ben Hur. If we haven't read the book, we certainly have seen the movie, or perhaps, even heard about it in some religious studies, or saw it on television close to the Easter holiday. Even so, let's take a look at the basic plot before we get into discussing the book further.

Book Synopsis:
The three wise men road towards Bethlehem seeking the
King of the Jews. They found him lowly-born, lying in a
manger. They presented the boy-child with gold,
frankincense and myrrh. [6]
Book One: The "First Book" opens with the three wise men, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, meeting for the first time and discussing the one who is to come, the one they came to seek who will be born, "King of the Jews." Through dreams and portents, and then a shining star, the three wend their way towards Bethlehem. Meanwhile, Joseph and Mary seek a place in which to stay, and none being found, they lodge in a cave on the outskirts of the community.

Angels appeared to shepherds in the
fields keeping watch over their flocks
by night telling them not to be afraid,
that they brought good news of great
joy for all men. [7]
     A little further away, an angel appears telling the shepherds not to be afraid, that they bring good news of great joy. The "herald" tells the shepherds to look for the sign, a "babe, wrapped in swaddling-clothes, lying in a manger" (p.34). The shepherds arrive to find "the Christ," in the manger and the angels singing, "Glory to God in the highest..." (p.36).

Herod questioned the three wise men
to gain knowledge about the the new
King of the Jews--so he could find him
for himself and do away with him.[8]

     Eleven days later the three wise men arrive at Jerusalem seeking the "King of the Jews." Herod the Great, having heard about the new king being born, calls them in to see him and questions them. When the king dismisses them they immediately flee Jerusalem and strike out for Bethlehem. Arriving at the cave, they...fell "down and worshipped him...[giving] gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (p.45). The wise men don't return to King Herod, but return home another way.

Book Two begins the parallel story of Judah Ben Hur. Judah Ben-Hur, a Prince of Judah, lives with his family, Mother (Miriam) and sister (Tirzah), his father having died some years before. His boyhood friend, Messala, returns to Jerusalem to be the commanding officer of the Roman legions. Judah soon realizes they can never continue as friends and they part company.

This is a film still from the silent movie version
of Ben-Hur, 1925 version starring Roman Na-
varro, and Francis X. Bushman as actors, with
Fred Niblo as the Director (DVD format). [9]
     Soon after, an unfortunate accident occurs: a tile slides from the promenade on the roof and falls on the governor, unseating him from his horse. The Romans come to arrest the family, and Judah appeals to Messala--Messala turns his back on his former friend. Judah is sent to the galleys, and Judah's mother and sister are thrown in a cell to be forgotten.

Book Three:  After three years rowing in the galleys, Judah has a stroke of luck (Sorry about the shameless pun!) when he saves the fleet commander, Quintus Arrius. Judah saves the commander when the ship goes down during a dramatic sea battle against pirates. Quintus Arrius recognizes Judah's nobility and thanks him for saving his life by adopting him and making him a citizen of Rome.

Book Four:  Judah trains in the Palestra for five years, and when Quintus Arrius dies, Judah becomes his heir. Traveling to Antioch on business, he learns that a man called Simonides was his father's chief servant and that the man had made himself very wealthy since his father's death. Judah goes to see Simonides hoping to get information about his mother and sister. All to no avail--Judah leaves without any help. Simonides sends Malluch after Judah to spy on him and befriend him. Simonides wants to learn more about this Judah and whether or not he really is the son of his former master.

Carmel Myers as Iras, the Egyptian, in the
1925 silent movie version. (She is the
daughter of Balthazar, the Wise Man.). She is
completely written out of the 1959 version of
Ben Hur, to the loss of us all. She is the char-
acter that entices Judah with her exotic wiles
and wants him to believe that Jesus' kingdom
is in this world, unlike what her father, Bal-
thazar believes. [10]
     Malluch "bumps into Judah," and they go first to the Grove of Daphne, and then to the stadium games. Judah sees Messala racing his chariot and when it is about to hit two people--Judah saves them--they are none other than Balthazar and Iras, his daughter.

