Three Monkeys Online

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Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson by David Grossman

Thus far the Myths series published by, amongst others, Canongate has presented mythical stories retold by famous contemporary writers – Margaret Atwood’s compelling retelling of Ulysses (The Penelopiad), Jeanette Winterson’s version of the Hercules myth (The Weight), and so on. Into this mix comes prize-winning Israeli author David Grossman’s Lion’s Honey, with two important differences. First, it tells the story of Samson, whom many Israeli’s (not to mention Christian fundamentalists) today will see as anything but a mythic character – Grossman tells how a monument sprang up in the 1990’s at Samson’s supposed burial spot, which now plays host to repentant crowds of Hasidic jews; secondly it is not a retelling, but rather an almost kabbalistic re-examination of the text.

It is a brave and timely book, as one would perhaps expect from Grossman, examining the original text and analysing Samson’s character in today’s language and context.

Alaistar Blanchard, in his insightful and entertaining study on Hercules (Hercules: A heroic life), points out one of the most interesting things about Myths – that they are constantly adapted and smoothed over by society’s needs. The Hercules we have today is either a circus-clad-muscle-man or a character fit for a Disney epic. No mention is made of Hercules the thug, drunkard, and, crucially, wife-murderer nowadays. The similarities here with Samson go beyond the muscles. It could be contended that the single most vivid image that remains in Western culture of Samson is that of him asleep, prone to the emasculation to be wrought upon him by Delilah (“Thousands of years later it is possible to imagine her shifting expression as she performs the deed, with an erotic touch on one hand and overtones of castration on the other, and perhaps the thin smile of a woman whose charms have not failed her” {Lion’s Honey – Pg 134-135]). Excised from the record are Samson’s bouts of smiting, whoring, and ultra-violence. Not so for Grossman, who with a sympathetic but critical eye frames Samson against his deeds and destiny.

Indicative of Grossman’s approach is the title – Lion’s Honey. It comes from an episode in Samson’s story that is enigmatic and oft forgotten. On his way to woo his first Philistine wife (did we say woo? It should of course be , with biblical precision, ‘get’), he encounters a lion which he smites with his bare hands. Returning from his trip he goes out of his way to find the lion’s corpse, only to find in the skeleton of the beast bees and honey. This event becomes a riddle with which he will torment his Philistine wedding guests, and a precursor to wholescale slaughter. Grossman, though, with a novelist’s eye, sees much in Samson’s return to the slain Lion:

“And if it seems peculiar, at this stage of the story, to describe Samson as an artist, it is from this moment onward, from his encounter with the lion’s honey, that he will display a clear tendency to mould reality – whatever reality he may come in contact with – and stamp it with his own unique signature, and, one might add, his style” [Lion’s Honey pg 56]

Grossman’s book, helpfully, starts with the actual story of Samson, from the book of Judges (13-16), reminding the reader of the remarkably eliptical style of storytelling contained in the bible. Scarcely a line passes that does not drive the narrative onwards, and at the same time pose a multitude of questions. It is in these gaps that Grossman is particularly good. For example, he examines at length the annunciation scenes for Samson’s birth, and like a forensic scientist starts to construct what Manoah’s wife (Samson’s Mother, who is without name in the text) must have felt knowing that her long-waited-for son is to be not just her son, but also a national figure preordained:

“For another recognition, painful and still repressed, is beginning to gnaw at her: she has not conceived her own private , intimate child, but rather some ‘national figure’, a Nazirite of God and the redeemer of Israel. And his uniqueness is not something that will develop slowly, over the years, so that the two can grow comfortably together into their roles – to be a saviour’s mother is also a position of responsibility – but instead this is happening now, suddenly, already, in a fixed and inexorable manner”.
[Lion’s Honey pg 14]

This , perhaps, suggests a tedious nit-picking, an academic pondering of each word, but Grossman is a story teller, and as such he’s interested in the characters of the story, and in bringing them to life, He does this not just by questioning their every action and motive, but also by dragging them into the present. Again taking the example of Manoah’s wife, Grossman compares her to Andrei Sakharov’s mother, who commented “Sometimes I feel like a chicken who has given birth to an eagle”.

Enough of Manoah’s wife, though, as the character Grossman is most interested in is Samson – a figure who, for him, has more than a little to teach modern day Israel: “Yet there is a certain problematic quality to Israeli sovereignty that is also embodied in Samson’s relationship to his own power. As in the case of Samson, it sometimes seems that Israel’s considerable military might is an asset that becomes a liability”[pg 88].

Grossman’s Samson is many things – a lonely figure who constantly and tragically seeks the company of those not of his own tribe (this need to mix and assimilate with gentiles is, for Grossman, a truly ‘Jewish’ quality); an artist whose constant acts of violence are characterised by a certain style, for example when he catches three hundred foxes, ties them tail to tail, and sends them burning through the Philistine’s fields; and most controversially of all, one of History’s first and most famous suicide-killers – “there is no escaping the thought that Samson was, in a sense, the first suicide-killer; and although the circumstances of his deed were different from those familiar to us from the daily reality of the streets of Israel, it may be that the act itself established in human consciousness a mode of murder and revenge directed at innocent victims which has been perfected in recent years”[pg 143].

Lion’s Honey is a slim volume, accompanied by footnotes and sources that interested readers can pursue. It’s a thought-provoking read, that manages to create a flesh and bone (and warts) portrait of one of history’s great mythical figures. Grossman’s reasons for being interested in Samson are perhaps the most eloquent recommendation for this splendid book:

“Yet beyond the wild impulsiveness, the chaos, the din, we can make out a life story that is, at bottom, the tortured journey of a single, lonely, and turbulent soul who never found, anywhere, a true home in the world, whose very body was a harsh place of exile. For me, this discovery, this recognition, is the point at which the myth – for all its grand images, its larger-than-life adventures – slips silently into the day-to-day existence of each of us, into our most private moments, our buried secrets.”

Lion’s Honey by David Grossman is published by Canongate

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