Alroy: The Prince of the Captivity
By Benjamin D’Israeli
Dunda Books Classic, 2012, 301 pages
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was one of the most remarkable public figure of Victorian England. He was an enormously successful prime minister and statesman, and one of the creators of the modern English Conservative party. He was the only Jew who served as an English prime minister. Being many-sided, he was also one of the most widely-read novelists of his day. His novel David Alroy is probably the first Jewish historical novel ever published.
David Alroy was one of close to a half dozen false messiahs in Jewish history. He lived in the mid twelfth century in Kurdistan. His real name was Menachem ben Solomon, but he called himself David because he claimed to be a descendant of the biblical King David, and could therefore, by tradition, be the king of the Jews and the prayed-for messiah. The name Alroy appears to be a corruption of his family’s Arabic name al-Duji.
Available information of his activities is contradictory and tendentious. He seems to have taken advantage of the wars between Christians and Muslims in the wake of the First Crusade when there were numerous massacres and Jews longs for the messiah to save them. David was very handsome and charming, and was learned in Muslim culture, Jewish mysticism, and sorcery. He sent letters to many Jews declaring that he is the messiah who came to return his people to Israel. Rumors began to spread of his magical powers, including an ability to fly. However, before the start of his mission, he was murdered.
Exactly what happened is no longer known. In one version, his father-in-law was bribed and killed him. In another, he was captured and about to be tortured when he warned the Caliph that he had magical powers. The Caliph demanded that he prove his claim. David responded, chop off my head and you will see me return alive. This legend has him using this ruse to escape torture. D’Israeli has another idea.
D’Israeli’s “wondrous tale,” as he called it, is mostly fiction. D’Israeli describes David as a young man who was known as a descendant of King David and who was accepted as being the king of the Jews before he proclaimed himself the messiah. We read how he kills the brother of the Sultan who was trying to rape his sister and his adventures during his flight to save himself from the Sultan’s wrath. We are introduced to David’s teacher, a very religious mystical Jew, who David idolizes during the early parts of the novel when he did what his teacher advised. We are also introduced to his teacher’s brother, a hugely rich “practical man” who abandoned Judaism, lives as a Muslim, and is the advisor of the Caliph and the Caliph’s daughter.
David falls in love with the Caliph’s beautiful Muslim daughter who hates living among the wealth and stringencies of her father’s kingdom and is willing to do almost anything to escape. Unlike the true David, Disraeli’s fictional hero is able to raise huge armies and is successful in many battles against Sultans until he violates Jewish law and his teacher’s advice and marries the Caliph’s daughter.
Many people dislike reading books written in earlier centuries because they feel that they are ponderous. This fear is unwarranted for many of classics composed when D’Israeli wrote this book, such as those by Dickens. However, it is true of Alroy. Nevertheless, with a little patience readers will enjoy the suspense that D’Israeli inserts into this fast-moving adventure.