     Sheik Ilderim announces that he is looking for a chariot driver so he can race his beautiful Arabians in an upcoming racing event, Judah agrees. Later, Malluch reports back to Simonides what he discovered about Judah; Simonides and Esther agree Judah is who he says he is and that he will fight against Rome.

     In a meeting at Sheik Ilderim's tent, Balthazar, his daughter, Iras, and Judah speak about how Christ, now age thirty, is ready to take a public leadership role. Judah, seeing the beautiful Iras, is becoming increasingly infatuated with her.

Book Five: Sheik Ilderim intercepts a letter from Messala to Valarius Gratus (governor) and has Judah read the letter. They discover that Judah's mother and sister were imprisoned in the Antonia Fortress--Judah breaks down and cries. Later, Simonides comes to Judah and tells him that he was Steward for his father and that the wealth he has accumulated is now Judah's. Judah only takes a small portion and the two agree to use the wealth to fight for the Christ, the political savior from the Romans.

In the stage production of Ben Hur, elaborate stage
sets were created. As I mentioned, above, the horses
were set to running on concealed treadmills (as were
the chariots being pulled behind them). Also, the
background moved around special cylinders that kept
rotating. The treadmills and moving background allowed
the production to use live horses for the chariot race--
providing drama and realism to the viewing audience. [9]
      Judah is driven to find his sister and mother and to exact revenge on Messala. He can't kill Messala while there is any hope of finding out from Messala where his mother and sister are. He contents himself with what he considers a smaller vengeance in seeing Messala defeated and humiliated by himself (a Jew) and causing him to lose all his money.

     Malluch goes and needles Messala into a reckless bet, betting far more than he can afford. If he loses the race, he will lose everything. The day of the race Messala crashes into the wall, and Judah wins the race. Messala lives, but will never walk again...and he loses all his money.

     In Messala's bitterness, he sends assassins to kill Judah; the plot is foiled, though, when Judah recognizes that one of the assassins is none other than a former teacher. Judah escapes death by identifying himself as the son of Quintus Arrius (his alter ego)--the assassin then recognizes him as his former pupil and lets him go.

Book Six: For a bribe, Simonides has Valerus Gratus removed as governor--in his stead, Pontius Pilate is appointed. When Pilate has his soldiers review the records, they discover Gratus had concealed a walled-up and hidden cell. Opening the cell, the soldiers discover Judah's mother and sister, who have caught leprosy. The soldiers let them out of prison and counsel them to leave the city.

Miriam about to gently touch the sole of Judah's
sandel while he sleeps. She doesn't want to
wake him--she doesn't want him to see her
as a leper. This image is from the 1925
film version of Ben Hur. [10]
     Then in a poignant scene, the two return to their house after dark to discover Judah asleep on the steps. Not daring to wake him, lest Judah discover they are lepers, his mother gently touches the sole of his sandel. The women hide in the shadows when they hear their former servant, Amrah, come and wake Judah. The women watch from the shadows as Amrah tells Judah she has lived there all the years he has been away. The two lepers make their way out of city. Later, when a group of disguised Roman soldiers attempt to start a riot and plan to kill protesters, Judah kills one of the soldiers, becoming a hero to the protesters.

Judah saw John baptising and then Jesus
came, too, asking for baptism.[11]
Book Seven: With help from Simonides and Sheik Ilderim, Judah starts gathering troops and sets up a training camp to train the men to be soldiers to fight for the Christ. Malluch sends word that he has heard of a prophet, John, preaching in the desert, that he is preparing the way for one to come after him. Judah, intent on talking to John, heads to meet him, but first, accidentally, runs into Balthazar and Iras traveling in the same direction. The small group arrive at the river where John is preaching and baptising in time to see the man who gave him water so long ago, ask John for baptism. Balthazar is moved and worships him as Christ, the Son of God.

Jesus curing a leperous
woman. [12]
Book Eight: Judah follows Christ for the next three years watching as he cures lepers, raises the dead, cures the blind and heals the sick. During this time Malluch purchases Judah's old house for Judah and Simonides, has the house renovated, and moves Balthazar, Iras, Simonides, Esther and himself into the dwelling. Judah eventually returns and tells everyone what he has seen of Jesus curing the sick, and Amrah realizes she could take Miriam and Tirzah to get them cured by Jesus. Amrah goes and gets the women in the village of the lepers and they walk to a spot where Jesus will pass the following day. When Jesus passes, he heals the women. Judah walking nearby, recognizes them with Amrah now that they are healed--he embraces them in joy.

