"Based on textual evidence, Mary Magdalen was probably Jewish and a disciple," admits author Elizabeth Cunningham on her Web site. "In writing a historical fantasy, I've taken an imaginative leap, departing from all scripture, interpretation, and legend by presenting her as an unrepentant Celtic whore who never converts or becomes a disciple but is a charismatic figure in her own right."
But even the brazen character of Mary -- or Maeve, as she insists on being called -- in Cunningham's epic novel, The Passion of Mary Magdalen, realizes how unlikely her story might seem. "The truth is, it takes a hell of a nerve to tell another version of the Gospel story," she reveals at the half-way mark of the 600-plus page book.
Yet neither the novel's length nor its daring departure from the story as we know it dampen the sheer appeal of the tale and its heroine. If anything, Cunningham's opus comes to a close all too quickly.
Happily, Passion is the second novel in a trilogy, with the third installment on its way.
Just call her Madge
"I did not set out to write a book on Mary Magdalen," Cunningham divulges. Instead, in 1990, on the heels of her book The Return of the Goddess: A Divine Comedy, the author decided to use her pencils for sketching rather than storytelling. She describes one of her early attempts at line drawing: "A big bodacious woman named Madge showed up. She always had this mouth on her."
The figure -- a fiery redhead -- eventually took shape as the Celtic Mary Magdalen, or Maeve Rhuad as she prefers to be known.
Though Cunningham concedes that crafting the infamous Biblical figure as a Druid-trained, Irish-descended Goddess-worshipper is a stretch, she also points out that it's a possibility. "There were Celtic mercenaries in the Roman army ... There were also networks of trade that spanned the empire, and the Celts of the British Isles exported gold, tin and beef. So a Celt could have traveled, as Maeve does, from the British Isles via Rome to Palestine."
And the author (who came from nine generations of Episcopal priests and is, herself, an interfaith minister) has done her research. In preparation for Passion she not only scoured the Gospels but traveled to most of the locations appearing in the book. As a result, Passion is not a heady scholarly text but an inviting journey with a heroine who seems more like a bad-ass best friend than a humorless ascetic.
"I know it doesn't tell you that in the Bible," Maeve tells us, "but why else are you listening to this story, if not to get the juicy bits that the Bible leaves out?"
The dish on the blessed virgin
A large part of what makes Maeve so likable (if, at times, shocking) is her very modern voice.
"If he had been wearing a cowboy hat, he would've tipped it," she says of an acquaintance. Not that there were many cowboy hats being worn in first century Rome.
"I accepted that as her voice, and that's part of the premise of the book," Cunningham notes. "I didn't like the false archaic voice; I couldn't approximate [ancient Celtic, Greek, Latin or Aramaic] speech. I think it's much more important that she speaks to us -- she's going to speak our language."
Throughout the narrative, Maeve occasionally drops the story line and talks to her audience as if she's in the 21st century with us, making contemporary comparisons and comments. It sounds odd, but it works.
Still, the best part about Maeve as a narrator is that she's not afraid of a little snarky gossip. "The Blessed Virgin Mary, or Ma, if you will, made a rude noise in her throat, the kind camels make when they are about to spit," she reports at one point.
And later: "That is how I came to meet Simon called Peter, the apostle, the saint, the rock, goddess help us, on which the church was built, a.k.a. Rocks-for-Brains."
This heroine hits the ground running. She mouths off even as she's shackled in a Roman slave market and keeps on sassing her way through life in a swanky brothel, her years as chattel to a spoiled mistress, her term as a priestess-whore in a temple to Isis and finally as the consort to Yeshua -- the man who would be known as Jesus.
As Cunningham's Maeve puts it, "No, I do not appear in the accounts of Josephus, Tacticus, or Suetonius, but ... I happen to know better than all those famous Roman historians what really happened and why."
The first half of Passion is a tale previously untold: Mary Magdalen's life in Rome after being banished from her homeland. It's a lush, imaginative work of historic fiction.
The book's latter half is different -- not because the tone changes, but because when Maeve reaches the Middle East, her story intersects with the one we know from the Gospels. And, in many ways, it's a retelling of the Bible -- only in Maeve's saucy voice.
And as for the Biblical assertion that Mary Magdalen was a disciple: Well, Cunningham doesn't think so. The Mary of Passion is not only a pagan, but she has no interest in being a follower or in accepting her husband's (yes, in this novel Jesus and Mary are married) god.
"I thought of Yahweh's fondness for floods and plagues, his urge to destroy whole cities because of one or two sinners, his carping at his people because they spared a few women and sheep when he expressly said to leave nothing alive," Maeve maintains. "If [Jesus'] god was good, who needed evil?"
"Writing from the point of view of this particular Mary Magdalen gave me a way to love Jesus even though I've stepped out of Christian orthodoxy," Cunningham discloses on her Web site. The author allows for her readers to question this account, but she refuses to back down from her tale. "I was really scared [to write this], but I knew I had to. That's [one] reason I feel so satisfied."
She continues, "People get how much I love this story and how deeply I've read the Bible, so they can't really dismiss it."
Elizabeth Cunningham discusses The Passion of Mary Magdalen at Malaprop's on Friday, Sept. 15, 7 p.m. Free. 254-6734 for info.