Judah followed Judas and the
priests to the Garden at Gethsemane.
Judah, had to flee when one priest
recognized him and tried to arrest
him. [13]
     A short time later, Judah meets Iras who tells him it is all over between them. She insults and then tries to extort money from Judah for Messala. Judah resolves to leave Iras forever and seek out Esther. Standing lost in thought, Judah notices a group of people being led by Judas. Judah hurriedly follows them to Gethsemane where he is spotted by a priest who attempts to arrest him--Judah runs and escapes arrest. The next day, Judah finds out Jesus was arrested in the Garden after he fled, and was tried and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Judah calls his legion of soldiers to save Jesus, but learns they have all deserted him to support the priests. Knowing there is nothing he can do, he accepts Jesus will die.

     Judah, Balthazar, Simonides, Esther and Malluch go to Calvary to witness Jesus' death. They see Jesus staggering towards the mount, suffering, yet not saying a word."...moved with quick compassion...Esther clung to her father; and he, strong of will as he was, trembled. Balthazar fell down speechless. Even Ben-Hur cried out, 'O my God! my God!'" (p. 325) They witnessed Jesus as he hung there.

Judah is realizing that Jesus' kingdom is not of this world.[14]
     While watching, Judah remembered Jesus words, "I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE." Judah asked himself, "Who the Resurrection? and who the Life? ... the answer came to him . . . "I AM, the figure seemed to say...instantly he was sensible of a peace such as he had never known...the end of doubt and mystery, and the beginning of faith and love and clear understanding" (p.329). Then, as Christ died upon the cross, Balthazar, too, breathed his last and fell dead.

EPILOG: Five years have passed, and Judah and Esther have married. Having two beautiful children, they live in Misenum. Iras comes to visit--she looks unlike her former beautiful self. She tells Esther that she discovered that the Romans were brutes--that she had killed Messala; then Iras leaves. Hearing of Christian persecution in Rome, Malluch, Judah and Esther leave to help. When they get there, they spend what money they have left building the Catacomb of Callixtus.

(1)  I grew up, every year watching Ben Hur on television at Easter time. I thought I knew the story well, having seen the Charlton Heston movie so many times.

Ben-Hur the movie came to theaters in 1959. I still remember watching
prime time special showings of the movie on television, as a kid. [15]
     Boy, was I wrong. I didn't even know that there was a book called Ben Hur until I was an adult. This is one of the main reasons I'm doing a review of this book today. I want those of us who grew up watching the movie to know that it wasn't just a Hollywood creation, and that this beautiful story was actually a book before it was anything else. 

(2) The Hollywood version of the story of Ben-Hur is in many ways very different from the book. For instance:
  • Iras, the Egyptian woman, daughter of Balthazar, is completely deleted from the story. In the book she utilizes her exotic wiles to seduce Judah and gets him to be completely infatuated with her. She wants Judah to be at the King's side and seize some of the glory for himself and her. She encourages Judah to accept that Jesus's reign will be an earthly one;

    Here's an image of the front cover of the
    first edition Classics Illustrated, #147,
    originally selling for 15¢, now costing
    upwards of $40.00. The cover shows the
    chariot race in which Ben Hur is shown rac-
    ing Shiek Ilderim's magnificent horses. I read
    this (1958) Classics Illustrated, Ben Hur--it
    reads a lot like the movie (1959) rather
    than the book version.[16]
  • For a while, Simonides and Esther believe Judah and Iras will be married. Toward the end of the book we discover she has a secret liaison with Messala. In fact, she may well have been part of the conspiracy to have Judah killed after the chariot race. We see more of her true motivations when she breaks up with Judah and attempts to extort money from him for Messala;

  • Also, Judah is not the "I don't believe in violence" Judah we see in the 1959 movie; Judah is not above violence--we see it when he kills the soldier during the time the Jews were protesting. Moreover, Judah, even before he is sent to the galleys, wanted to train in Rome to learn how to fight and defeat the Romans by using what he's learned against them. Judah's belief that "The King of the Jews," the Christ, will have an earthly reign, is the motivation behind him raising, funding, and training soldiers to fight for Jesus to free the Jewish people.                                                                                                                                                                               Even when his friend, Balthazar, tries to dissuade him and tells him that his kingdom is not of this world. Judah believes Jesus will proclaim himself "King," and will need soldiers to protect him. Judah goes ahead and raises several legions and gets them trained in preparation for the day Jesus will announce himself as King. It is only as Jesus is being crucified that Judah realizes the truth; 

    This is the cover of Lew Wallace's,
    Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ done
    in professional narration. When you
    download the book for free, you can
    purchase the narration for $2.99. It is
    called, "Whispersync for Voice-ready."
    The Narrator is Lloyd James. This
    unabridged version is 23 hrs.6 min.[17]
  • I really like the book version of Miriam and Tirzah's being cured of leprosy. The servant Amrah, not Esther, gets the women from the leper's dwelling and is the one who takes them to find Jesus. The healing of the two women is very much like the healing of the lepers in the Bible. Also, I liked that Judah didn't even recognize his mother and sister until after they were healed;

  • One thing I didn't discuss, above, was some of the motivation for Judah's persecution by the Romans. In the book Simonides is seized and tortured to reveal the location of the Ben Hur family money. Simonides just keeps telling them that it's his money. Putting the women in prison and sending Judah to the galleys gets them out of the way while the Romans try to discover how to get their hands on all that money. 
"Breaking the Fourth Wall" Technique: This is the first
way you can use the technique--to let the reader know
that the work is fiction. That is not the reason Lew Wallace
used the technique in, Ben-Hur. [18]
(3) Breaking the Fourth Wall: This is a literary technique used when the author (or some- times a character) in the story directly addresses you with a comment about the story or what is going on. The author may have a number of reasons for using this technique in a story. One would be to let the reader know that the story is fiction.

     Some people think this technique breaks the realism of the story. Lew Wallace, the author, far more likely used the technique in, Ben Hur, as a way to include the reader in the story; to help make the reader part of it, so to speak. It would be as if you were sitting around, say, a campfire and someone started telling you a story, and then said to you something like, "And, here's the real scary part!" There is an illusion that the hearer is included in the story; you suspend your disbelief, set it aside for the duration of the story. 

This is an example of "Breaking the Fourth Wall." [19]
     Frankly, at the very beginning of the book, Wallace's technique disconcerted me, a bit. So, maybe the technique does break the realism, sometimes. Then, again, maybe not. After I saw the "direct address" to me a few times, I just accepted it. I was able to set that feeling aside and just go with the story. That is the risk Lew Wallace took, here. He had subject matter that most people would find needed to be treated traditionally, with respect, and the way they expected it to be. For Wallace to challenge the traditional exposition of religious themes in a way that included the reader must have been challenging. 

Lewis 'Lew' Wallace was born April 10,
1827 in Brookville, IN, and died on February
15, 1905 in Crawfordsville, IN. Wallace was
a lawyer and served in the Union Army,
eventually becoming a General. He was also
a statesman, serving as Ambassador to 
Turkey, he was a politician, and a territorial
governor for a while. [20]
     But Wallace gives us time to accept our role in the story, and he uses the technique in an almost casual and offhand manner. I've seldom seen this technique so effectively used in any book, as Lew Wallace does in, Ben-Hur. In any event, by the time the reader gets to the part where Judah and company see Jesus' suffering (on Golgotha), you feel their horror and sorrow. The "Breaking the Fourth Wall" technique (or sometimes called "direct address") also worked very well to make the scene with Miriam and Tirzah finding Judah asleep on the steps of their old house very poignant and emotive. 

     I can understand, now, after having finished reading the book for myself, why General Ulysses S. Grant stayed up for thirty hours straight to read the book, abandoning all his responsibilities and family. I can understand why the then President of the United States, J.A. Garfield, upon finishing reading the book, stopped to pen a note to Lew Wallace (who he had fought with at Shiloh). 

I'm planning on updating my Top Ten
Favorite Books of All Time in August
--on the first anniversary of my book
blog. Join me then to see if Ben-
makes it to the top ten books. [21]
     When I finished the book, I couldn't wait to stop my family members and tell them what I had learned about the book. I told them how I had experienced not only the action sequences (the battle at sea, the chariot race, Judah fighting the Romans, etc.) but also the quiet scenes like Miriam's overwhelming desire to hold Judah but realizing she couldn't lest he find out she had become a leper--or worse yet, condemn him to the life of a leper; and the quiet scenes in which Judah finds himself and God. I told them how the book differed from the movie and how it was sure to go on my top ten favorite books I've ever read.

MY RECOMMENDATIONS AND RATING: This movie, Ben-Hur, the 1959 version, was rated PG (parental guidance) due to violence, gore, and frightening or intense scenes. Many of the same things can be said of the book. There is violence, some gore, violent sea battles and even the chariot race is intense and violent. Parents with young children or family members who are sensitive to violence should be cautioned.

 This is an awesome book, and for all
the wonderful reasons I've stated, above,
I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 stars.[22]
     If, however, you do not fit into these categories, then this book may be something you would enjoy reading. Some adults do not accept violence in books or movies unless there is something to redeem the book (or character) at the end; if this is you, then the book and characters redeem themselves, others "get their just desserts" or punishments. 

This edition of Ben Hur: a tale
of the Christ by Lewis Wallace is
free for anyone to download as an
e-book from  You do
not need to be a Prime Member
to get this book for free. [23]
   Thank you for joining me this week as we looked at an old Easter favorite. I hope you consider picking up the book and reading it. Remember that the book is free to anyone who has a computer or e-book--you can get this free download at at this link. Join me again, next week as we peruse the pages of another book. I absolutely LOVE reading. It is so wonderful when an old story you think you know can come alive for simply picking up the book and reading it. I hope everyone of you have a wonderful and happy Easter. God bless you all. I send you my love. 

Until next time...

White Rose. [24]
...many happy pages of reading!

All my best to you!
Happy Easter.


(1)  "Ben-Hur (Play)." [graphic from:] Retrieved 04-12-14.
(2) "Ben Hur." [Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.] Retrieved 04-09-14.
(3) "Letter from President James A. Garfield to Lew Wallace...." Retrieved 04-09-14.
(4) "Motion Pictures: Public Performance." Retrieved 04-09-14.
(5) "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." [by Lew Wallace] First Edition. Retrieved 04-09-14.
(6) "The Three Wise Men." Retrieved 04-10-14.
(7) "Angels Appear to Shepherds." Retrieved 04-11-14.
(8) "The Three Wise Men Meet Herod." Retrieved 04-10-14.
(9) "Silent Volume." Retrieved 04-11-14.
(9) "The First Great Ben-Hur." Retrieved 04-11-14.
(10) "Getting It Right For The Second Time." Retrieved 04-11-14.
(11) "The Last of the Levites." Retrieved 04-11-14.
(12) "Hope Sings, So Beautiful." Retrieved 04-11-14.
(13) "Miscellany of Randomness." Retrieved 04-12-14.
(14) "Resurrection and Life." Retrieved 04-12-14.
(15) "Between the Seats." Retrieved 04-12-14.
(16) "Classics Illustrated, #147." Retrieved 04-10-14.
(17) "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." [by Lew Wallace] Narration ed. Retrieved 04-08-14.
(18) "Breaking the Fourth Wall." Retrieved 04-12-14.
(19) "Breaking the Fourth Wall." Retrieved 04-12-14.
(20) "General Lewis 'Lew' Wallace." Retrieved 04-12-14.
(21) "2011 Top Ten." Retrieved 04-12-14.
(22) "Talking About Talkies." Retrieved 04-12-14.
(23) "Ben-Hur; a tale of the Christ." [by Lew Wallace] Free e-book ed. Retrieved 04-08-14.
(24)"Top 28 White Roses Pictures For Free Download." Retrieved 04-12-14.